Keeping with the theme of Personal History Awareness Month and last week’s article about how to research the written history of your home, this week I want to talk about how your home can give away clues to its age.
As one of my professors, Dr. Keith Alexander of Shepherd University, always told us, “buildings are palimpsests.” This means that the use of a building is constantly changing, and as it changes, new layers will be added. The newest layer will be the most obvious, but if you look closely, traces of the older layers remain. The trick is knowing where to look and what you’re looking at.
Some changes really stick out. For me, the best/worst is seeing the difference in the bricks where somebody sealed a door or window. On one hand, the new bricks are just aesthetically unpleasant and draw your eye toward other flaws in the building. On the other hand, the new bricks make my job of documenting previous entryways extremely simple. Another good example is the church I attend. The Hartford United Methodist Church was built in 1856. It was originally a relatively small, modest church with entrances on the street level. We have a photo of this church in our collection. Today, it sits high on cast-stone blocks with a new brick front. Now, no records plainly state this, but I’m certain that the building was raised up following either the 1913 or 1937 Flood. This is the only reason for raising a building that lines up with the age of the cast-stone blocks. The brick front was added before my time, but is still relatively recent compared to the church itself.
Other layers stick out but are much harder to explain. Last summer, I was in a house in Point Pleasant, searching for a home for the historical society. Underneath the living room windows were these odd hinged doors. I had never seen anything like them before, and I still haven’t outside of this particular house. They had me completely stumped. If there had been a second set above the windows, I would have said that they were used for ventilation. However, there wasn’t, at least none that I could find. Even now, I only have a couple potential answer. The first is that they’re simply another example of Victorian superstitions. The second, and the more interesting, was provided by a friend of mine. In a time before funeral homes, viewings were held in the home of the deceased. The original owner may have been planning ahead to provide an easy entrance/exit for his own coffin. The house was also, at one time, a funeral home. The doors could’ve served the same purpose during that time. Both explanations are possible, but for now, they remain a mystery.
Finally, some layers are hidden beneath centuries of changes. Floor plans change with every owner of a building. What used to be the rear entrance is now the main entrance. The parlor is cut down to make room for a new kitchen and dining room. A bathroom is added. A bathroom is ripped out. A wall is taken out to make the bedroom bigger. A new staircase is added, and the old one is removed. Entire sections are added to the building. Of course, a cinderblock addition on the back of a wood house will stand out. However, let’s use the example of a house I’ve worked with that dates to 1795. The original home was built in 1795, and the addition was built in 1815. From the outside, you can hardly tell the two apart. Inside, the original layout followed what we call a “center-hall, double-pile” floor plan, but this house over 200 years old. The floor plan has changed more times than I can count. Only through small clues in the mortar, nails, fireplaces, floor patterns, and written history can these hidden layers be discovered.
Preservationists finish this research, the combination of the written and physical history, by compiling it into a report fashioned after the Historic American Buildings Survey that normally reaches upwards of 20 pages.
If you own an old house or commercial building and are interested in having it professionally documented for a small fee, you can reach me at email@example.com.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be today, Saturday, May 12, at 3 p.m. at the Mason County Library. The group will be planning cemetery projects for this summer.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.