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Architecture of southern Indiana: the gable-ell

August 29, 2011

This is part of my series on the vernacular architecture of Southern Indiana. See other related posts at

https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/vernacular-architecture-of-southern-indiana-part-1/,

https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/vernacular-architecture-of-southern-indiana-part-2/ and

https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/architectural-styles-of-southern-indiana-second-empire/

Click on any photo to enlarge.

This lovely home has been painted in rich, tropical colors.

The gable-ell was a generic, ubiquitous house form found in abundance between the 1890s and the late 1910s, at which point it became replaced in popularity by the also-ubiquitous bungalow. The form was so simple that any carpenter could build one without having to obtain architectural plans. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

A gable-ell has two intersecting roof gables, which gives it an “L” shape. It generally contained four rooms: two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. I do not count the bathroom, which was often added later since Bloomington had no sewerage until the early 1900s. Today, most of us would never think of buying a house that lacked such basic infrastructure, but because that infrastructure simply didn’t exist yet, everyone was in the same boat. Droughts and water shortages were so frequent throughout Bloomington history that almost all houses built until the mid-’20s had subterranean cisterns to capture rain from downspouts in order to augment the inadequate city water supply.

Bloomington's Prospect Hill neighborhood is filled with gable-ells.

A number of architectural variations were possible with gable-ells to differentiate them from each other. Attic vents were decorated; some homes had ornate Queen Anne-style shingling on the wall that faced the street; some had delicate turned posts that supported their front porches; some had no porches, or porches that were added later. The shape of the house made it easy to add onto the back when two bedrooms became insufficient to house a growing family.

I wrote up "The Black Magic House" in my newspaper column.

Note the front windows of each of these homes—the treatment of each gable end is different. The black house has little curtailed cornices at the corners, while the front of the yellow house has a dividing line that delineates the attic and the room below it. The front of the first house is plain except for the (new) window frame with its Gothic-looking point, and the elaborate attic vent.

Because so many gable-ells in Bloomington were built by or for ordinary working men, the cost of construction could be lessened by cutting back on the amenities. That’s one reason we find so many gable-ells built at ground level, without real basements; excavating a proper foundation with basement was prohibitively expensive for a man who worked twelve hours a day at the Showers Brothers Company or the Fulwider mill. It was enough to have a roof over one’s head and sound walls on all sides, and who cared what was underneath it. But over time, as the houses have settled on their underpinnings and the turf has risen slowly, many of the sills of these homes are actually now touching the ground, which is a serious problem.

A common variation is the pyramidal roof, which allows a person to stand upright inside the attic.

Over the years, as the fortunes of neighborhoods have waxed and waned, many of the original architectural details that once distinguished these workers’ homes have been lost: turned posts on front porches, decorative shingling on front walls, trim over windows and doors. Many were clad with aluminum siding in the 1950s, and old porches torn off to be replaced by spare mid-century versions with thin metal supports. Every now and then a new owner who is fixing up one of these homes removes the aluminum and finds a treasure of old shingling underneath, completely forgotten and preserved like a fly in amber.

Details like this beautiful shingling were hidden by aluminum siding on many homes in the 1950s.

Neighborhoods like Prospect Hill and the Near West Side have experienced new vigor in recent years after decades of neglect. Part of this is due to the enduring utility and livability of simple house forms like the gable-ell. It’s small, yet the high ceilings make it feel spacious. Its size makes it feel cozy without being squeezed.  The gable-ell is arguably one of the great American house forms. Many readers will immediately extoll the virtues of bungalows as the great American house, but I must politely point out that bungalows tend to be dark because of the deep front porches and overhanging eaves. I prefer a sunnier home, and gable-ells always have several rooms that are filled with light.

Golden Hands Construction specializes in working on older homes. They often craft new attic vents for their clients.

Miraculously, this house has retained its original Queen Anne trim.

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From → Houses

8 Comments
  1. Great look at the history of our lovely homes here in B-ton! But, being a “bungalor” (or is it bungalee?) I still have to say a bungalow with big windows beats all!

    • Some would say I bungled that comment badly…..
      thanks for writing, Cappi! Your particular bungalow is a delightful one.

  2. Ken permalink

    I was looking at a house and found a feature that I don’t really know what it was used for. I don’t have a picture, but there is a small screen box which looks to be part of the original Queen Anne house built in 1893 in Martinsville, Indiana that opened from an outcropping off the back kitchen area (now used as a pantry) to the outside. It is approvimately 2′ X 3′ and is about 5 feet from the ground. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture, but can someone identify what it was used for? A cooling area for food????

    • Your guess sounds like a good one; other possibilities might be a small chicken coop or a rabbit hutch? That said, if if looks like a food storage device, it’s probably that rather than anything else.

      • Ken permalink

        I agree, I think it has something to do with food or food prep. Probably a little homemade vent for the kitchen on hot summer days.

        Thanks.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Queen Anne architecture « housesandbooks
  2. Vernacular architecture of southern Indiana, part 1 « housesandbooks
  3. Close up: an 1850s Bloomington double pen cottage | housesandbooks

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