Architecture of southern Indiana: the gable-ell
This is part of my series on the vernacular architecture of Southern Indiana. See other related posts at
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.