A look at the 1869 Farmer House
[Click on any image below to enlarge.]
Popular during the mid-1800s, I-houses were so named because they were abundant in the I-states of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. (One way to remember the name is to envision its long, narrow rectangular floor plan, not unlike a giant letter “I”.) Every house carpenter of the 1800s could easily build a generic I-house without having to resort to complicated plans or architects. An I-house has two rooms on the ground floor and two above, separated by a staircase inside a narrow hall. There would have been a privy behind the house, for Bloomington would not enjoy running water for another thirty years and would not gain sewers until the early 20th century. A nearby spring at Tenth and College “never ran dry,” according to later recollection. There was probably an ell on the back of the house that contained the kitchen; in the days before fans and air conditioning, kitchens were often located inside a detached or semi-detached porchlike structure.
Farmer House, being brick, is considerably more substantial than wooden versions. Interior and exterior walls all help support the weight of the structure. Although I-houses commonly have windowless end walls, the south-facing end of this house includes tall windows, which would have added considerably to the cost of construction but which provide welcome solar warmth on sunny winter days. The chimneys of Farmer House are set into the thick brick walls so no trace of them can be seen from the exterior. The shallow fireboxes protrude only a few inches into the rooms and it’s possible they were designed to accommodate wood stoves, not actual fires. The house had no insulation in the walls or attic and it would have been cold in the winter. The eleven-foot ceilings would have alleviated some of the torrid heat of Indiana summers but might have increased the chill in the wintertime.
The house was repeatedly built onto by subsequent owners, many of whom rented out spare rooms to students at Indiana University. The landing at the top of the stairs was walled off and converted into a bathroom, with doors on both sides opening onto the two bedrooms (thankfully this change has been undone). The middle of the 20th century was probably the low point for the house in terms of architectural integrity and solidity of materials used in the various additions. Although the warren-like crowding of residential and commercial rooms at the back means that the house is no longer architecturally pure, one can make a good argument that this complex blend of styles and construction methods actually offers an enormous amount of interest itself, particularly in light of the fact that all the different additions have become historic themselves by this point.
Mary Ellen and Edward Farmer bought the house in 1952 and spent many years slowly improving it. They built the commercial addition at the back and housed their heating business there while living in the rest of the house. Mary Ellen was descended from the Rogers family, pioneers in the Bloomington area during the pre-Statehood days; she had a profound sense of place and a respect for the history of her community. She decried the demolition of the old Fairview School and successfully fought the demolition of the Carnegie Library building. At her death she left her longtime home as a house museum in which memories of an earlier Bloomington would be preserved.
Farmer House hours are 10:00 to 1:00 pm Wednesdays, 10:00 to 4:00 on Saturdays and 1:00 – 4:00 on Sundays. Admission is free.
For more information on I-houses, see my previous blogs: