Close up: an 1850s Bloomington double pen cottage
The double pen is a common house form in Southern Indiana, and is also found throughout the Midwest and the American South. The form was apparently brought over from the British Isles, and Professor Henry Glassie of Indiana University reports seeing many stone versions of the same house layout, with thatched roofs, in the West Country of England. The word “pen” refers to the framing of a room, which in the old days would have been a timber-framed enclosure. A single pen house would have been one room wide; and a double pen was of course two rooms wide. Most of the Indiana versions are also two rooms deep, so a single roof would therefore cover four rooms. In this part of Indiana the double pen is considered a “folk house,” a vernacular cottage that would have been easily assembled by any carpenter. Most Midwestern double pens were built during the middle decades of the 1800s and the style lost popularity (in Bloomington, at least) by the 1890s.
Anita Bracalente and Jerry Sinks were kind enough to let me photograph their double pen, which is a variant called a “saddlebag” due to the presence of a central chimney, which both of the two front room flues were originally tied into. Their house has some fascinating features. It rests upon massive tulip poplar logs (believed to repel termites) which rest in turn upon at least six stacked limestone piers that extend about eight feet below the surface of the ground. There is no basement and no crawlspace, so getting beneath the house to address plumbing is a cramped job that involves wriggling on one’s belly. Each room is approximately 15′ x 15′ and the floorboards span that width continuously from wall to wall without any cuts or joins, as in modern wood floors. Each of the four rooms originally had its own door to the outside, and all of the windows and the doors—front, back and interior—were placed in perfect alignment. Accordingly, if you stand in either of the front doorways and look toward the back of the house, the effect is like sighting along the inside of a shotgun house. The nails used were all square, hand-forged.
Anita and Jerry’s house was built in the 1850s by a lawyer who lived in one room and had an office on the other side. Housing in Bloomington was in such short demand all through the 1800s that it is quite likely that one or both of the two rooms at the back of the house might have been rented out. There was no indoor plumbing at that time and there would have been a privy in the back yard. A cistern would have captured valuable rainwater. The house was later owned by a greengrocer around 1900 who added two rear additions: a kitchen and a rear parlor.
The rear rooms of Anita and Jerry’s cottage are smaller than the front rooms, about 12′ x 15′, with lower ceilings. A look at the side of their double pen will explain why. The roof ridge sits forward of the center point, and as the roof descends toward the back it flares out and flattens. Most double pens in Bloomington have this roof peculiarity, which required special attic trusses on that one side.
The couple bought the cottage in 1983 from their landlord. The house had been a rental for many years and had been divided down the center into two apartments, with two bathrooms that adjoined in the center of the house. Anita and Jerry removed the obstructions and opened up the house, added a wood stove in the center of the two front spaces, knocked the two bathrooms into a single large one, and added a greenhouse for their collection of orchids. (See http://www. heraldtimesonline .com/stories/ 2013/04/20/ homes.a-bigger-better-greenhouse .sto for a recent article on their unusual greenhouse.) The pair are gardeners and their yard has been featured on the annual Summer Garden Walk.
They have decorated the house beautifully with Victorian furniture, and of course the rooms are filled with flowering orchids. They are extremely proud of what they have achieved both inside and outside their house over the past thirty years. “There’s so much space packed into this little unit, which is a real credit to the skills of the old carpenters,” Jerry summed up. “It’s very efficient in many respects.”
For more information about old houses, see my earlier blogs about vernacular architecture of southern Indiana, see https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/vernacular-architecture-of-southern-indiana-part-1/ and https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/vernacular-architecture-of-southern-indiana-part-2/. I also have a blog on the gable-ell form, which is another vernacular house common in this area, https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/architecture-of-southern-indiana-the-gable-ell/.