The strange lack of old houses
Yesterday I drove a total of five hours through central Indiana’s back roads, tracking down a story in southern Fountain County. I passed a covered bridge, an octagonal house, and several old barns that were probably timber-framed. But save for those, and two old I-houses that I passed, 1800s architecture was barely visible.
At home again in Bloomington, the same thing is the case. It’s notable how very few truly old houses have survived. We have several historic districts that date to the 1890s, including Maple Heights, the Near West Side, Cottage Grove and Prospect Hill; but houses that predate the 1890s are quite rare. Local residents can barely summon a mental image of what pre-1890s architecture looks like, because there’s so little of it left standing.
Barely fifteen exceptions exist in Bloomington: Wylie House, Woodburn House, Legg House, and Henderson House (1830s), Dunning House (1845), the Lindley, Millen and Faris homes (1850s), Farmer House and the Rogers-Dunn House (both 1860s), along with a sprinkling of additional buildings, mostly mid-1800s I-houses and double-pens. But probably at least 95% of all local houses built before the 1890s have been demolished over the years. This represents hundreds of houses, many of them built with settlement-era log cabins at their cores, all swept away by time.
Of course one doesn’t expect an Indiana town to remain in architectural stasis forever, like Colonial Williamsburg or Shaker Village. But the fact remains: we have several undisturbed neighborhoods filled with intact 1890-1920s houses, but hardly anything from before that era. Most of the previously-mentioned examples of remaining old houses were built of brick and might have survived simply because it would have been too difficult to demolish them.
There are three reasons for this lack of pre-1890s architecture. First, as the city grew, the core area between Jackson, Indiana, Third and Eighth was constantly rebuilt, erasing earlier architecture. The core was always the most desirable real estate, and property owners wanted to show they were up with the times, which meant demolishing anything that was old or shabby looking. Virtually all of the surviving old houses lie outside — or on the very edge of — this core district.
Secondly, floor plans altered around 1890 as architectural tastes changed, and houses abandoned the strict linear geometry of earlier forms. Lastly, beginning in the 1890s more houses began to be built with furnaces instead of wood stoves. (The Mathers Museum has a trove of early-1900s photographs of houses commissioned by a furnace company who wanted to record which houses had bought their product.) Old houses could not easily be retrofitted with ducting to warm the upper floors, and anything that was difficult to heat was regarded (understandably) as anachronistic and obsolete.
Not all old architecture is worth saving, of course. But it’s a shame that we have lost so much of our architectural record. Bloomington’s architecture is visibly distinct from that of Martinsville, Bedford or Spencer. It’s the unique record of a time and place and human aesthetics and engineering. We need to be more vigilant about what we tear down.
Currently, on East Eighth Street just north of campus, five once-notable but now decrepit houses are soon going to be sacrificed for the new Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, including the architecturally outstanding Stiehm House, a rare Bloomington example of Prairie Style. To lose this and the other neighboring houses would be an enormous loss to the architectural record. It makes far more sense to incorporate the five houses into a single conjoined structure (see Bloomington Fading’s video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlenJYLAlZU&feature=c4-overview&list=UUjMhZ985dCQFEkqdQZRME7A). This has already been done to two cottages just off of North Dunn Street. Why demolish when you can update and preserve?