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The strange lack of old houses

July 20, 2013

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.

Henderson House dates to the early 1830s, if not earlier.

Henderson House dates to the early 1830s, if not earlier.

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.

Woodburn House began as a cottage from ~1829; this exterior was built sometime later, perhaps the 1840s-50s. (Image courtesy Wikimedia.)

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?

825 East 8th, one of only two Prairie style houses in Bloomington. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

825 East 8th, one of only two Prairie style houses in Bloomington. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

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5 Comments
  1. Great article, Carrol. What is interesting is that within that corridor, starting with the 1913 Sanborn Map and then using the aerial photos starting in 1949, you can track when most of those old homes came down along the major roads. Surprisingly, most of them were still standing in 1949, the loss rate being around 5-10% between 1913 and 1949 ( a good example of this is Kirkwood, College and Walnut which had few changes at all during this time period–and many of those can be attributed to fires). During the age of “Urban Renewal” is when we saw the mass demolition of these older homes occur (1950-1980). During this 30 year stretch we lost nearly 50% of the old homes along our major streets in Bloomington within the corridor–some of these being the brick homes you speak of above (examples being the old Hospital, the house on 1st and Morton and the Waldron mansion on W Kirkwood) but also many of the wood Victorians and Revival type structures like the Morton Hunter mansion and the Blair-Waldron House on W Kirkwood. The idea that some have that demolition and rebuilding was an ongoing 50% process since the late 1800s-1940s should note that in many cases there wasn’t a need to demolish and rebuild because there was always open land to expand into. The first demolition and rebuilding of Bloomington did occur in the 1850s-1880s when cottages, log cabins and shacks were replaced by sturdier, bigger and grander homes as Bloomington evolved from a “settlement” to an actual city, but from the 1880s to the 1940s, Bloomington remained mostly the same for 60 years (outside of new construction and additions on new lots). At least, that is what my examination of the earliest Sanborns in the 1880s to 1913 reveal–not much demolition. There were, however, a lot of fires and demoliton & rebuilding because of this occurrence was quite common.

  2. Steve Miller permalink

    “…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. …”

    You’d have to expand the scale, of course, but fundamentally Bloomington is no different from most Italian towns, where a new cathedral (ca. 1700-something) is built next to a wall which shows the outline of the cathedral preceding it by a couple centuries.

    • An excellent analogy, Steve! Thanks for the comment. I’ve been trying to figure out the oldest remaining building within the city core (between 3rd and 8th, Jackson and Indiana) but the only one I can think of is the building on the northeast corner of the Square which housed Roots restaurant.

  3. Rachel McCarty permalink

    I Do not know where Maple Heights is located. But Maple a grove was the first designated historic neighborhood in the state.

    • Thanks for reading, Rachel. Maple Heights is the old core neighborhood located just north of the railroad overpass on West 11th. It was formerly the farm of the Blair family and was subdivided into a neighborhood around the last 15 years of the 1800s.
      All best,
      Carrol

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