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The old Presbyterian farmhouses of Bloomington

February 28, 2014

Four farmhouses built by prominent Presbyterian Covenanters still stand in Bloomington, surrounded by neighborhoods that were carved out of their former farm fields. The Covenanters had met with religious intolerance and bloodshed in their native Scotland. Bud Faris (now deceased) once told me that one of his ancestors had been burned at the stake for his beliefs. The Covenanters emigrated to the United States in the 1700s, where some of them settled in South Carolina. They were committed abolitionists who were completely opposed to slavery. Unwilling to live any longer in a slave state, a group of those Carolina Covenanters then came to Bloomington, where they thrived and built a church adjacent to Covenanter Cemetery at the corner of High and Moore’s Pike.

Faris House. This photo belongs to the city of Bloomington.

Faris House. This photo belongs to the city of Bloomington.

The first is Faris House, built around 1853. Faris House is rumored to have been a station on the Underground Railroad, and a now-collapsed earthen tunnel in the basement appears to lead toward the brick dairy building a short distance farther down the hill. Bloomington is rarely included on modern maps of Underground Railroad routes, but it must have had at least sporadic activity. That said, the story that is most commonly repeated about the house is completely untrue: that escaped slave Robert Anderson was sheltering at the Faris farm when the Emancipation Proclamation was proclaimed. According to the myth, Anderson went directly to the courthouse and had himself registered as a free man of color, and stayed in Bloomington for the rest of his life, being given land immediately adjacent to Covenanter Cemetery in return for his labor. A descendant of his informed me that Anderson had toiled as a slave in Kentucky under three different masters, the last of whom freed him. After the Civil War Anderson came to Bloomington and bought the land next to the cemetery. “He was a free man when he came here, and he purchased that land,” I was told, and old church receipts prove his payment installments. Hopefully this will be the end of a story that has circulated for generations.

This photo belongs to the City of Bloomington.

This photo belongs to the City of Bloomington.

The next old house is often called Raintree House for the raintrees that formerly stood on the property, but it should by rights be called Millen House. Built by William Millen around 1845, the house is very similar in style to the Faris house, with five windows across, a central front entry, and chimneys on both ends. If this house had been only a single room deep, it would have been an I-house, but when a house is two rooms deep, it’s known as a massed-plan house. See the Wikipedia entry on the building at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millen_House. All of the Green Acres neighborhood used to be the Millen farm. The house is sadly orphaned today, for virtually all of its remaining yard was divided up for little ranch homes after the Second World War. The house looms in a mournful way above the back yards of these 20th-century spec cottages, hemmed in on all sides.

The next old house is the Thomas Smith house, which is the oldest structure of this collection, supposedly built in 1833. There are barely a handful of houses from this era remaining in the whole of the county. The frame part of the house is an addition; the brickwork is original and the bricks were dug on-site, as with the other houses. This house is smaller than the others, reflecting the frugality of the times in which it was built. Apparently a private graveled drive once ran between Smith house and Faris house, directly crossing High Street (which would not have existed in those days). The ghost road runs through the side yard of a house on South High street, whose owners have never been able to plant anything or garden on that side, due to the thick layer of gravel underlying the lawn. The house is now surrounded by modern houses of the Covenanter Hill neighborhood, all of which used to be the family farm.

A historic image of Blair House. Image is courtesy Derek Richie of Bloomington Fading. Thanks, Derek!

A historic image of Blair House. Image courtesy Derek Richie of Bloomington Fading. Thanks, Derek!

The fourth house, Blair house, can be regarded as the frame version of the preceding style of brick homes. Built in the 1860s, it is located in the heart of Maple Heights neighborhood, which of course represents the extent of the original farmstead. The Blair family were also staunch abolitionists. The Blairs originally buried their dead near the family home and later in the Presbyterian Cemetery (White Oak). The house today has a completely different aspect due to a 1920s-era brick porch. There is an interesting blog entry about the house and the family at http://bloomingtonthenandnow.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/823-n-maple-street-the-historic-james-blair-house/, posted by Derek Richie of Bloomington Fading.

The thing that interests me is that all four of these 160-year-old-plus houses are still standing and  inhabited, while many other notable homes have been demolished. The town was by no means all-Covenanter, and yet the Covenanter houses appear to be over-represented in the historic record for this era.  All of the four men who built these houses were local community leaders; but so were the builders of many now-vanished old farmhouses. For some reason, these four survived, and in architectural terms, Bloomington is the better for it.

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From → Houses

6 Comments
  1. Where you refer to frame vs brick house, in fact these are all most likely timber framed homes and the brick vs wood was only a choice of cladding, depending on wealth or access to resources. More accurately the ‘brick’ buildings are wood framed buildings with a brick veneer.

    The three little pigs built a true brick house! 🙂

    The chimney on the ends were a result of the long history of poorly designed fireplaces by the British which burned wood inefficiently and produced a lot of creosote, which then resulted in many chimney fires. The fireplaces were placed on the outside edges of the building to minimize the loss of the entire house in case of a fire. Had they learned more from the nordic countries on how to build efficient fireplaces, a much better placement of the fire and chimney would be in the center of the house where it would heat the space much better!

    These are very nice examples of a classic design which was replicated often because it was a proven design. They often only varied slightly in dimensions

    • You’re right about the fireplaces, but all of Bloomington’s oldest brick homes are self-supporting solid brick masonry. I have seen the insides of these three brick homes and I can attest that they were not clad and that the walls are quite thick. In fact, bricks in many of the older homes (think of Farmer House, and the Topulgus House) were also used for interior load-bearing walls. The old 1830s house on South Morton on the McDoel neighborhood, the one that faces the B-Line, has walls so thick (nearly 2 feet) that realtors’ standard estimates of figuring out interior square footage by measuring the outsides simply don’t work.

      I don’t know when brick cladding came in, but I assume by the end of the 1800s and turn of the century. It’s such a lie when realtor writeups of new homes say proudly “All-brick custom home” when it’s not all-brick at all but merely clad. But these early-and mid-1800s houses were truly all-brick.

      Thanks for writing! All best, Carrol

      • I am humbly corrected. It’s even more unusual then (I think) because this is a standard 3 bay timber frame design recreated in solid masonry.

        You mentioned that the bricks were made from materials dug on-site. Were these fired onsite or was the clay dug, transported for firing and then returned?

        I know of other solid masonry buildings in the colonies (New Zealand) which were produced mainly to consume bricks brought over as ship ballast by trade ships, rather than because there was a good source of local bricks or a lack of other building materials. Unfortunately it has proven to be a false economy since solid masonry does not react well with ground movement. Its strength relies on the assumption of gravity. I trust that neither of these two conditions (merchant ships or earthquakes) would probably apply to Bloomington’s presence of solid masonry buildings.

        Agreed, that that term ‘all-brick building’ is now completely misused. I’m still blaming its popularity (and therefore its fake imitations) on the three little pigs! (Now how’s that for a book and building connection!?)

      • It’s fascinating to hear again that ballast bricks were reused for building purposes. Our forefathers didn’t like to waste perfectly good materials, as we do too easily. Monroe County lies on a thick layer of reddish clay that is completely ignored today, but all though the 1800s they used it locally to make bricks, usually on-site but sometimes at a short distance if conditions were better there.—The Wikipedia page for Millen House states “As his prosperity grew, William Millen erected a far larger house in 1845. Replacing the original log cabin was a sizeable Georgian residence with Greek Revival influences, built primarily of bricks from his own kiln. Such a house demonstrates the prosperity of its builder. The first houses in the city were much simpler structures in vernacular forms such as the hall and parlor and the I-house, and styles such as the Georgian and Greek Revival represented the increasing influence of Eastern sophistication. Located on N. Bryan Avenue, the house is a two-story building constructed of hand-pressed bricks; it rests on a limestone foundation and features significant amounts of framing made of tuliptree wood. The load-bearing walls of the interior, also built of brick, range from 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) in thickness; some wooden frame, including a central beam 1.5 feet (0.46 m) thick, also supports the house.”

        Yes, those three little piggies knew how to build! If the piggy who went in for straw used straw-bale construction, he’d have the best insulative value of all three houses, plus noise-proof walls.

  2. janice permalink

    enjoyed you article and the comments! i remember reading that when the people came over from Scotland, the women cried because the houses were wood and not stone like they were used to having. how safe they probably felt in the brick houses.

  3. I believe it! Thanks for reading & responding. 🙂 Carrol

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