The historic Borland House
[A shorter version of this article appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times on Aug. 16.]Professional historic preservationist Duncan Campbell and his wife Cathy Spiaggia live in one of the oldest homes in Monroe County. Built by Edward Borland in the 1830s, the brick house was a near-ruin when Duncan purchased it in 1986.
“We are only the third owners,” he noted. The Borland family retained the house and the hundreds of acres surrounding it until the 1929, when Edward’s great-granddaughter sold everything to the Furst Quarry Company. The old house then became home to two successive generations of quarry superintendents before finally being rented out in the 1970s.
“People would come out here and swim in the quarries,” Duncan said. “Every now and then I run into someone who remembers the house back then.”
The house when new was one of the most elegant houses in Monroe County, a fitting residence for the man who was one of the leading builders, developers and landowners of his time. (Borland built, or helped build, the first Indiana Seminary buildings, Wylie House, and the original brick courthouse.) Edward Borland and his brother James arrived in Bloomington just after its founding.
“The Borland brothers were interesting men,” said Duncan. “They came from Pennsylvania and were Scotch-Irish. Edward was a master builder and James was a surveyor. We have this idea that pioneers came trudging through with a gun over one shoulder and a coonskin cap, but many of them were wearing frock coats and carrying surveying equipment.”
Between them, the brothers helped to develop the young settlement of Bloomington. James Borland served as the land agent for Perry Township which was at that time government-owned land; money raised from the sale of lots was applied toward the fledgling state seminary which later became Indiana University. Edward, in his turn, served as trustee for the new university, and built himself one of the finest homes in the county.
But by the time Duncan saw it, about 150 years later, the house was sadly run down.
“The walls had five or six layers of wallpaper,” he recalled. “The floors were covered with Masonite and indoor-outdoor carpet that was all mildewed. Every room had issues. Many of the ceilings were bare lath.”
Duncan’s opportunity began when a young couple expressed interest in buying the house. On their behalf, realtor Bob Dunn asked Duncan and his former restoration-contracting partner Michael Yoakam to estimate how much a full restoration might cost.
That first walkthrough was astonishing.
“The house was 100 percent original: floors, paneled doors, windows, trim, even the hardware on the doors,” Duncan said. “It was one of the few historic houses I’d seen that hadn’t been seriously messed with. I was flabbergasted. I’d lived in Bloomington for years and had never heard about the house.” Beneath layers of paint, parlor trim shaped like Grecian columns represented Greek Revival style, the popular architectural fashion of the 1830s.
Duncan and Michael estimated that with tuck pointing, replastering, and updating the plumbing and wiring, it could cost the would-be purchasers $150,000 if they were DIYers, and perhaps double that amount that if they hired contractors to do it for them.
“The young couple talked to Bob for a few minutes and then drove away,” Duncan chuckled. “Bob came over to us and [sarcastically] said ‘Thanks, guys!’ I casually quipped that I’d buy it in a heartbeat. A week later we started negotiating.”
Duncan scraped together all his money, sold a house he owned in town, and bought the house along with surrounding acreage.
“I spent the whole first week in the basement trying to keep the water heater running,” he recalled. “The electric service was spotty; some of the rooms had never been wired. And over the next several years I did more plastering than I’d ever done before.”
He and Cathy had just begun to date two months before the purchase. After talking it over, they decided she and her two teenagers would move into the house along with him.
“The teenagers weren’t all that happy about it at first,” he laughed, “but they really pitched in and helped do a lot of the messy cleanup.”
Cathy added, “I remember stripping wallpaper with my daughter and discovering signatures, a tracing of a small hand, and even a love poem. It was exciting.”
The symmetrical brick structure is a classic I-house (so named because they’re common in the I-states of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa), two rooms wide and one room deep. The central hall and staircase divide the building in half. An original two-story rear ell contains the kitchen and the room above it. A smoke-room on the far end was added slightly later. The basement contains the original baking oven. A unique two-story back porch runs the length of the house.
“The Furst quarry superintendent used the upper level as a sleeping porch,” said Duncan.
Restoration moved forward as time and money became available. Also, Duncan wanted to understand the issues before moving forward, alert to any possible damage to the historic fabric. He utilized antique recipes for lime mortar and plaster when making repairs.
“Cement mortar just tears up these old soft bricks,” he said, looking regretfully at bad repairs made during the Furst years.
Over the years Duncan and Cathy have tended, painted and lovingly restored the house. (Admittedly, there were still unattached doors leaning against walls as late as 2008.) After discovering signatures on the bare wall under the wallpaper in the staircase, they decided to leave that wall unpainted and unpapered. Every guest at his and Cathy’s wedding then autographed the equally-bare facing wall.
“There’s a spirit in an old house that is palpable,” said Cathy. “Memories run all through it. Living here, the house has become a part of our history, and we’re a part of its history.”
“I don’t want to dissuade people from buying a house like this,” said Duncan, “but it takes a lot of time and energy, and it’s not for everyone. But we love this house! It’s just a phenomenal living experience. To live alongside history is exceptional.”