Gardens to Gables

Celebrating Change: The Growth of a Kentucky Log House

Historic preservation can sometimes be a troubling, even divisive term. I haven’t heard it used in a while, but the term “hysterical” preservationist was bandied about quite a bit, and I am sure still is in certain circles. A common misconception is that preservation supporters want to stop time, and freeze every historic building so that nothing is changed or added. Historic house museums, many of which are wonderful places to visit and a means of saving an important building or site, occasionally lend credence to this theory by presenting an interpretation based solely on one particular time period.

Even though this might capture perfectly some people's vision of old and unaltered, this log and frame saddlebag has had many alterations in over 150 years.

Even though this might capture perfectly some people’s vision of old and unaltered, this log and frame saddlebag has had many alterations in over 150 years.

I’m not criticizing this approach – for most house museums, this makes sense and is the only method by which the establishment can be operated. Buildings, however, (as I have stated before) are not static. To me, preservation is about celebrating the evolution of a building, and working to ensure it remains a viable part of its neighborhood, while maintaining (as best as possible) the historic integrity of the site. (Don’t get me started on replacement windows. As my friends will tell you, I loathe the vast majority of them, as they – usually – radically change the entire look of a building, and not in a positive way. But I’m not focusing on windows today.)

This is a lovely window, even though I'm not talking about them...I love the fairly elaborate surround with fluted pilasters flanking the sash on the sides, topped by an entablature lintel with a fluted frieze, bulls eye blocks to either side, and a delicate scalloped molding.

This is a lovely window, even though I’m not talking about them…I love the fairly elaborate surround with fluted pilasters flanking the sash on the sides, topped by an entablature lintel with a fluted frieze, bulls eye blocks to either side, and a delicate scalloped molding.

A few years ago, I was so lucky to be able to work with some incredible property owners as they sought to preserve and move into a historic house on their property. the house had not been occupied for almost 40 years and needed some love. Kentucky has a historic tax credit for owner-occupied buildings, if the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). This tax credit could help the owners make the house liveable again. In the process of studying this house so that I could write the nomination, I became keenly aware of how even the NRHP still focuses on buildings in a pristine, unaltered state.  Sure, those places are fascinating – but how many real houses are like that?

As anyone who has ever tried to research a house using a chain of title (deeds of ownership), it can be confusing. Just like houses, land changes a lot, from one farm to many smaller parcels. A rare nice touch is the drawing on this 1867 deed of a small house (lot number 5).

As anyone who has ever tried to research a house using a chain of title (deeds of ownership), it can be confusing. Just like houses, land changes a lot, from one farm to many smaller parcels. A rare nice touch is the drawing on this 1867 deed of a small house (lot number 5).

This house, nicely located in a creek bottom (but high enough to not be washed away), looked like a typical late-19th century house from the road. The interior, however, revealed one surprise after another. The main house was built in 3 distinct stages between 1850 and 1890; the first of those was single log pen, with v-notched logs around 15 feet square. It was probably built in the 1850s. To the side of the main house is a log and frame saddlebag (see first photo), that probably predates the first building campaign of the larger house, likely in the 1840s. Both houses faced the creek, which served as the main transportation route before a turnpike was successfully constructed.

Sometimes when you crawl around in an attic in the summer to inspect saw marks, you don't look very happy...

Sometimes when you crawl around in an attic in the summer to inspect saw marks, you don’t look very happy…

 

 

Sometime after the Civil War (based on an examination of the lumber in the attic space), a second log pen was built next to the first, forming a saddlebag. In the next ten years, a transitionally framed (combing elements of balloon framing and modified timber framing) room was added, likely connected via a breezeway, to the rear of the original log pen.

Straightforward house, you would think if you drove past it...but the inside reveals the twists and turns of the building as it grew and expanded.

Straightforward house, you would think if you drove past it…but the inside reveals the twists and turns of the building as it grew and expanded.

In the late-19th century, a new, two-story addition (consisting of a central hall and a room on either side) was built by new owners on one side of the original log house. This turned the house around to face the turnpike. This “new house” displayed the liveliness of the Italianate, Gothic Revival and Queen Anne styles so popular in rural Kentucky after the Civil War.

I have a fondness for gables, and this one is especially nice.

I have a fondness for gables, and this one is especially nice.

In addition, numerous small porches were added over the years, and some of them subsequently enclosed when the house received indoor plumbing (in the first two decades of the 20th century). Another addition was added in the 1970s, continuing the theme of adding on to the core of the historic house. This is the story of so many Kentucky houses, but it is very problematic for some people to argue that this type of house, with all of these changes (historic changes, I might add) is significant. My question then is “why not?” Why should the only significant buildings be those that haven’t changed? In this case, the changes are ones of addition, and help tell the story of the house’s evolution from a single pen to a late-nineteenth-century Victorian dwelling.

As I stated in my nomination (which was successfully listed), this property “does not present conventional view of many [NRHP] nominations, where the value of the property’s design resides in one fixed point in time. Neither house on the property is high-style nor is either being interpreted as a static, frozen-in-time dwelling. Rather, the change apparent both within and without each house provides a way to look at a socioeconomic class that is infrequently explored or celebrated in terms of lasting architectural value. The journey of the house and secondary dwelling, from log pen to saddlebag, is a story that is seldom told, though was common on the landscape. These were not elite farmers, landed gentry or progressive gentleman farmers. The first part of this story belongs to the middling and subsistence farmer that lacked the disposable income to improve his housing stock, and thus could not raise his perceived local status. By the time the house achieved its final historic appearance, its owner had not climbed much higher on the socioeconomic ladder, but he chose to indulge in an outward display of success – albeit, success measured on a vastly different plane than most Criterion C National Register listings … the house is locally significant for providing good example of a common sequence of housing changes that defined residential architecture on non-elite farms through most of the nineteenth century.”

And the best part? This wonderful house is a home again!

 

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9 Thoughts on “Celebrating Change: The Growth of a Kentucky Log House

  1. Patrick Kennedy on May 8, 2015 at 5:08 am said:

    Have you seen this house recently ? I drive by it just about everyday and have watched it as it has been renovated and returned to a beautiful home.

  2. Old Thompson Farm on May 8, 2015 at 9:02 am said:

    We are the happy home owners of this once sad house. It is now very much alive and enjoy the fact that we kept the historical aspects while making it modern for our family. We hope our story will inspire others to revisit old houses and make them alive again. We look forward to your return to see the transformation!

  3. Loved reading this post. Excellent points raised about historic homes. I have often thought these very things and loved reading your point of view.

  4. ginny daley on June 18, 2015 at 7:58 pm said:

    You make some excellent point and I agree with your perspective. More recently, it seem like NR nominations are reviewed with a more open mind, esp. When the case is well-made. Changing mindsets can be a slow and incremental process. And your nom helped in that process.

    I am currently faced with a similar challenge in applying for the Blue Grass Trust’s paint program. I need support to paint theoriginal wood trim on my 1926 vernacular cottage. But the regs require the home have the original wood siding intact. Mine was covered with vinyl siding in the 1960s, which is now fairly rare and looks nothing like current vinyl siding. I’m going to try to argue my case, probably unsuccessfully, but might suceed in opening some minds in the process. Thanks for giving me some steam with your post.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on June 19, 2015 at 11:06 am said:

      Thanks Ginny! I am curious about your paint program dilemma – are you proposing to paint the existing vinyl siding or remove it and restore the weatherboards that are (hopefully) underneath? The NPS Tax credit program actually has a more open mind on “reversible changes” than some other divisions within the Park Service; maybe you could some language in their guidelines that would bolster your case.

      • ginny daley on June 19, 2015 at 1:31 pm said:

        I’m not messing with the siding at all, just the trim like facia boards, porch columns, beadboard porch ceiling. Whether I’m sucessful or not in my app, I hope I can help open up the BGT minds to rigid definitions about original integrity vs. supporting folks who want to save and live in older homes. I think we are in that ‘next’ generation of historic preservation where we would benefit from revising some of the original rules and definitions.. BTW, I think the BGT paint program is a partnership with the National Trust or NPS. I’ll have to check

        • Janie-Rice Brother on June 19, 2015 at 3:03 pm said:

          I would think that approval would be a no-brainer, for what that’s worth! Good luck!

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