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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!