A house, from the outside, reveals only a portion of its true character. Details – like intricately carved brackets, or a romantic-looking bay window – lead the viewer down one path of speculation, but upon opening the door, you tumble, like Alice, down a rabbit hole of a completely different house. Sketching out the story of a building (the best you can without a direct conversation with the builder, craftsman, or original owners – and I’ve yet to add seances to my list of research tools) is best conducted by combining the exterior, the interior, and whatever juicy bits can be dug up from the archives of the local community.
One of my first forays into the world of National Register nominations was the J.J. Nesbitt House in Owingsville, Kentucky (a wonderful town in the Outer Bluegrass, with some truly splendid early architecture). Although I didn’t feel like I was hurtling down the rabbit hole, I did experience the joy of pulling all those disparate elements into one whole – one that made me feel like I told the story as well as I could without the benefit of time travel. The Nesbitt House was constructed between 1876 and 1878. An 1876 deed to Nesbitt stated that he would “within two years from December 6, 1876 erect upon the town lot…a brick dwelling house of his own occupancy.”
Oh, and what a house he built! A side-passage, double-pile plan, the two-story house was constructed with hand-made oversized brick in an eight-row common bond pattern. Many of the details are pure Italianate, which was wildly popular in Kentucky at the time – a heavy bracketed cornice, elaborate braided rope carving, fantastic hood molds with brackets and finials – and then there are the elements which came later. John James, you see, was a fashionable man. And he (or maybe his wife) wanted what was hot and hip to be reflected in their house. Owingsville, fortunately, was covered by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, an invaluable tool for the historian. It was through these maps that I was able to piece together a chronology of how the Nesbitt house changed and grew.
A little background about Mr. Nesbitt: In the 1876 Business Directory of Owingsville, J.J. Nesbitt is listed as a lawyer. The 1880 Federal Census lists Nesbitt, 33, as a lawyer along with the members of his family: his wife Mollie, their five-year old daughter and four servants. In addition to his law practice, Nesbitt served as the Master Commissioner of the Bath County Circuit Court, as a state representative for Bath and Rowan Counties from 1885-1887 and a member of the Masonic Lodge of Owingsville. As an 1860s graduate of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Lexington (the forerunner to the University of Kentucky) in the 1860s, Nesbitt followed his father into the legal profession and was admitted to the Bath County Bar in 1873.
A brief mention in the Owingsville Outlook dated September 1, 1892 mentions that “J.J. Nesbitt is having a bay window put in his house.” As changes were made to the house during Nebsitt’s 51-year tenure, they reflected the styles popular in America at the time: Italianate (originally), Queen Anne, Free Classic, and finally Colonial Revival. These alterations are part of the history of the house, and understanding the layers of architectural styles makes the house more interesting.
I’ve always maintained that historic buildings aren’t static – how could they be, when they are created, shaped, formed, and used by people? The patterns of use and change don’t detract from a building – they add to its story, and hopefully, become important tools in preserving the story and the structure.