A few weeks ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity to examine our 1876 Italianate with a trained architectural historian, an expert in historic preservation and “structural archaeology.” Shawn Godwin has been assisting the Pittsfield Township Historical Society in their restoration of a nineteenth-century schoolhouse; after meeting him at a presentation, I asked if he would be willing to visit our property. He graciously agreed. It was a wonderful experience in which I learned so much, and if you have an historic home, I highly recommend it.
I would like to share some of Shawn’s thoughts about the house because I found them so illuminating. The discussion fell into two categories: 1) what the house was probably like when it was first constructed by Noah and Ermina Huckins; 2) what changes occurred to the structure over time. In this post, I will deal only with the first category. The changes to the house–and there were not many–happened in a fairly narrow time period, which occurred under later owners. I will tell their story, and outline how they impacted the property, in a future entry.
Italianate was the first architectural form to develop wholly within the United States; it was referred to by contemporaries as “American Style.” Technological advances in multiple industries associated with construction resulted in new materials such as machine-made nails, machine-planed wood, ready-mixed paints, and larger panes of glass, which allowed substantial and rapid changes to existing building practices (Building a Firm Foundation, pg. 63). The Italianate form is characterized by a tall, boxy profile; a low-pitched roof with overhanging eaves supported by elaborately-carved brackets; and tall, narrow windows that are usually rounded or arched on the top. Many Italianates have cupolas. According to A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester, “The Italianate style dominated American houses constructed between 1850 and 1880. It was particularly common in the expanding towns and cities of the Midwest…” (pg. 212). There is a theory that the emerging middle class, comprised mainly of entrepreneurs and farmers, wanted to build substantial new homes that visually represented their solidity and prosperity (Foundation, pg. 63).
Shawn Godwin termed the house a “transitional” form, with elements of both the late Gothic and Italianate styles. It has the cottage-like feel of an Andrew Jackson Downing design, but a bolder, more Victorian aesthetic can be seen in features like the heavy moulding of the door and window trim, and strongly-turned balusters on the staircase.
When the house was first constructed, the exterior would likely have been much more ornate. There were probably metal or wooden railings on all the flat roof surfaces of the house, and possibly elements like porch vents or even a chimney cap that are no longer extant. (Comparing the period illustration of the Wadsworth house to the most recent photograph of it, gives a sense of the way in which decorative detailing tends to disappear from a house over time.) The exterior would likely have been painted in a much more elaborate color scheme of perhaps four or more hues, designed to accentuate the wooden trim.
Shawn commented it seemed “very likely” to him that the house originally had an accompanying barn. I confirmed that I found a notice in The Wellington Enterprise of Noah Huckins constructing “a fine horse barn a little east of his residence” in November, 1881. (The adjacent lot was part of the property until the early twentieth century.) Sadly, that barn no longer exists and I have found no image of it. Godwin indicated that a town barn in this period would have been slightly more elaborate than a rural barn, and it would have served not only for animal and transportation needs, but also as an overflow space for household functions like laundry.
When the house was constructed in 1876, the interior would have been wall-to-wall carpeted. All woodwork would have been painted in a faux wood-grain finish. Every room would have been wallpapered, and all the brick surfaces within the house would have been plastered and painted. Our modern preferences for exposed wood flooring or visible brick would not have suited nineteenth-century tastes. The ceiling medallions, or “smoke guards” were intended for hanging kerosene lamps. (The house was most likely wired soon after electricity became available in the village in August, 1896.) This again reflects the transitional nature of the house, as centrally-located hanging lamps were the first attempts at holistically lighting a home; prior to this period, people used task lighting that could be moved as needed, or sat near a lighting source such as a window or fire.
The kitchen was originally two rooms; I later confirmed the accuracy of Shawn’s hypothesis via an oral history with a local woman whose grandmother rented the house in the 1930s and ’40s. The southern room (facing Lincoln Street) was used as an informal eating space for the family, while the cooking functions were carried out in the northern room. The house was built in a period when there was not yet widespread indoor plumbing, but some floor plans included indoor washing rooms with basins or even sinks. There is evidence that such a room existed off the kitchen of 600 North Main, directly adjacent to an outdoor water pump over an underground cistern. Shawn Godwin believes there may at one time have been an open back porch attached to the house, which would have resembled the front porch with its columns and decorative trim.
The most interesting thing we discussed was the possibility that the house once held a built-in range, in other words, a cookstove built directly into the brick wall of the kitchen. A substantial support column in the basement is the only surviving evidence that something quite heavy once sat above it. The original range was removed in the early twentieth century and a much smaller brick chimney was installed to vent a later stovepipe. I asked Shawn if he had any depictions of what such a stove might look like; he sent the image below, but cautioned that the range in the picture is probably larger and more elaborate than what our home might once have held.
My conversation with Shawn Godwin intensified my desire to find a nineteenth-century image of the house at 600 North Main Street. I find it hard to believe that Noah Huckins, a man who appeared in the newspaper almost weekly and belonged to nearly every civic organization in the town, never desired to have a visual record made of his impressive residence. My hope is that this blog will be read by someone who realizes that s/he has a box of family papers tucked in some forgotten corner, a dusty container crammed full of photographs and personal mementoes from the Huckins family, or perhaps architectural drawings for an Italianate house…maybe signed by Hiram Allyn. I can dream, can’t I?