Saturday, November 14, 2009

Listening to the House (Floor Plans Included)

The first question that new visitors to the Einsel House ask is almost always the same – when was the house built? Or, in the words of the guy who delivered our first tank of propane, "So how old is this place, anyway?" We don’t have an exact answer. I’m hoping to elaborate on this more later, but for now I can say that we have some evidence suggesting the house was built in the 1840’s and some evidence that suggests the 1850’s.

As we spend more time with the house, though, it is slowly revealing bits of its story to us. This post will describe what the house itself reveals about its own history.

I’ll start with a blueprint of the house’s current first floor layout.
The current layout shows the hand of the home’s previous owners in several areas. First, both closets were added by the last owners. They were necessary both to run ductwork to the second floor and for storage space (they are the only closets in the entire house). Second, the angled wall in the parlor was also added by the previous owners. The PO’s used the parlor as a bedroom and put up the angled wall for privacy reasons. They had intended for this to be a temporary situation until they could finish the third bedroom upstairs, and they told us the wall was put up in a very temporary manner, held in place with only two screws and without any damage made to the woodwork behind it. Someday soon we plan to take this wall down. Third, the area with the double sinks in the bathroom used to be an open porch, enclosed by the house on three sides. The former bathroom, including a sink, was crammed into the area currently housing the bathtub and toilet. The doorway to the previous bathroom was closed in when the room was enlarged. Finally, the kitchen addition used to be two rooms of roughly equal size. The northern part of the addition was technically not even living space. People familiar with the house prior to 1997 describe that area as a "workshop", and the family who lived in the house from 1995-97 said they thought it looked like livestock was once housed in this section of the addition(!). The owners before us focused much of their work on this addition, taking down the wall in the center to make this one large open room.

So, taking everything described above into account, below is a blueprint of the house’s layout as of 1997.
All the evidence suggests that this 1997 layout had remained unchanged for a long while. In fact, I am willing to state with some confidence that the home’s layout in 1997 was the exact same as it was in 1897, or even 1887. (Well, minus indoor plumbing I guess.)

But there was an earlier layout. It took a visit from a good friend, L, who has years of experience as an auctioneer and realtor, and who shares my love of all things old, to put together the pieces that reveal the Einsel House’s earliest chapter. During his first tour, this friend would stop and scratch his head at all the same areas that made us say, "hmmmm…". Finally, he stopped in the dining room and I could just see the wheels turning in his mind. And when the wheels stopped turning the light bulb came on, and he gave his guess as to the house’s earliest layout. And based on the evidence I’m pretty sure L’s best guess is correct.

He based his conclusions on a few main clues the house reveals. The first clue is that interior stone threshold that the masons shored up as one of their first jobs at the house. It is the only stone threshold that is not on an exterior door, which suggests that at the time the house was built this door had been an exterior door as well. The second clue is the dining room floorboards. These boards run east/west in most of the room, but at the north end of the room they run north/south. Where they change direction is a slightly wider board that is actually the top side of a large support beam. It had occurred to us before that perhaps the north/south boards had originally been an open porch that was later enclosed. This would explain both the stone threshold and the floorboard direction swap. However, the remaining window frame (now open shelves) seemed to refute this conclusion. Also confusing us was the fact that the baseboards in the north end of the dining room show no evidence of being pieced together or otherwise altered, which one would expect to see if two rooms had been expanded into one larger room. Finally, just a few feet into the dining room from the former window is a circular patch in the floor about 2 inches in diameter. (This is shown by the black dot in the above diagram.) The picture below shows the north end of the dining room. You can see the change in floor board direction, and the former window which is now bookshelves. The stone threshhold is in the doorway to the left in the photo.

The theory L reached borrows not only from the evidence at the north end of the dining room, but also from what we know about the original configuration of the south end of the dining room. L speculates that originally there was a wall on top of the beam where the floorboards change direction. He feels that just like the south end of the room, the north end of the room was divided between an open porch to the west and a small room to the east. He further speculates that the small room to the east included a sink with a hand-pump. Evidence supporting the presence of an early sink includes the patched circular hole in the floor, the location of an old cistern just north of this wall (literally within 10 feet of the proposed sink), and typical layouts of houses from this era. This would also explain why the woodwork around the old window opening looks so original – because it is original. So, this suggests that the Einsel House's earliest first floor layout was something similar to this:

But L believes that the home’s original layout probably did not stay intact for very long. The room with the sink was probably opened up (and the porch beside it enclosed) at the same time the frame addition to the north was built. Although we do not know when the kitchen addition was built, it was clearly in the nineteenth century. Based on the square headed nails used in its construction, and on interior pictures we have seen of the kitchen pre-1997, my guess is that the frame addition dates from the 1870’s (give or take a decade).

An early date for the kitchen addition is also supported by the woodwork back in the dining room. A careful study reveals that the doorway above the stone threshold has been altered (which would make sense if this changed from an exterior to an interior door) however, the wood used in the alteration exactly matches the wood from the original construction. If L’s theory is true this also means that the baseboard along the dining room’s northwest wall was replaced when the former porch was enclosed, but again, the wood used in this baseboard exactly matches the wood in the rest of the room.

Most of the speculation in this post came from listening to the house itself. For me this is one of the best parts of owning an old home - embracing and learning its history. In fact, months before we owned the Einsel House I was in the local library researching its history and its previous owners. But we're about to head back to the house this morning, so I'll save my introduction of John & Elizabeth Einsel for another post. : )

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