Evidently, at some point a few weeks ago, I got drunk at a party. Evidently, I started talking to a friend/acquaintance about my house, and how I’d never seen an old picture of it. Evidently, he jotted down my address to ask his friend what he could come up with. I don’t know who this friend of a friend is, and I recall 0.0% of this event, but this mystery person came through for me!
So last week, I got a photocopy of the assessment record of our house, which includes a photo from 1950! Our house is outside the fancier/more historic Uptown Kingston area, so it’s situated in an area that doesn’t seem to be heavily documented, despite how many cool homes there are in Midtown. We still don’t know the exact year that our house was constructed (we think 1830s or 1840s, based on the style and the post-and-beam construction), or when the additions were put on, or really much information at all…but seeing this picture taken in 1950 nearly brought tears to my eyes. Really.
You see, I love this house so much. I’m putting my blood, sweat, tears, and pretty much all of my money into it. I loved it from the second I walked in the front door, and I love it more everyday as it comes back to life. I don’t feel like this is bragging, because I can’t take any credit for it: it’s a beautiful house, in my eyes at least. Sure, it isn’t a super fancy architectural gem of a Greek Revival mansion. Sure, it doesn’t hold a candle to so many of the amazing structures throughout Kingston. Sure, it had some regrettable things done to it over the years. But honestly? There’s no way we could have bought it if it hadn’t been a little busted, and I feel overwhelmingly fortunate and grateful everyday that I’m the lucky person who gets to restore it. I’ve learned enough to fill a book. My house has taken on a whole personality in my eyes, and all I want is for it to be happy. I’ve never seen anything but potential here, and even after a year of tough, trying renovation and years more ahead, it’s that amazing potential that keeps me motivated. I feel like this is the place where I belong. I love Kingston, and I love this house, and I hope that all the owners after me will feel exactly the same way. It’s a special place.
OK, I’ll stop cheesing it up now. I have feelings, OK?
By 1950, when this photo was taken, the house was likely already over a century old, which is a little hard to wrap my mind around! I know the Europeans out there reading this will laugh, but this is considered a really old house in the States. The fact that it’s still standing with so much original stuff intact is pretty incredible.
The point here is that this isn’t a glimpse at the original house—just what it looked like 64 years ago. Still, lots of stuff happened in that amount of time. Since the photo was taken, the house had two subsequent owners, and then me. The owner during this period had already split the house into 2 apartments (that happened in the 30s).
(UPDATE! According to some new, awesome information, it looks like the house finally has a date—1865! And even better, it was built by the father of the man who owned it at the time this picture was taken. Not only does that mean he lived his whole life here until he passed away in 1962, but that it was in the same family for 97 years! Thank you, Robin, for the amazing information!)
The next owners bought in ’63 and sold in ’74, and we bought the house from the estate of the people who bought in ’74. Amazing, right? I think the fact that it only had three (4, including me) owners in the past century probably has a lot to do with why it wasn’t too wreckovated to be rescued.
OK, enough rambling. LET’S COMPARE PHOTOS, SHALL WE??
I should really save this post for the winter since that’s when the original photo was taken and the tree wouldn’t be blocking half the house, but I’m too excited! Sorry.
OK, so the first thing I noticed (AND FREAKED OUT ABOUT) is…there are extra windows!! See them? On the side of the house, second windows in from the corner. Upstairs and downstairs, there were windows! I’ve always thought the front of my house was really pretty, but the side…not so much. It’s an awkward mash-up of strange additions, and it lacks the nice balance of the front. I’ve always sort of thought that aesthetically there should be windows there, but there wasn’t any evidence that they ever existed, and additional windows in those two rooms would effectively eat up any usable wall space (the interior walls all have doors and, originally, wood stoves, so there literally wouldn’t have been walls spanning more than a few feet!).
The weird thing about the windows is that I’ve stripped all the paint/wallpaper from our bedroom (which is where the missing window on the second floor would be), and the walls are all the same plaster—there’s no evidence of a window being patched in. NATURALLY, after seeing this photo, I cut a hole in the wall in the downstairs room (which is the future library space) and found….plaster, lath, and BRICK. All of our exterior walls are full of brick and mortar—it’s a type of insulation called nogging that pretty much stopped around 1900. And the walls are really, truly lath and plaster, not just a plaster veneer over old drywall or something. They wouldn’t have filled the walls with brick between 1950 and whenever the windows were removed, because there were better products for insulation by then.
Given all of this, I have pretty much decided that those windows…FAKE! You can see that they’re both shuttered closed. Originally, the entire house would have had shutters, so it would have made a little more sense aesthetically…but I honestly believe that there were never windows there, and the house was built with faux windows on the exterior to provide the architecture more balance (while still allowing those rooms some actual walls!). So crazy, right? The house has always been a little bit fake-y! It makes me feel a little less silly about installing a fake fireplace and new-production ceiling medallions made of foam and all that. If it looks right, maybe that’s just good enough.
This is also good to see, though, because it shows what the original shutters looked like. Getting shutters to look right is a tricky thing since there are a lot of different styles, but if I can ever save up the money to put shutters back on the house, at least I know how they should look.
Obviously this photo was taken before the vinyl siding was installed, so I’m glad to know about this whole fake window thing! I wonder what’s still lurking under the vinyl…it makes me want to rip it off RIGHT NOW. The house looked sooooo much prettier without it, don’t you think? I know the window moldings aren’t very elaborate, but they are THERE and they give the facade so much more dimension—unfortunately, they were brutally hacked off with the installation of the vinyl, which is part of what makes the project of removing it seem like such a big deal. It’s also interesting that the corner boards aren’t wider. Wide corner boards with some decorative molding at the top is typical for Greek Revival…and the fact that this house doesn’t have them makes me feel further that the house started out as much more modest and kind of became a Greek Revival a little later, or just that it was built as a more modest Greek Revival to begin with, without all the bells and whistles that typically go along with that style.
It’s hard to tell what color the house is in this black-and-white photo, but I actually think it was a soft yellow color, not white. At various times, I think the house has been white, yellow, blue, and a kind of minty green. What strikes me more is that the window sashes aren’t painted black, as they are today and as they likely were originally—indicating that one of the two owners after this one seems to have some sense for restoration and preservation of the original appearance. There is some more evidence throughout the house of earlier restoration efforts. My money is on the folks who owned the house from 1963-74, which is interesting because the restoration movement hadn’t really caught on yet at that point. Who knows! I don’t think ANY of these people had children, so I’ve had a pretty impossible time trying to track down anyone who would really know.
The other funny thing about the paint is how the cornice is painted! I doubt it was like this originally, but it looks like the trim is white and the cornice is mostly white with a black (or very dark) edge just on the crown molding. Huh!
Flipping between these photos also shows how many trees there were! I really kind of hate that big tree out front—I don’t know the type but I think it’s ugly and I kind of wish it had stayed about 1/2 the size. But those two trees in the “hell strip” on the side and one on the opposite corner? So nice!! It makes me want to re-plant all of them, and maybe a few more down the street. I mean, who is going to stop me? I think more trees would really give a boost to the neighborhood…it’s a little barren nowadays. The side street, for example, has NO trees at all anymore, which is too bad. I also wish I could convince the city to put in more attractive street lamps, either like they are in the 1950 picture or nice old-fashioned freestanding ones. The huge fluorescent ones at the top of the telephone poles are just so…unfriendly looking at night.
I guess I should address the missing center chimney, since I know people will notice. I’m a little ashamed to say…I did that. The chimney, while beautiful, runs off-center in the house itself and then above the attic floor steps up toward the center of the roofline, effectively bisecting the whole attic. It’s a pretty crazy construction. Over the years, the stepped design had failed under its own weight, causing the chimney to sort of collapse and damage the roof in the process. Somebody added some precarious-looking bracing to hold the whole thing up, but it really just seemed structurally unstable AND would have provided another space for potential roof leaks down the road if it continued to shift over time. When we had the roof done back in November, I made the decision to have the roofers remove the chimney down to the ceiling of the attic, figuring I could handle the additional demo myself and we could reuse the bricks for landscaping (I have a plan! And yes, I know they shouldn’t be near where food is being grown because of the creosote…). This would also open up the attic into one big space, giving us potential to finish the attic someday and actually do something with it.
I still wrestle with that decision, though. You couldn’t see the chimney at all when looking at the front of the house, and it seemed like the benefits of gaining potential attic space, removing a structural hazard, and giving our very pricey roof a better shot at longevity outweighed trying to keep AND repair something that would always be purely decorative (it was unlined and too damaged to be functional). So there you have it. Most days I don’t even remember the old chimney, but flipping back and forth between these two photos makes me a little sick over it, to be honest. I don’t know. I can talk about the logic behind the decision until I’m blue in the face, but at the end of the day, it was original and very pretty and from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I’m sad that it’s gone. I guess if that’s the worst thing I do to this house, that isn’t so bad. Sigh.
One of the stranger and more unsightly aspects of my home is this enclosed porch. I’m pretty much 300% positive that it isn’t original—originally, there would have been a three-sided bay window on the first floor, a window next to it (which is still there in the dining room, but faces out to the porch), and one window directly above that one where that bump-out sits on the second floor. The side porch and bump-out are old, though. I need to write a blog post about it, but I recently gutted the side porch and found brick nogging in the walls at the top and bottom—likely placing its construction pre-1900. It may have even been added when the kitchen was added to the back of the house.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this side porch thing has seen so many alterations over the years, and it’s in TERRIBLE shape. There’s a lot of water damage from roof leaks over the years, and the entire thing is resting on about 9 cinderblocks. The grading on the strip of land in front of the “porch” is all wrong, too, so water drains back toward it instead of away, causing the already weak foundation to have more problems. The bump-out above is sort of a charming detail, but unfortunately you can see that the windows on the sides were removed and patched over at some point, which is super lame. Anyway, the whole thing is sagging and just generally looks pretty awful. They did a nice job when they added it—patching in with a matching cornice and everything—but still…it’s a mess.
I always assumed that the side porch was, at one time, an open-air porch, probably with columns, much like the porch on the front of the house. But I don’t think it ever was! Gutting the interior revealed that there appears to have always been a very low wall in the front across the entire length and a window at the opposite end. So seeing this picture from 1950 is pretty amazing! If that isn’t what the porch looked like originally, I think it’s very similar—basically a wall of glass with a central double-hung sash window to allow for ventilation. The only access was from a doorway in the kitchen. I’m guessing the original function was almost like a greenhouse, allowing the occupants (or the servants, more likely) to grow various plants, start things from seed, that kind of thing.
To restore both the bump-out and the side porch, we’d need to do a ton of work. The structural issues are a real problem (it would need a new foundation and lots of repair work to the rotted parts of the framing), and we’d need to somehow replicate that wall of glass, find 2 six-over-six sash windows (one for the front and one for the side), and 2 more two-over-two sash windows for the sides of the bump out…and even then, what do we really gain? Even in this picture from the 50s, while the side porch is definitely MUCH cooler, it still makes the house look pretty unbalanced and ruins the effect of the original bay window. The vintage car parked in front of it is kind of my favorite part of the whole set-up, but we don’t have one of those.
I think the current plan is to just eliminate it entirely, which I know might be controversial. We’ll need one six-over-six sash window for the upstairs room to replace the bump out, restoring a window to be centered above the existing dining room window that’s covered by the porch. Then we’ll need another six-over-six sash window to restore the bay window. I think we can reuse the existing cornice on these parts to patch in everything we’d need to, and a few hours with a roofer to patch in the gutter. Ultimately it will be cheaper, I think, and go a long way toward restoring the original appearance of the house. The dining room window would be exposed to the outside again, which I would LOVE—this is our south-facing side, so having all that light blocked by the side porch disaster is a huge drag.
I know. I actually want to make my house smaller. I’m basically a communist!
The other thing I like about this picture is seeing how the fence used to be! It’s always been a little puzzling to me that the wrought-iron fence just sort of stops where it does, and I obviously hate that it was picked up by 6′ chain link—yuck. My plan has always been to continue the wrought-iron fence line with something that’s at least the same height, since having the original wrought iron replicated is just not in the cards budget-wise. And guess what? That’s exactly how it was in the 1950s, and it looks pretty great. So much more open. You can see in the wide shot at the start of the post that this shorter fence then transitions at the back to a taller 6′ wood fence, which is also exactly what I’m planning to do. This will keep the dogs out of the side yard (right now the strip is so narrow that it’s easy enough for us to patrol to keep Mekko from running toward the low fence, which she can jump over) and enclose them safely in the back, and a wooden gate will open up to the driveway. I can’t wait to get the fence done, or at least this side. It’s going to make a huge difference.
Not too much has changed around the entryway, but there are definitely some interesting differences! I love that in 1950, the house still had its hitching post for a horse and the original upping stone—essentially two short steps that you’d climb to get onto the horse. So cool! A lot of houses in the area still have their upping stones out front. It’s so charming. If I ever find one, maybe I’ll just put it back for kicks.
It’s good to see what the foundation of the front steps looked like, since that’s something I’ve been wrestling with. Evidently somebody re-coated them with concrete at some point, but over the years the adhesion of the coating has failed, causing the concrete to fall off in large chunks and expose, I guess, the original concrete underneath (which is much lighter and smoother). It would be easy enough to just chip off the rest of the newer concrete coating, but then what? From the picture, it looks like at least in 1950 there was a kind of bevel detail at the front, and wider concrete bases at the bottom of the columns. The bevel detail isn’t something that ever would have occurred to me, but I think it’s super pretty—definitely something to consider trying to reconstruct. I don’t know exactly how to do that (grey tinted stucco, perhaps?), but at some point I’d like to try. The crumbling situation we have now looks pretty sad, and kind of makes it look like the whole thing is crumbling, even though it’s just a 1/4″ of concrete that’s falling off. The underlying structure seems to be in great, solid shape.
ALSO, the original balusters and handrail!! That’s DEFINITELY something I want to restore at some point. The wrought-iron stuff that’s there now just screams 1960s to me, and they look totally out of place with the house. Yes, it would be another wood thing to maintain and repaint and take care of, but I’d rather have the extra work than do all of this other stuff to the house and still have 60s metal banisters next to the entryway. It would make a huge difference.
Anyway, thus ends the tour! Seeing this photo makes me SO hungry for more. I’m in touch with the research librarian at the Kingston Library to see if she can dig up anything else about the house, and I’m really hoping there are more photos of it over the years. Is there somewhere else I should be looking for this stuff? I do have to go back to the clerk’s office to keep tracking the deeds—I did go one day, but had to leave when I got to 1869, but there are deeds from before that too that I haven’t seen. It’s hard to tell whether the deeds are just conveying the property or an actual house, though, but I’d love to see how far back I can take it regardless!
What do you think about all this? Has anyone ever seen/heard of faux windows on a house of this age? Does anyone notice anything I didn’t point out? Has anyone else been surprised by something in old photos of their old house? Let’s nerd out together!