This (Not Very) Old House: Part One

The House Hopping with Preservationists tour began in Virginia, continued to Ohio and jumped across the Midwest to the Great Plains and Montana. Now, we’re headed back to Vermont for a two-part post about a compromise between the historic features of a 1950 prefabricated ranch house and its incredible lack of energy efficiency. Today Jen talks about the history of her pre-fab “fabulous” house.

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By Jen Parsons

It is tricky business for someone trained in Historic Preservation to be married to an Energy Guy. It gets even trickier when remodeling your own house, while you live in it. Fortunately for us, our 1950 ranch had so little architectural flair to begin with, we joke that when the manufactured parts arrived on a truck and were plopped into assembly, the model name of our home was probably the “Spartan.”

A Home of Superior Permanent Construction

Though it is our home, we are but a number, a single item in the manufactured home series. We are number 31, 521. The most interesting feature of the home included this plaque, which hung in the laundry room (an alcove off the kitchen in the center of the home that also included the hot water heater). The National Homes Corporation of Lafayette, Indiana built the home, and the serial number is stamped in the bottom right corner.

House number 31,521.

With access to the University Library while a graduate student at UVM in Historic Preservation, I only found the following tidbits of information regarding the National Homes Corp.

From “A History of Prefabrication,” by Alfred Bruce and Harold Sandbank, Published by the J.B. Pierce Foundation, 1945:

National Homes Corp., Lafayette, Ind., began production for sale in 1940, and had sold 816 units for private use prior to 1942. During the past year, they produced 2,665 units for public war housing projects, and 102 units for private projects. Their Lafayette plant is working at its maximum capacity of 750 houses per month, which it sends out over a distance of 300 miles. At present, their unfilled orders amount to 2,872 units. The houses are prefabricated in panels on an assembly line, and grouped into four types: two 2-bedroom types selling for $2,000 and $2,400, and two 3 bedroom types, priced at $2400 and $3600. Their plans for post-war distribution are not final, but they are emphatic as to their intention to prefabricate after the war. For the postwar period, they envisage certain changes in construction, design, and distribution, but precise data are not yet ready for publication.

The Exterior of the National Homes Company of Lafayette, Ind. Home, ca. 1945. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly of a National Homes Company home. Judging from the window placement on the front façade and the side façade, this is probably the same model home as ours. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly line of interior panels at the National Homes Company. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Interior wall panel construction. From "A History of Prefabrication."

A larger version of the above images from "A History of Prefabrication."

Our Pre-fab Fabulous Home: The Trailer on the Double-Wide

Our single level, two-bedroom, one bath, 800 square foot manufactured ranch plunked down and rested on its slab in a new post-war suburban development of quarter-acre lots in 1950. As such, one of the cool things about the neighborhood is that the trees are older, taller, and occasionally quite lovely. Quite often, I find new suburban developments rendered more barren and obtrusive by the lack of old growth around them. I call this phenomenon: “House in a field.”

Convenience, proximity and price led us to our little ranch. Without an inherent love for the style, I believe we actually uttered the phrase, “The construction is so basic. It should be easy to fix.” When you remark of “ease” when tackling a home improvement project, you might as well just dig a hole in your backyard and shovel your money into it. It would take less time and cost just as much.

The house had only one prior owner: a man who had met a German woman when he enlisted during the Korean War; he brought her home, and made her his bride. This worked well to our advantage: the German woman was a precision cleaner. Neighbors tell of her vacuuming her driveway of excess dirt.

From appearances, the house remained largely unchanged since the 1950s: the kitchen was laid out galley style. With only four plywood cabinets, a sink, a GE stove, and gold-flecked Formica countertops, the limitations were evident for modern use. The kitchen also suffered from an utter lack of electrical outlets (only one; we chose to plug in the refrigerator and the coffee maker, alternating coffee for toast occasionally). Ceiling mounted light fixtures were also lacking, thereby requiring us to use precious electrical outlets for lamps. These failings signaled that not too much futzing had transpired in the home.

Making pizza in my four square feet of counter space, original cabinets, and ca. 1980 electric stove.

Around 1980, a shed roof addition extended both gable ends toward the rear of the house and formed a long, narrow rectangular room with brown carpet and wood-paneled walls. We fondly called this “The Trailer on the Double Wide.” This added another 350 square feet or so of questionably useful space to the main block of the house, and was accessible through an opening punched out where the rear exterior wall of the original kitchen had been. More brown carpet had covered the floors of the bedrooms, with blue carpet covering the living room, while the kitchen and bath received a reprieve with VAT and vinyl tile, respectively.

Vinyl Asbestos Tile (VAT) remained under the carpet in most living spaces. Darn the “Spartan” model—our neighbors had hardwood.

As for any architectural flair of Post War building styles, features were quite Spartan as well. The two panel interior doors are old growth Douglas fir with lovely, tight grains for the stiles and rails, and plywood panels. Clear glass doorknobs and brass hinges complemented these doors. Varnish has darkened the doors over time, yet they still remain lovely.

Varnished doors and glass doorknobs.

A concave shadow molding and V-joints join the walls to each other and the walls to ceiling. The long pieces of molding were nailed to the wall with a plaster cast joint in each corner where the wall molding and ceiling moldings meet on two sides. The plaque explains this joint as allowing for expansion/contraction of a home, resulting in crack-proof walls. While this sounds unusual, we have to keep in mind now that many people were still quite used to having cracked plaster walls, and this was a home of the future, with newer, lighter modular materials.

The wood molding joins together in a plaster V-joint.

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So, how do the Preservation Student & the Energy Guy work together in this pre-fab house? Stay tuned for part two. 

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Jen Parsons graduated from the University of Vermont with a Masters degree in Historic Preservation and lives in the Green Mountain State. With a young child at home, she mostly preserves heirloom cookie recipes currently. She is sick of remodeling old houses, this being her third, and is looking forward to finally rehabilitating her 1966 Scotty Gaucho canned ham camper this summer…or building a tiny house. You never know.

Renting in Big Sky Country: A Montana Bungalow

House Hopping with Preservationists began in Virginia and moved to Ohio. Today the tour continues in the Big Sky Country: Montana. Sarah and her husband rent an adorable bungalow in Great Falls, MT and she enjoys reading the house and pondering its history. Join Sarah as she takes us through the house and shares her insight for analyzing the changes that have been made by previous residents. Sarah proves that renting can be just as thought-provoking as owning. 

By Sarah Nucci

I confess, I’m a Virginian at heart. I was born in Virginia, ended up in Ohio, Michigan, and Mississippi before coming home. And even then, I married into the Air Force – which took us to Las Vegas. It’s pretty safe to say that I was less than excited when we found out we were moving to Great Falls, MT, last year. I was even less excited when we planned on living on base, only to find out that we couldn’t as soon as my husband arrived. Slight freak out! No housing and I was on my way with two cats in the car.

It turned out okay in the end – the panicked house hunting brought up this home:

The front of my house. Yes, I realize this looks pretty sad at the moment - it’s February and there isn’t much snow. I’m told we’re getting plenty this week, but until it shows up we continue to have unseasonably warm weather. Ignore the lawn.

My husband texted me an image of the front of the house – and then a google search brought up this link(Click to see lots of interior shots for a good idea of the layout and discussion to follow. The home looks big on the outside, but it’s a 1913 bungalow style house with small rooms that is hard to photograph.)

Let’s start outside. You can see that the house has three bays, with a center front door. It’s on a corner lot of only .09 acres. – and when I looked it up on the Sanborn Maps (it first appears in 1929), this house is one of two on the original lot, and it appears that there may have been some kind of garage in between the two.

Sanborn, 1929.

The house is the one on the block on the left, top right corner. You’ll notice there is kind of a small porch on the inside of the lot, and you may notice that the neighbor’s house looks surprisingly like this one.

The neighbor's house, NE view.

The house was built about 15 years before the map was drawn and there are already changes you can see by looking at the  maps. The biggest change is the flow of the floor plan. Rather than a porch across the front of the house, now when you walk through our front door, you enter the screened-in porch, which is only on the right half of the facade. From the porch you walk into the living room/kitchen. The dining room is off the kitchen (note the enclosed portion of the porch).

The dining room ceiling.

Check out the dining room: it has a dropped ceiling (remind anyone of elementary school). What you can’t see is that the floor slopes down. In extremely cold weather, the cold air comes through the floor, since this room is not over the basement and thus, has no insulation.

Exposed ceiling beam between the living room/kitchen.

In the main room are a couple of evident changes. You can see the beam through the middle of the room (running the short way through the house). I’m guessing there used to be a wall there.  I’m guessing the kitchen as always been there, though it has been updated.  Something that you don’t notice in a house until you move in: there are no wall outlets on the sink/stove side of the kitchen. Instead, they are all located by the L extension.

One of the saddest parts of what has happened to this house is actually the fireplace on the far north side of the house. Outside, on both houses, you can see the pretty awesome irregular brick on the fireplace. At some point, someone painted ours to match the walls. This makes me terribly sad. I’ve never been inside the neighbor’s house to know if theirs has been painted as well.

The painted mantle and fireplace.

One of those things I wasn’t really thinking about until recently is that we don’t have a hallway in our house. This is kind of amusing in that hey-our-master-bath-exits-onto-the-living-area-way, but then again since there are only two of us, it works out pretty well.

We only rent this house, and frankly, the owner is a single military guy – there used to be five young guys living in this house before we moved in. I’m pretty sure that there were some changes to make it “rentable.” One of these is the door frames throughout the house.

New door frames.

New trim and old baseboards.

You’ll notice that the baseboards are still there. Someone put some textured wall treatment on EVERYTHING and I guess the realtor probably thought it would rent better with the door frames added. They also added the tacky hollow wood doors. In fact, there is only one original door in the house – and it leads to the attic.

The only original door in the house.

If you walk through this “open area” at the base of the stairs you walk into the master bedroom. This is the far southwest corner of the house, and is right behind the kitchen. There are a couple of things that really indicate that this room has been heavily altered. One is that there is a small beam/extension through the middle of the room, and the other is the window next to the built-in bookcase on the far end of the room. You’ll notice that there is a small cut-out for the window to fit – and it cuts about 6 inches out of the side of the room.

Cut for the window in the master bedroom.

Looking up in the window cutout.

The old connection between the two rooms in the current master bedroom.

This room looks pretty spacious, right? Ha! We have a small, 1940s, four-poster bed that sits under the back window. It leaves about a foot and a half for us to walk between the wall and the bed. This is also the only room in the house that’s air conditioned. My guess is this could have been two rooms, that have been altered into the “master”

The last room in the middle of the two bedrooms is actually the bathroom. It’s not big, not even close, but it’s also not bad. The bathroom has the tub/shower combo, as well as the toilet, sink, and medicine cabinet. There’s also a small cabinet in the corner. From the outside you can see there was originally a window there that has been covered and painted over.

The filled in bathroom window on the rear of the house.

The city is built all around water ; in 1889 the first water tap was issued, and electricity happened early as well – the five water falls that Great Falls is named for were dammed early on for hydroelectric power. That being said – I’m not sure where the original bathroom was located. I have doubts it was here, but maybe it was as a Jack-and-Jill bathroom with doors into each bedroom.

I can safely say that the basement and the attic were not originally finished. You can see the images of the space on the link – but there isn’t too much to see. What I will point out, is that we have a small side porch that opens from the kitchen.

The side porch.

And we have that small stairway to the basement from that side of the house. My guess is that is what is marked on the Sanborn map there. The fireplace was definitely not the original or only means of heating the house; the coal chute cover is still on the back of the house.

The original coal chute.

Inside there has never been central air installed. In fact, we have that one window until and we only run it when sleeping during the summer months. The basement is always cool. The heating system, though, heats the first floor at the basement. It’s pretty efficient and it’s completely helped by the 9 deciduous trees that are on the property.

Unfortunately, the attic only has gravity vents onto the first floor. In the winter we actually close off the attic so we aren’t trying to heat it, and in the summer we open those windows to help cool off the house. It makes the space a bit unusable for much more than storage space!

This house has been amazing to live in – and there are definitely a lot of clues as to what the house was before we moved in. I’m hoping that my neighbors move sometime soon so I can have an excuse to explore their house.

What is your house telling you?

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Sarah Nucci is a 2004 graduate of Mary Washington College, and is currently the Curator of History at the Montana Historical Society.  She’s an avid re-enactor making the most of living in Montana.

Thank you Sarah for giving us a tour of your bungalow. I hope you enjoy analyzing the changes, learning more about the house, and dreaming of what you’d do if it were your own!

Next up on House Hopping with Preservationists, we’re headed back east to Vermont. 

The Alison House

It’s a week of House Hopping with Preservationists! Continuing on from stop one in central Virginia, let’s make our way to Columbus, Ohio. Maria, a historic preservationist, is busy researching, planning and prioritizing restoration and other projects for her house. Read on as Maria shows us the significant architectural features and shares the first projects she and her husband have undertaken. 

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By Maria Burkett

About a year ago, my husband and I purchased our first home, a beautiful little two-story brick vernacular house constructed in a working class immigrant neighborhood in 1914. The house is one of the newer buildings in the neighborhood, which dates to the 1860s, although most of the neighboring buildings on my street are from the 1890s and early 1900s. We are located north of downtown Columbus, Ohio and many of the early homeowners worked at nearby factories or shops. One of the early owners of our house (the Allison family) was an auto-mechanic and had a large garage in the rear of our yard, off of the ally. The garage is long gone, but the 1921-1922 Sanborn Map shows the location of the garage as well as the mixed development in the area with several multiple dwelling units and businesses mixed together.

Sanborn Insurance Map, 1921-1922.

One of the things that attracted us to the area was the diversity. The factories and garages have been replaced by restaurants and art galleries, and the area continues to change with many new developments planned for the neighborhood that will reuse the older buildings or appropriately in full the vacant urban lots. It is an exciting place to live.

It was love at first site for my husband and me with our house. First of all, it is one of the most unique buildings I have seen from the exterior. Although its form is rather plain, the buildings materials are unique. The front of the house is a beautiful yellow brick with red mortar and red brick details, and the other sides are a darker red brick, much darker than normal. Luckily for us, little repointing has been done, and we still have most of the original red mortar. The house has no additions and most of the windows are original, although all three of our doors have been replaced.

Front corner of our house—you can see the original 1/1 window, yellow brick façade, and red brick details and red brick side wall.

The interior is just as extraordinary; the house retains the original reddish hardwood floors and wood trim. The trim in the kitchen and first floor bathroom was painted, but one of my jobs this year is to remove the paint and refinish the trim.

The original floors and trim really excited us about the house when we were looking.

One of my distant projects is to remove the drywall in the firebox and find and appropriately sized gas insert.

My favorite part of the interior is the upstairs bathroom. Most of the bathroom has been redone (which I think is pretty ugly and will be giving it a makeover eventually), but the original clawfoot tub is still in place and there is a curved wall detail to accommodate the tub.

My beautiful bathtub—I can’t wait to rip out the tile and flooring.

We have done relatively little in the ways of improvements to the house so far. One of my husband’s requirements was that we did not, under any circumstances, purchase a fixer upper. Our house was move in ready, but like all houses, a person can dream up many projects. I made a three page list of every dream, which is why we delayed beginning work – in order to prioritize these projects. This past fall, we took the first step and insulated our attic. We like to think our house is warmer this winter, although the winter has been so warm it really is hard to tell.

After the insulation = a nice warm house. None of this existed in the attic before.

This spring we are going to start the task of repainting our exterior trim (one reason a brick house is so great, so little to paint!) and fix our gutters and front porch. The roof was incorrectly built and years of water and ice damage have left a considerable gap between where the roof ends and the gutters begin. I would also like to get some storm windows up and restore all of the rope and pulley systems in our double-hung windows, but that may have to wait another year.

One of my favorite details-a corner guard! We have several of these upstairs, although others are painted (for now).

In the meantime, I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring so I can continue work on my yard. For a house that is closing in on its 100th birthday, it had almost no landscaping to speak of until we bought it. I spent last summer putting in raised garden beds and planning perennials, azaleas, vinca, and whatever else I could get my hands on.

My nice garden last summer.

Our dog posing by a newly planted azalea.

The beginning of the garden. We later discovered that the dirt path running through out backyard is actually a concrete walk buried under several inches of mud. That is a project for this coming spring.

We are looking forward to continuing my battle against grass and installing a back walk this year. We love our old house and are constantly surprised and gratified by what we find and complete to make it our home.

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Maria works in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and dog. She is part of the fabulous Mary Washington Preservation class of 2006 and a flamingo enthusiast since 2005. 

Thanks, Maria!  You are a great inspiration for how to carefully plan restoration and other home renovations. Good luck with this year’s projects. Last year’s garden looks beautiful.

Next stop on House Hopping with Preservationists, we’ll head further west to the Great Plains: Montana!

Virginia “1/2” I-House

The first stop on the House Hopping with Preservationists tour is in Central Virginia. Hume, an engineer,  & Ali, a historic preservationist,  bought their house four years ago and have been lovingly working on it since. With their combined knowledge and dedication, they tackle many structural projects that cause the rest of us to shudder. Read on to find out why we could call this house a “1/2” I-house, how Ali & Hume have uncovered its history and how the present interfaces with the past in this house.

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By Hume and Ali Ross

Our house was built in 1930. We have pieced together information about how it evolved from neighbors and relatives of the previous owners. We heard from the granddaughter of the original owners that the house always was meant to be based on the traditional I-house form that is common in Virginia, a two-story, three bay, symmetrical façade with a long front porch. Our interpretation is that the plan was modified – perhaps in response to the Great Depression – and half of the typical I-House was never built. What would have been the central hallway now runs along one of the exterior walls.

Three main additions have been built out from the original footprint. The clearest evidence of what is an addition is the framing style. The main “half-I-House” is constructed of balloon framed, true-dimension Southern Yellow Pine that will snap a modern drywall screw off at the head if it manages to pierce and grab in the first place. The additions are constructed of modern “whitewood” dimensional lumber with headers and sill plates.

This facade photo shows how the house really makes sense as an I-House with the location of the front door; you can just picture the door centered on a larger facade, which is a characteristic of I-houses.

The first addition, a kitchen on the West elevation was constructed likely in the early to mid-1940s, as evidenced by a newspaper found under the floor discussing ongoing military action in Corsica. The house was expanded again; we think about 10 years later, a one story “beauty salon” was tacked onto the north elevation. We arrived at this date from what appeared to be the calling card of the trim installer penciled onto the back of some crown molding: “WM 53-12-8.”

“Beauty Salon” is not a typical room name in a residential house but this was its original purpose. Our neighbors across the street have lived here for almost 50 years and they remembered lots of women coming to our house to chat and get their hair cut by the previous owner in the salon. In the attic we found a few boxes of 1950s and 1960s hairstyling magazines. The name for the room remains, although the hair washing sink has long been removed.

The third “addition” was the enclosure of a pre-existing porch off of the kitchen. This is the hardest to date – the construction methods are different from the kitchen, suggesting it was enclosed later on, even if the porch was built at the time. A marking in a concrete pad outside this porch has initials and the year “47” – although this pad could have been poured concurrent with the construction of the kitchen and original open porch.

This MicroLAM shot shows the door opening we made between the kitchen and middle room. Note the contrast of the modern header with the back of the lath and plaster showing .

Another shot without the support poles, again showing the door opening we made between the kitchen and middle room.

It is interesting to think about how future owners may understand how the changes we have made may fit in chronologically. LVL Beams, pressure treated lumber, structured wiring, galvanized joist hangers, subfloor adhesive, the pane of glass we bought at ACE Hardware next to the original wavy glass pane in the kitchen window; all are products of our renovations to the house. Which of these will become the first that could provide a TPQ (terminus post quem) for future renovators to discover when our work was done? For instance, we installed CAT5e cable throughout the house, which is already practically antiquated. CPVC pipe may be the future or may be phased out entirely as PEX improves. We have hidden some dates around the house, written in concrete or on cross bracing under the kitchen floor to help confirm their assumptions of when we did our renovations, if they happen to find them.

Our initials for future renovators to find.

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Thank you to Ali & Hume for sharing your house’s history and some of your projects!

Ali is also part of the fabulous Mary Washington Preservation class of 2006. Ali graduated from UVA in 2010 with a MA in Architectural History and a certificate in Historic Preservation. She has recently worked in the Easement Department of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. She is also on the Board of Directors for the Thousand Island Park Landmark Society in upstate NY.

Tomorrow on House Hopping with Preservationists, we head to the Midwest: Ohio!

Abandoned Vermont: Story House

By Josh Phillips

Though a town best known for its endless bog, Victory, Vermont (population 100) has a few very interesting buildings. There’s an old blacksmith shop sheathed entirely in license plates, a 19th century train station from the abandoned settlement of Steven’s Mills that was relocated and converted to a horse barn, and a variety of curious hunting camps, hill farms, and timber industry remnants.

The first thing a visitor from the south (via Concord) encounters, however, is an abandoned homestead that hints at a vitality that has long disappeared from the town and indeed much of Essex County. On the west side of Victory Road is an irregular  pile – a massing like those found in typical Vermont Greek Revival houses, but here with steep wall dormers at one end. This home was built after the Civil War by Charles A. Story, a veteran of the Union Army and a native of neighboring Kirby.

The story house in 1979. Photo credit: Allan D. Hodgdon.

In March, 1979 the Story House was recorded by the Vermont Historic Sites and Structures Survey and was found to be in good condition. Given the wild character of the place now, it’s difficult to envision Story’s diversified farm here, which included an apiary and a flock of 46 swans.

The Story House in 2011. Photo credit: Josh Phillips.

The Story house has deteriorated some in 30 years but is still in fair condition. It is now more exposed to the elements with several missing panes in the 6/6 windows and a failing porch that formerly protected the front entry.

Across the road from his home, Charles Story built a shop for his primary trade. He was a talented and well-known stonecutter, producing monuments for the lumber barons and other prominent citizens of the Northeast Kingdom. He also produced granite watering troughs and had a ready supply of material from a quarry he co-owned in Kirby. Story’s work can be seen today at the Governor Josiah Grout monument in Derby Line and the Judge Calvin Morrill memorial in East St. Johnsbury.

The shop in 1979. Photo credit: Allan D. Hodgdon.

Like the house, the stonecutting shop was in good condition in 1979. The shop has since fallen into ruin. The roof of the main block has collapsed and the gable of the small wing will soon join it. Appropriately enough, the stone foundation remains solid. The pieces of granite resting beside the shop will be there long after the building has disappeared.

The Story Shop in 2011. Photo credit: Josh Phillips.

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Josh Phillips is the Director of the Vermont Barn Census. He is a 2003 graduate of the University of Vermont Historic Preservation program and has worked since then on tobacco barns, Rosenwald schools, New Deal era hiking shelters, African American horse-drawn produce carts, and other seemingly hopeless causes. You can follow Josh on Twitter @joshuadphillips or check out his photography at www.scriberule.org.

Ruminations on a Small Town

By Elyse Gerstenecker

Now that I have departed Southwest Virginia for sunny Florida and have had time to reflect on my experience there, one of my greatest regrets is dismissing the small town of Glade Spring as an option for my home. When I first moved to the area, I largely focused on finding an apartment in Abingdon, the town where I worked, and preferably one in a historic building. On an early apartment-hunting trip to the area with my mother prior to starting my position, my soon-to-be co-worker suggested looking into Glade Spring, which is nearby. Not having had much success in Abingdon, we drove to the town, which my mother promptly pronounced “that shabby little town” (a descriptor that soon substituted for the town’s actual name). I am ashamed to admit it, but I wholeheartedly agreed. Little did I know that the town was on the verge of a major revitalization project and that I would soon become friends with many of those involved.

Glade Spring Town Square. Photo by Elyse Gerstenecker.

Glade Spring lies in the lower Valley of Virginia, along the most easily traversed path through the Appalachian Mountains. This area witnessed the migration of people south from cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia along the Great Wagon Road, a travel route that followed previous paths established by Native Americans, as well as the development of railroads along this same route. The town truly became established after the Virginia and Tennessee railroad built a depot in 1856, allowing passengers to travel to the area to see the springs and take advantage of what were thought to be its curative powers.

In 1918, the state road leading from Bristol to Roanoke and running near Glade Spring was connected to the state road from Roanoke to West Virginia, and this road became part of the enormous US Route 11 in 1926. US Route 11 ran from upstate New York (and continued in Canada) to New Orleans, Louisiana and was one of many US roads that served as popular routes for motoring tourists from the 1930s until the 1960s, when the interstate system was developed.

Again, because of the lack of available alternatives in this region, US Interstate 81 largely follows the path of US 11 in Southwest Virginia, but unlike US Route 11, bypasses many of the small towns of the region, albeit often very closely. For Glade Spring and other towns, the introduction of the interstate and concurrent closure of passenger rail service signaled the end of an era of tourism and the economy it supported. Much of Glade Spring has been in a state of downfall since the 1960s (and probably longer), thus my mother’s designation of “that shabby little town” was not entirely incorrect.

However, the dedication of a group of citizens, led by Project Glade, has transformed the central square of this small town into a business center. The group’s stated goal is to “promote for Glade Spring, VA sustainable development that relies on the town’s traditions and on the innovations as it engages a dedicated citizenry in the improvement of community life.” The evolution of the square was underway before I moved to Southwest Virginia but really began to show in the following years.

Coburn Creative, a graphic design group led by now mayor Lee Coburn, anchors the square with a thriving business centered on creativity. Salon on the Square, operated by Coburn’s partner Melissa Dickenson, is next door and showcases the creativity of the pair. You do not typically see hair salons this cool in small towns, let alone Southwest Virginia. The pair live with their daughter above their businesses, demonstrating their dedication to this town. Improvements such as new sidewalks and lighting began prior to my move in 2008. Surber & Sons, a hardware store/anything-you-could-possibly-think of store, was already established, as was the Carolina Furniture Company and the Arise Community Center. The largest improvement in the town square has been the new Glade Spring branch of the Washington County Public Library. The library formerly occupied a tiny church, but, with Project Glade taking up the cause, the WCPL system and Project Glade raised enough funds to renovate an old corner grocery store on the town square into a beautiful new library to serve the town’s residents, and it opened in early 2011.

Glade Spring Half Church. Photo by Elyse Gerstenecker.

Before my departure in February 2011, I enjoyed great food from the Town Square Diner, a new greasy-spoon style diner also located on the square. MADE, which opened in 2010, has presented Glade Spring with another great business opportunity. This small boutique showcases handmade items created by members of the Glade Spring community and surrounding areas, and the owners encourage crafters to come by and work on projects in-store. Building a town center based on creativity, if not an overall sense of quirkiness, highlights the community’s unique character and serves the basic needs of the town while attracting visiting types like me who delight in finding one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry and flower pins at MADE, browsing the shelves of Surber & Sons (a veritable cabinet of curiosities), buying local produce at the farmer’s market, or eating cheese fries while getting a haircut at a great salon.

With Emory & Henry College so close, I cannot help but think that these kinds of businesses will see patronization, with a little encouragement, from the local student population. The town now hosts Movie Nights and music concerts in the square. Plans are in the works for transforming a beautiful but decaying bank in the square into an artisan’s workshop (the craft culture in Southwest Virginia is hugely important) as well as addressing some issues of buildings that have become so decrepit that they are beyond repair. I am not unaware of the fact that Glade Spring has a long way to go, and that many more adventurous, creative entrepreneurs like Coburn and Dickenson are needed to make the town successful, even beyond the square, but this is a promising start. It is truly beautiful, as a historic preservationist, to see a community take on this type of challenge with this much dedication and enthusiasm. I now wish that I had the foresight back in 2008 to move to this town and become a participant in this wonderful, extraordinarily welcoming, and often hilariously quirky community.

Sadly, Glade Spring suffered a setback on April 28, 2011. The same weather system that generated the record-setting, massive tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama set off an F-1 tornado in Glade Spring directly along the path of Interstate 81, virtually destroying a truck stop and flinging trailers along the highway like toys, combusting houses into piles of rubble, heavily damaging many other homes and businesses, terminally damaging several historic buildings, and killing three people. The county’s request for FEMA funding for Glade Spring was denied, despite appeals, and fundraising efforts to help homeowners and businesses continue. While this community has not suffered the devastation of Tuscaloosa or Joplin, Missouri, it has also not received the publicity or awareness that these cities have. The town is also located in a traditionally poor area of our country. Those interested in supporting Glade Spring and Washington County’s recovery efforts can make donations to United Way of Russell and Washington Counties, through which all funds go directly toward the cause. For more information, please see http://www.rcwunitedway.org.

Adventures in Gatorland

Featuring a guest post today with a good roadside America tale!

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By Elyse Gerstenecker

Florida is well-known for its wacky attractions, roadside architecture, and, let’s face it, unusual citizenry. This, along with live oak trees hanging with Spanish moss, bungalow and Mediterranean houses, and abundant orange groves are all situated under the umbrella known as “Old Florida.” If you have read a Carl Hiaasen novel, you probably understand what I mean. I now live in Central Florida, which is a mecca for lovers of Old Florida. I have created a long list of places to visit and hope to provide entertaining posts for Preservation in Pink’s followers who are interested in Florida beyond the beaten Disney path, although Disney World often serves as a catalyst for wackiness.

On a recent Saturday morning, I woke up with a desire to seek out some roadside architecture. I picked up my Roadside Florida book in search of a basic guideline to follow, and, when my boyfriend A woke up, I informed him that the day’s plan was simply to drive east on US Route 92. The early portion of our day was spent exploring antique stores and other shops in Lake Alfred and the recently revitalized downtown area of Kissimmee. For those planning a Disney trip, I highly recommend visiting Kissimmee for a Main Street experience. After we saw signs for Gatorland, one of the places on our “Old Florida Must-See List,” we decided on our destination.

From the brochures and old-school wooden signage, A and I expected the usual roadside attraction – cheesy and a bit run-down. Instead, we stumbled upon a wonder that attracts quite a number of visitors, is very well-maintained, and operates both as a theme park and an alligator, crocodile, and bird preserve. Future visitors, be warned: the admission price is not terribly cheap, and the place draws quite a crowd of families. This being a theme park that centers on man-eating creatures, I would highly recommend families with little bitty ones avoid it to save themselves (and others, like yours truly) the anxiety.

The Gatorland mouth. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland opened in 1949 under the ownership of Owen Godwin, whose family still owns the park. Godwin had operated a small alligator sideshow out of the backyard of his home south of Sebring, Florida in the 1930s, and his wife sold gator products out of their kitchen. Godwin then decided to achieve his dream of creating a park showcasing native Florida wildlife and purchased a borrow pit for an alligator-themed park off of Routes 17 and 92, which were then the highest-traveled roads in the state.

When the park opened as the Florida Wildlife Institute, it featured snakes and alligators, and local Seminole Native Americans lived on the property and wrestled alligators for entertainment. Godwin changed the name to Snake Village and Alligator Farm in the 1950s, and then to Gatorland in 1954. During this time, Godwin began traveling with a 13-foot alligator named Cannibal Jake to northern states to drum up tourism. Business boomed with the growing tourism industry in the 1950s, and Godwin traveled on safaris to attain more creatures for his farm. The famous concrete open-jawed alligator head outside the park entrance was designed by Godwin’s son, Frank, and placed in 1962. Frank Godwin later took over after his father’s death in 1975. Since the 1970s, the park has greatly expanded, but it has also joined forces with the University of Florida to perform research and breed alligators, which were on the national endangered species list from 1967 until 1987.

When A and I visited, we toured ponds and “marshes” FULL of alligators, some so enormous it was frightening. There was a bit of a crowd when we entered, all watching Gatorland’s famous Gator Jumping Show, in which entertainers send out whole chickens on lines for the alligators to jump up and snap off. Visitors walked around with hot dogs in hand, purchased to toss to the alligators for a snack. There were several exhibits about the snakes of Florida and other kinds of wildlife, as well as a sheltered exhibit that featured Louisiana’s albino alligators. I was thrilled to see a flock of flamingos.

A and I strolled through the park’s Swamp Walk, attended the Gator Wrestling show, and, for a fee, had our pictures taken sitting on an alligator and holding its mouth (taped shut by a trainer). Sadly, we did not purchase the photos. We finished our day by walking around the park and seeing all of the saltwater crocodiles. One of my favorite features of the park’s various alligator and crocodile exhibits were the signs telling some of the more outrageous stories associated with some of the creatures – an alligator captured in Tampa after eating several people’s dogs, an alligator kept in a New York City school basement, and an albino alligator so nasty that even the trainers are frightened of it.

Not kidding. Those birds are rather daring. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland has clearly adapted as ideas about entertainment have evolved. The park not only features a petting zoo and miniature train but also now has Gator Gully, a miniaturized water park for little ones to play. This spring, Gatorland opened its Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, a series of zip lines in which visitors in harnesses can zoom high across the alligator marshes. A promptly pronounced it awesome; I personally thought it insane. I can see that, through this evolution, the park has kept to Owen Godwin’s original idea and spirit, combining growing exhibits about Florida’s wildlife and natural landscape with outrageous shows and other forms of entertainment. It is, after all, a Florida theme park, and one that has managed to survive and thrive.

Building a Preservation Ethic for the Future

By Kate Scott

This spring I had the opportunity to attend several meetings aimed at improving preservation across Minnesota. Our state historic preservation office (SHPO) was reviewing their comprehensive plan, tracking progress, and creating new goals. In an effort to make the preservation plan truly applicable to all Minnesotans, the SHPO traveled throughout the state to gather resident input. From citizens in different regions, with varying background and interests, I was surprised to hear one common concern resounding statewide.

Minnesotans find it difficult to achieve cooperative, successful historic preservation in our state. They feel this is so because a strong preservation ethic does not exist. As preservationists we often see this; it is hard to get people on board with preservation. Much of our time is spend touting the many merits of preservation: it’s an economic development tool, a sustainable building practice, a way to create a sense of place and community. Typically I think people don’t get preservation because we live in a tear-down society, because in our vernacular old means obsolete. And while this may be true, the people of Minnesota see another reason for the absence of a preservation ethic.

We lack a strong preservation ethic, they say, because local history is not being taught in our schools. And without an appreciation for history, we cannot expect a desire to preserve our historic sites.

In Minnesota, where our SHPO is housed in the same offices as the state historical society (which is true of many states including Iowa, Wisconsin, Montana, and Colorado), this apparent disconnect between history and historic preservation is unexpected.

What can we do as preservationists to close this gap? Building relationships with state and local historical societies is one way. Another possibility is for statewide preservation groups to include educational development programs in their mission. In the present day of strict spending we can make the most of free and low-cost e-tools to distribute puzzles, games, and other kid-friendly history information. If we can get children interested and engaged in their local history, they will likely form attachments to significant sites and become the grass-roots activists that preservation relies on.

One of the biggest hurdles we face as preservationists is that much of our work is responsive. We react when important sites are threatened by development, neglect, and demolition. To be proactive on educational preservation programs for children could make our job much easier. Think of it as building an army for preservation (I’m not a fan of the militant analogy, but it fits). How great would it be if for every developer, every city official, every neighbor, preservation was the first choice?

It might sound like a long shot, but if we teach local history and historic preservation early we can get there. Just think – to be a preservationist and be in the majority!

A Life in the Trades: April 2011

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010. February 2010. March 2010. April 2010. May 2010. June 2010. September 2010. October 2010. November 2010. December 2010. February 2011.

This is Nicholas’ final blog post in the Building Preservation & Restoration Program at Belmont Tech in St. Clairsville, OH. Nicholas will be continuing on the preservation trades path and, hopefully, will keep readers updated on his journey. In the meantime, I’m sure readers share my sentiments in saying thank you to Nicholas. It’s been a great opportunity to read along with your lessons and adventures while in school, and to learn along the way.

By Nicholas Bogosian

This month I wanted to share with you all the recent arrival of PiP to the BPR program.  PiP stayed for a day and we were happy to give a tour.

 

a life in the trades april 2011_1

PiP on the bridge. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

PiP in the fridge. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

PiP and Renata. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

PiP playing in the hydrostone. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

PiP getting off the elevator. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

PiP starts to miss home. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

PiP meets with Cathie for prospective student info. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

PiP meets with Cathie for prospective student info. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Field Trip: Gimbel Corner in Vincennes, Indiana

Information and pictures sent in by Maria Burkett.

318 NE corner of Main and 2nd Streets. Photograph by Maria Burkett.

I went to the very sad town of Vincennes, Indiana a few weeks ago and photographed the buildings here (in the project area) it is located on the corner of Main and N. Second Streets and is called Gimbel Corner. Think Gimbels Department Store from Miracle on 34th Street. Around before Macy’s Department Store, Gimbels is credited with the oldest  Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Old Gimbel Corner, Vincennes, Indiana. Photograph by Maria Burkett

The very first Gimbels opened in Vincennes, Indiana, formed by Adam Gimbel,  a Jewish Bavarian immigrant who started out as a pack-peddler in 1842 and opened the first store as dry goods in 1857.  Gimbel moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and opened a large, successful department store in 1887. In the 1890s, Gimbels grew to Philadelphia and in the early 1900s, to New York City.

 

Photograph by Maria Burkett.

 

The short version of the ending is: after merging and being bought by other companies, Gimbels closed in 1987.

You can read more about Gimbels from the Milwaukee County Historical Society. Or at the Department Store Museum blog. The only source with lots of information seems to be the Wikipedia Gimbels article — without citations — does anyone have a good online source for Gimbels history?

 

Photograph by Eric Fischer on Flickr. Click for original source.

Also, to explore Vincennes, Indiana, check out this flickr set by Eric Fischer. Vincennes seems so sad, but with so much potential, don’t you think? Scan through the photos and you’ll see that there is some kitschy roadside architecture around Vincennes. What a great combination!