Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Holiday shopping in Cleveland, Ohio

Where have you done your Holiday shopping this season? Wherever it was, I bet there was not a 73-foot high Christmas tree there like the one seen below (photo courtesy of the Cleveland Memory website) at the Sterling-Lindner-Davis store that was formerly located in Playhouse Square.

Some of the best holiday window displays that Cleveland had to offer were shown in the windows of Higbee's at Terminal Tower. Higbee's was moved to the Tower in 1931 after the Van Sweringen's purchased the company to compliment their Cleveland Union Terminal project. According to the Cleveland Memory site, this photo was taken in 1958.

Kudos to Tower City for carrying on the tradition of the window display. My 3-year-old son and I thoroughly enjoyed this extremely colorful advertisement for Kringle's Inventionasium.

It wouldn't be right to mention the holidays in Cleveland without a nod to the Halle's created character, Mr. Jingeling who was keeper of Santa's keys. Christopher constructed an excellent three part series on Mr. Jingeling. Start reading part 1 here.

It's enjoyable to look back and think about the magical feelings that Cleveland retailers and commercial districts stirred up for our young ones. Many people might remark that things just are not the same.

How do you create magic for your children and grandchildren in Cleveland during the holiday season?

Keri Zipay moved to Cleveland from Pennsylvania in 1999 and has since discovered a love for local historic architecture. She has been volunteering with the Cleveland Restoration Society since 2004, and historic structures are her favorite photographic subject, particularly the remaining Millionaire's Row mansions. Contact Keri by email

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Does Your Basement Look Like This? I want to know!

or: Identifying the Region's Oldest Houses.

Photo by Laura Howard

On numerous occasions, I've been asked to help figure out how old this or that house is. More often than not, these questions come from the residents themselves. While it is possible to learn quite a bit from historical records, this can require specialized knowledge and still leave one with only a range of dates.

Homeowners (and other residents) are in a unique position to help date a structure - they have full access to the house, and can learn everything that the structure might tell them.

5856 Pearl Road
Photo by Laura Howard

Today, I will illustrate what we can learn from the physical evidence present at 5856 Pearl Road, in Parma Heights, Ohio. This historic home was photographed by Laura Howard, about a year and a half ago, and she was kind enough to share the photographs with me.

South wing
Photo by Laura Howard

The oldest part of the house, the southwest wing, is said to have been built by Oliver Emerson in 1831.

The exterior has been heavily modified. Other than the basic proportions, little original detail remains to be seen here. The original wood siding has been covered by asbestos shingles, and the window openings have likely been moved. Dormers have been added to the center wing of the house. The location of the center window on the second floor is likely original, but beyond that, I can't be sure of much without further physical investigation.

Foundation, south wing
Photo by Laura Howard

The one spot where the wood siding is exposed, alas, does not provide much detail for us to work with. Likewise the foundation, which appears to be made of material consistent with the suggested date, is sufficiently concealed that we can't learn much. There isn't a basement under this portion of the house, which is consistent with an earlier construction date.

Wood paneling, south wing
Photo by Laura Howard

Inside this part of the house, the north wall includes this wood paneling.

Front hall

It is consistent with the paneling installed in the front hall of the Dunham Tavern. It's unclear whether this was installed at the time of construction or later. This could be determined by the careful removal of said paneling - if there is evidence of plaster underneath, it would indicate that the wood was added later.

The wide, thick floors, without use of subflooring would also tend to be indicative of an earlier date of construction.

The house retains a central fireplace. Unfortunately, it appears to have been modified so extensively that I can't tell much about it. I suspect that underneath the current brick may be the original fireplace. If this is, in fact, the case, this would tend toward indicating an early construction date, as with time and wood stoves, the trend was toward fireplaces on the ends of the structure.

Basement door, between south and center wing Doorway between south and center wings
Photos by Laura Howard

The wall between the south and center parts of the house has been covered with drywall, concealing or eliminating much of the structural evidence. The door on the left, to the basement, is consistent in style with something built in the middle third of the 19th century, but beyond that, it's hard to be sure. It could be later, too.

If we look at the doorframe on the left, we can see, on the right side, the horizontal white lines where the plaster spread through the lath. At the bottom, there is an area that is free of such markings, suggesting that wood paneling may have been present originally.

Photos by Laura Howard

The center part of the house reveals more detail. In this photo of the basement, as well as in the lead photo, we can see hand-hewn timbers, indicative of a very early construction date. Cutting lumber was incredibly labor-intensive, and sawmills were set up anywhere that there was sufficient water to operate them. As a result, hand-hewn timbers are indicative of some of the earliest houses in the region. Further, as this part of the structure is one of the most difficult elements to change, this can help us date a house even when much of the original detail is missing.

One might also note that the subflooring (or possibly flooring) appears smooth in this image, suggesting that it was either replaced, or that the hand-hewn timbers we see here were reused from another structure. Note also the various shapes the timbers were hewn into.

Corner cupboard, center wing
Photo by Laura Howard

On the first floor of the main wing, at one of the front corners is this corner cupboard, probably added circa 1910-1930. Behind it, we can see a structural timber, which would not have been common in a later structure.

Photo by Laura Howard

The stairs to the second floor reveal more structural details. We can see the outlines of the structural timbers that make up the top of the wall and the corner. We can also see a line on the wall, above the stairs, at a steeper angle than the stairs currently have. I found this rather suspect.

Wall and stringer, center wing
Photo by Laura Howard

This photograph, of the wall opposite the right side of the stairs, helps reveal what we see here. The steeper diagonal lines are the original stringers - the structural boards that make up the sides of the stairs. Why they were left in when the staircase was rebuilt at a more comfortable angle is unclear. This photo provides a closer detail of the structure.

Detail of paneling, center wing
Photo by Laura Howard

This view, at the bottom of the stairs, on the same wall, suggests that there was wood paneling, similar to what is visible in the older part of the house, that may have been concealed by drywall or plaster.

Detail, top of stairs
Photo by Laura Howard

Here, at the top of the stairs, we can see with more detail the massive timbers that make up the frame of the house.

There are many more details that I've omitted simply because I lack the information or detail to make full sense of them.

How old is this house? It's hard to say. It's believable that some part of the physical fabric dates to 1831, but how much is unclear. There's still a lot of research to be done in the history of buildings in this area.

If you have a house with structural hand-hewn timbers, please let me know. I'd be interested in better documenting and understanding the construction methods. It would help increase our knowledge of the early history of northeast Ohio.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Greatest Local History Resource Ever: The Plain Dealer, 1845-1991

Cleveland Public Library is now providing access to what I believe is the greatest local history resource ever - the full text of the Plain Dealer from 1845 to 1991. With your Cleveland Public Library card, you can now do research that would have previously required weeks spent in research libraries and archives. Even then, you might not have been able to learn what you can with this database.

Let's say you want to learn more about your house. Try searching for the most minimal part of the address that would still be unique - something along the lines of "XXXX StreetName" - omit the suffix that indicates the road type and the city. I got 34 hits for mine - and the name of my street changed in the early 1950s. Most of these results will likely be real estate advertisements. They'll provide some hint as to what features might have been added (or subtracted) at any one time. Remember that in 1905, the city of Cleveland street names and numbers changed - check Old and New Street Numbers to figure out what the pre-1905 number for your address might have been.

Or, say you wanted to research someone. The newspaper of 50 or 100 years ago wasn't the skinny little thing it is today. The Sunday paper was often 150 or more pages. It was a lot more gossipy in nature, too. Take I.T. Frary, author of Early Homes of Ohio and membership and publicity secretary for the Cleveland Museum of Art. I've been doing some extensive research on Frary, and without this database, it simply wouldn't be possible.

Why? Because of the volume of information that is provided in the variety of little articles. Would you expect today to learn when a person in similar position was going on vacation, or who they might have as a guest in their house? Of course not. But in the 1920s and 1930s, it was not uncommon.

There still remains the challenge of assembling all of these little facts into something useful, of course. I believe that this represents a great democratizing force. No longer is research limited to those who are physically able to visit archival collections during their limited hours of operation, hours that so often seem to coincide with the hours they work. I can't wait to see what we come up with as a result.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Following the Old Roads

One way to find the oldest buildings is to follow the old roads. This is not quite so useful in the urban core, where whole cultural landscapes have vanished as an area is re-imagined as something else. But, as you drive into the country - where there is enough space that it's not necessary to demolish before building new - you can see most of the set of buildings that were present in 1860.

Settlement of Northeast Ohio by people of European ancestry began about 1800, and in rural areas had reached a climax population by 1850. By this, I mean that the land had filled with as many people as it could support from farming and associated activities. Towns continued to grow, but the rural population stayed pretty much the same. As examples, while the population of Cuyahoga Country jumped from 26,512 in 1840 to 130,564 in 1880, the population of the rural townships in Cuyahoga County of Brecksville (1840 - 1,124; 1880 1,095), Royalton (1840 - 1,051; 1880 - 1,124), and Strongsville (1840 - 1,151; 1880 - 1,029) were stable.

Most early settlers built rude, temporary structures at first, such as log cabins. It was not until the 1820s and 1830s that there were considerable numbers of frame (mostly), brick (occasionally), or stone (rarely) structures. As the decades progressed, the number of new rural homes declined and desires for up-to-date styling and function were most often met through remodeling and expanding existing homes.

When building their "permanent" homes, the farmers sited them along the existing public roads, which were far fewer than there are today. As a result, the farm houses were much closer together than you might think. The houses of the rural settlement landscape are in linear corridors, with the agricultural fields owned by the householder sometimes adjacent, sometimes in a scattered patchwork in the surrounding area.

Typical settlement pattern of a rural Western Reserve Township in Portage County, about 1870. The area in this graphic covers approximately 2 x 4 miles, with the town center at bottom center.

You can find the old roads by looking at old maps or you can find them simply by following the farmhouses.

In general, roads follow the suggestions and imperatives of natural geography; the rules and necessities of political geography; and the uses of commerce. In northeast Ohio, in the area once known as the Western Reserve, townships were 5 miles square. Usually, in the center of each township was a place called, reasonably enough, "the Center" or, in variant spelling "the Centre." Typically, in each Center was a township hall, 2 or three churches, a school, a general store or two, and a few tradesmen (such as blacksmiths). The center was also often the intersection of two roads - a north-south road through the township and an east-west road through the township. These were often the most traveled roads. [Geographic imperatives always create exceptions - In a recent, earlier, blog, Christopher Busta-Peck followed the main Road that followed the Erie Lakeshore.]

So, if you start at a town center in northeast Ohio and head east or west, you will most often find other old town centers, at about 5 miles apart. On Route 82, if you start at Columbia (Lorain County) and you head five miles east you will find Strongsville, then 5 miles to North Royalton, then Brecksville, Northfield, Twinsburg, Aurora, Mantua, and Hiram. The term "center" is still found in some road names, such as Dover Center Road, Warrensville Center Road, and SOM (for Solon, Orange, Mayfield) Center Road.

On the west side of Cleveland, some of the oldest roads follow the ridges formed by various shorelines of glacial Lake Erie. Detroit Road (so named because it was the road to Detroit) follows North Ridge (you will find Northridgeville in Lorain County); Hilliard Avenue, for a while, then Center Ridge Road follow Center Ridge; Lorain Avenue (so named because it was the road to Lorain) follows, in part, Coe Ridge; Dennison follows Dennison Ridge; and Butternut Ridge Road follows Butternut Ridge.

From Geological Survey of Ohio, Vol 2, 1874. "Map of Lake Ridges in Lorain and Cuyahoga Counties."

After following the old road for a while, you learn to filter your vision, so the older buildings pop and newer buildings fade.

For more about the really old roads (which European settler's roads usually followed), see:

William A. McGill, ed., Ohio Indian Trails - A Pictorial Survey of the Indian Trails of Ohio Arranged from the Works of the Late Frank Wilcox. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1970.

Frank N. Wilcox, Ohio Indian Trails. Cleveland, Ohio: Gates Press, 1934.

William C. Mills, Archeological Atlas of Ohio. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Archaelogical and Historical Society, 1914.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Revisiting the Context: The Warner House, Unionville

Or: Yet Another Case Where I Don't Know Everything


I've been doing a lot of research of late, trying to locate and look at (if only briefly) everything of significance that's been written about the 19th century buildings of northeast Ohio.

This meant finally breaking down and getting a Greater Access library card. With it, one can have books from any Ohiolink library sent to any other one, including your local branch, for pickup.

One of these titles was Frank J. Roos, Jr.'s 1938 Ph.D. dissertation, An Investigation of the Sources of Early Architectural Design in Ohio. The title, as delivered to me, is illustrated by 160 black and white photographs. Many of these are original images. I'll be addressing them in detail at a later date.

This dissertation is one of the earliest publications on the historic architecture of Ohio. The only earlier book on the subject is I.T. Frary's Early Homes of Ohio, published in 1936. Frary's work is a classic - both for the work he did here in Ohio, as well as on a wider scale, for the way he addresses something other than just the most grand homes. Early Homes of Ohio is on my short list of essential titles for understanding the architecture of northeast Ohio.

Frary's work is also the subject of some more extensive research that I've been doing for a museum exhibit scheduled for the summer of 2011. As such, I'll be addressing him in further detail in future posts.

To get back to the subject at hand - the doorway of the Warner house, pictured above, that I featured on Tuesday in a post about historic architecture in Madison and Unionville. It's located in Unionville, on County Line Road, just south of the cemetery. It appears to have recently been restored, and is definitely eye-catching. There's something different about it - I assumed that it was the quality of the carving and the sharp detail.

The Warner House, Unionville, Ohio

I didn't realize, however, was that it is missing some key elements, namely four Ionic columns. I just discovered this photograph, by Frank J. Roos, Jr., and used as figure 102 in his dissertation. The photograph, likely taken between 1935 and 1938, illustrates the doorway as it was. Alas, it does not show the details of the fretwork in the windows surrounding the door, something that I have not seen elsewhere in northeast Ohio.

Note how the columns provide (visual) support for the elements above them. Further note that the spaces where the columns once stood now appear visually empty, when compared with the rest of the doorway.

Doorway from the Isaac Gillet House by Jonathan Goldsmith Jonathan Goldsmith residence

Some have compared this to the work of Jonathan Goldsmith, illustrated here by the doorways from the Isaac Gillet house (left), built 1821 in Painesville (now in the Cleveland Musuem of Art) and the William Peck Robinson house (right), built in 1831 in Willoughby (now part of Hale Farm and Village). Frary suggests that "The front doorway of the Warner house, though similar to the others in design, seems to be a copy by a less able man than Goldsmith." (Early Homes of Ohio, page 35)

I disagree with Frary's assessment. To my eyes, the more bold lines of the carving on the Warner door are pleasing in their own right. They have an appeal that is different from that of Goldsmith's work, which tends to be much more refined. It would be interesting to find additional historic photographs of this structure, that we might better understand it. Perhaps the collection of Frary's photos at the Ohio Historical Society will provide this illumination.