This is the second post in a series exploring material investigations of the Lewis H. Latimer House by graduate students in the Columbia University Historic Preservation Program in the fall semester of 2013.
By Zoe Watnik
We’ll begin digging into the physical material of the Lewis H. Latimer House with Emily Burr’s investigation of the moldings and baseboards of the house. As I discussed last week, the current state of the house reflects 127 years of occupation, with multiple ownership phases. Detailed studies of architectural features can reinforce the pre-established timeline we have for the house. Research into ownership and transfer of title can provide more information about changes that have taken place during long periods of time under a single owner.
One of the best ways to date the periods of change to the structure is through a comprehensive comparative study of the architectural features that appear throughout the house. Details, like the moldings Burr selected, demonstrate small-scale, yet measurable changes over time. While most visitors to the house might not even take the time to acknowledge such miniscule details, these diagnostic features allow architectural historians, conservators, and preservationists to sketch out a timeline of structural change.
Burr measured and photographed critical sites throughout the house to create a comprehensive survey and then began by identifying the critical decorative elements she planned to examine. For this study, she focused on the decorative framings with corner bull’s-eyes around the windows, and the baseboards along the floors. She was restricted to the first floor and the sections of the second floor not occupied by our resident site manager.
I mentioned in the last post, after Latimer’s death in 1928 the property passed to his children. His daughter Louise made a number of significant changes, including renovating the upstairs and creating individual apartments that she rented to students, and she enclosed the porch and expanded the first floor parlor area into a personal studio. Following Louise’s changes to the house, we can assume the subsequent owners each modified the house in their own way. This study has provided us with a method for examining a comparative series of quantifiable elements in the structure.
Burr assumes that the window on the second floor landing, based on position its in the house, is most likely original and unaltered. Its molding includes two deep troughs with a bull’s-eye design in the corners. After documenting what she identified as original fabric, she measured eight other windows and doors on the second floor and 29 moldings on the first floor. She noted that while the shapes of the moldings are consistent, they differ in both dimension and profile, identifying seven distinct types. This key differentiation tells us that there were most likely periods of construction and renovation to the house, something we know from the history that we’d previously compiled.
Burr conducted a similar survey of the baseboards, measuring and photographing the features throughout the house. She tracked down an early baseboard with the original stained finish in a cupboard located in the main stairwell. This space was protected, and potentially overlooked, when the staircase was rebuilt and the attic added to the house. From this early version, she compared an additional 23 baseboards. Like the molding surrounding the windows and doorways, the profiles of the baseboards matched, but differed in dimension. She identified a full seven distinct baseboard examples. Burr found that the most consistent baseboard model corresponded to the period of reconstruction after the house was relocated. She only found one type in the back parlor area, Louise’s personal studio, and the additional enclosed porch.
Ultimately Burr concluded that the appearance of the so many variations of the moldings and baseboards indicates several phases of renovation to the house. The most telling example is the almost wholesale replace of baseboards on the first floor. These changes most likely occurred during the 1990’s restoration of the house to what it was like in the early 20th century when Lewis Latimer resided there. When Louise’s studio space was reconstructed, it is very unlikely that the original material was salvaged. In other areas of the house, we also don’t see salvage or repurposing of materials. Rather than reinstalling the existing material there is evidence of the Latimer family reinventing the space around them.
With any project, we need to be wary of relying on information from only one study of the space. From Burr’s analysis, we see evidence of multiple phases of construction, including the reconstruction when the house was converted into a museum. Although we cannot date the periods of change based on this survey, when considered in relation to the other projects, it begins to round out the existing narrative we have of the house. Our best method to date any changes is to obtain oral histories, construction permit records, or written reports about the house.
Next time, we will look at the wood framing of the house. We’ll follow our Columbia students as they squeeze into the space between the original structure and the new foundations to examine how the floor plan of the Lewis H. Latimer House has changed over time.