A Home’s History: Part III – The Mystery of the Missing Chimney

This is the third post in a series exploring the Fall 2013 material investigations of the Lewis H. Latimer House by graduate students in the Columbia University Historic Preservation Program.

 

By Zoe Watnik

Following up on our detailed investigation of the ornamental features within the house, this study takes us down to the foundations for an assessment of the wood framing. Columbia students Prashant Banerjee and Karen Stone focused on the structure supporting the first floor, working in the basement crawlspace to identify alterations to the wood joists, or horizontal support beams, and floorboards. Their study ultimately led them to investigate a central chimney that had vanished during the past 100 years.

Photo of the house taken between 1902   and 1912, note the presence of  the central chimney

Photo of the house taken between 1902 and 1912, note the presence of the central chimney

The fact that it was physically picked up and relocated to Leavitt Field in 1994 only complicated the investigation. When the house was re-sited, a new foundation was built underneath it and the historic house was placed on top. In order to study the wood framing, Banerjee and Stone documented the first floor from within the house and underneath in the basement. They completed an exceptionally detailed survey, considering that at time they were working in spaces with a clearance of less than 30 inches! By measuring, sketching, and photographing, they produced floor plans in AutoCAD as viewed from both within the house and underneath the first floor.

Working in the basement, they discovered that the wood structure includes what they have categorized as “old” and “new” material. Lacking the resources to accurately date the wood (unfortunately, graduate seminars can only provide so many tools), they worked from the assumption that the older material must be original to the late 1880s construction, and the newer belong to later additions. They found that the joists were approximately 52% old material and 48% new. Additionally, the joists existed in three states: old, new, or old with new wood sistered next to it for support. The old material was retained where possible, and reinforced where needed, which is consistent with the changes to the house and its restoration projects.

Old joist running under 1st floor

Old joist running under 1st floor

The first floor survey included some unexpected finds and a possible key to the mystery of the missing chimney. As we know, Louise Latimer lived on the first floor and reorganized the space when she created boarding rooms to rent out on the second floor. Banerjee and Stone found that upon immediate entrance to the house, a section of the floorboards had been cut  out and replaced. In the parlor, they found three more cutouts and an additional group of cuts in the thresholds between the rooms. The back parlor included additional cuts in the far corner.

The survey becomes truly interesting after Banerjee and Stone created annotated floor plans of house, which they superimposed to illustrate how these details line up. The cutouts on the first floor seem to correspond to the configuration of the walls. If the original structural joists were replaced in the house with new material, these cutouts could indicate places where the walls have been repositioned.

Cutouts in the floorboards: room adjacent to the back parlor, doorway b/w back parlor and the adjacent room, wall between the front parlor and entrance

Cutouts in the floorboards: room adjacent to the back parlor, doorway b/w back parlor and the adjacent room, wall between the front parlor and entrance

The team dug into the history of the house during Lewis’ lifetime to track down potential sources for any changes. If you examine the plan you’ll see a series of highlighted cutouts on the first floor that are grouped just past the stairs, at the division between the parlor rooms. Looking at the axonometric drawing Latimer produced in 1912, we see a central chimney set back from the front of the house and protruding from the roof. As it exists currently, there is no fireplace or chimney in this part of the house.

Banerjee and Stone noted that the house bears more than a striking resemblance to the Queen Anne houses of Calvert Vaux’s (co-designer of Central Park) book of house plans Villa and Cottage Architecture: The Style-Books of the Hudson River School. Vaux’s plan shows a central chimney between the parlor groupings, further evidence supporting the team’s interpretation of the space.

 

Image: Villa and Cottage Architecture: They Style-Book of the Hudson River School by Calvert Vaux

Image: Villa and Cottage Architecture: They Style-Book of the Hudson River School by Calvert Vaux

 

(It incredibly common during this period for architects to publish pattern books, or catalogues of house plans. These books would include floor plans, descriptions for builders, and even lists of required supplies. Anyone could live in a house designed by a famous architect, simply by following the outlined directions.)

Most likely, when the heating method in the house was converted to radiators, the central fireplace was sealed off and the hearthstone was replaced with floor panels, accounting for these particular cuts.

Overall, we see that the joists and floorboards, despite the cuts, are consistently aligned on the first floor. Although almost 48% of the material is new, these alterations have maintained the arrangement of the structural framing. It is only in the central chimney area that we see radical change, with the total removal at some point after 1912. Despite this major change, the framing tells us that the floor plan is consistent with other Queen Anne wood frame houses from the late 1880’s.

The cutouts in the floor complicate our story of the Lewis H. Latimer House. In an ideal world, we would have the time and resources to accurately date the cutouts, and determine the point at which the chimney was removed. Based on this assessment we can begin to fit pieces of the story together, shaping our understanding of how and why the house has changed.

1st floor basement and 1st floor

Next time, we will return to the concept of the pattern-book house and prefabricated components as the students examine the doors and hardware found within the house.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: A Home’s History: Part IV « LatimerNOW

  2. Pingback: A Home’s History: Part V « LatimerNOW

  3. Pingback: A Home’s History: Part VI « LatimerNOW

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