A Home’s History: Part IV

This is the fourth 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


Today’s post returns to the concept of pattern books and house modification. Much like the in first house assessment we profiled, students Jennifer Pont and Melissa Swanson’s detailed study of three doors located in the office on the second floor of the house can help us diagnose changes that took place after Lewis Latimer’s death.


The 1889 Latimer House shares striking similarities with Calvert Vaux’s plan for a Queen Anne style house from his 1864 book Villa and Cottage Architecture: The Style-Books of the Hudson River School. (See the previous post for more information about the first floor.) Queen Anne style homes were most popular during the latter half of the 19th century, and the Latimer House falls neatly within this timeframe. Full access to the second floor of the Latimer House is limited, so the team only worked with the large office space at the front of the house. However, the room that Pont and Swanson were able to access corresponds to the bedroom highlighted on the Vaux plan.

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After Lewis’ death in 1928, the house passed to his children and grandchildren. To provide extra income, his daughter Louise rented the second floor space to female graduate students. Port and Swanson used this information to find evidence for the structural changes attesting to the presence of multiple tenants.


The team surveyed the office door, the wall closet door, and the corner closet door, noting dimensions, hardware, condition of the doors, and the actual fit of the doors into their frames. With these details recorded, they consulted late 19th century supply books from Sears & Roebuck Co. to identify potential sources for the materials used in the house.

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Each of the doors has a four-panel construction, with two-over-two panels. The molding around the doors is the same, and matches the molding on the stair landing Burr dated to the earliest period of the house. This indicates that the framings for the doors are most likely original to the house. There is some variation in size between the doors; the office door is the largest, and the two narrower closet doors match in their dimensions. After consulting historic catalogues, the office door corresponds to doors available from the Sears & Roebuck Consumer Guide. Port and Swanson surmise that a local lumber supplier provided the wood for the closet doors.

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Door hardware can make for a good way to find out more about dating installation or relocation or both. The office door and corner closet have matching hinges with a decorative scroll pattern on the leaves. Again, Port and Swanson found evidence for these door butts in the Sears & Roebuck Consumer Guide, dating to both 1897 and 1910. Contractors or homeowners could select from a range of hardware options, like we can at Home Depot today. The third wall closet door has modern hinges. This door may have been relocated from another part of the house after the Latimer occupation.

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The doors all have matching bronze roses and faceted crystal doorknobs. Box locks, a 19th century style of door fastening mechanism, were found on the two closet doors. The presence of the box locks reinforces the findings from the previous studies that architectural features in out of the way spaces in the house tend to have seen the least amount of change over time. There is some slight variation between the escutcheons; the team attributes this to wear and tear and the normal process of hardware replacement in any house.

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There is an almost imperceptible indication that tenants used this space during Louise’s years as the owner. Although the doors do have what appears to be their original box locks, you can see a ghosting of what appears to have been deadbolts on the doors themselves. The wall closet door and the office door have faint circular remnants of hardware that was once attached. If there were tenants living on the second floor, it would make sense that these women would have wanted personal storage space that could be locked. Keeping that in mind, the fact that the corner closet lacks the ghosting yet has modern hinges makes it seem that the deadbolts would have been installed after Lewis Latimer’s death, but before a later restoration when the stylistically appropriate corner closet was installed in the office space.

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Small details, like this investigation of the hardware in a single room of the house provide a revealing evaluation of the state of the original material. We have reached the point where we can begin to integrate multiple assessments. Burr’s look at the moldings compliments Port and Swanson’s study of the doors set within those moldings. Although it is not definitive, we have our first look at how the Latimers manipulated their living space, through the addition and later removal of the deadbolts for tenants. We can begin to identify changes that correspond to the established timeline of different ownership of the house.


Next time, we will look at historic photos taken by the Latimers themselves of the front parlor to determine how Lewis and his family used and modified that space.

3 responses

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

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

  3. Pingback: A Home’s History: Part VII – Reflections « LatimerNOW

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