The Differences

The Differences

We’ve been living in our Homestead for over six years now, and, given that it was my Grandmother’s home, I’ve been around it in one way or another for my entire life. I like to think I know this place pretty well.

I think the house enjoys proving me wrong.

Since I was young I recognized that door surrounds and kick panels on the back rooms of the house were plain, flat boards while those in the front rooms were intricate, multi-piece affairs. I’ve always understood this - in conjunction with the steep back staircase - as a part of the divided nature of the house - the back portion intended for the workers, the front for the owners and their guests.

The flat, simple woodwork around this (poorly hung) kitchen door is consistent with what can be found throughout the back side of the house, both upstairs and down...

The flat, simple woodwork around this (poorly hung) kitchen door is consistent with what can be found throughout the back side of the house, both upstairs and down...

...While this door, in the dining room, shows what the woodwork looks like in the front of the house. Well, in most of the front of the house...

...While this door, in the dining room, shows what the woodwork looks like in the front of the house. Well, in most of the front of the house...

Living here has shown us there is more.

We realized fairly early on in our stay that the windows on the back of the house were different than those on the front - six-pane divided lights per sash versus dual panes. When we started looking at replacing windows we also learned that the windows downstairs are taller than the ones upstairs.

The original front windows on the house have two divided panes per sash - one suspects that this was part of being a show-piece, and that those were the largest panes of glass they could get at the time; that they'd have gone with single panes per sash if they could have.

The original front windows on the house have two divided panes per sash - one suspects that this was part of being a show-piece, and that those were the largest panes of glass they could get at the time; that they'd have gone with single panes per sash if they could have.

The back windows in the house have six-panel divided lights on top and bottom.  The bottom sash in this picture is not original to the house.

The back windows in the house have six-panel divided lights on top and bottom.  The bottom sash in this picture is not original to the house.

This week, for the first time ever I realized that the wood surrounding the windows and doors in the living room are different than anywhere else in the house. While all of the rooms at the front of the home have intricate, multi-level surrounds, the ones in that particular room are more intricate, and deeper than those in the rest of the home. They bevel out, instead of in, and stand a good 3" proud of the wall.

45 years of life in and around this house, and I’d never taken notice of that difference before. We discovered this hanging curtains, realizing that the brackets that came with the curtain were not long enough to stick out from the side of the window surrounds.

This is a door in the living room - note the way the surround builds out all the way to the outside edge...

This is a door in the living room - note the way the surround builds out all the way to the outside edge...

...And it's not an optical illusion - the edge really does come out that far, standing outside the edge of the door framing.  The windows in this room all share this feature as well.

...And it's not an optical illusion - the edge really does come out that far, standing outside the edge of the door framing.  The windows in this room all share this feature as well.

This closeup of the dining room door shows that, while it is also built out in a somewhat ornate fashion, it does not continue to radiate outward beyond the edge of the frame.

This closeup of the dining room door shows that, while it is also built out in a somewhat ornate fashion, it does not continue to radiate outward beyond the edge of the frame.

These are little things, I suppose, in the long run. To my mind, however, they illustrate some of the key differences in how people thought about their homes in the 1800’s as compared to today. Modern construction is often dictated by standard materials, while older buildings allowed for greater variability in design, relying upon the carpenter’s skills to make everything work. You can see the results of that in these old houses when you get behind the walls and into the attics and basements, where you will find boards cut at creative angles and joined in a fashion that clearly was determined on the spot.

There are also differences in how they planned to use the homes from modern day. It’s clear that the living room was intended to be a space for formal entertaining. In addition to the intricate woodwork around the windows and doors, this room is the only room in the house that has decorative wood paneling below the windows. The door to enter this room is right next to the formal staircase in the front entryway of the home.

The living room is the only place in the house where the window surrounds descend all the way to the floor, and where there is paneling below the window.  (The heating vents were (clearly) added later, with an eye towards practicality rather than attractiveness.  The house did not originally have central heating).

The living room is the only place in the house where the window surrounds descend all the way to the floor, and where there is paneling below the window.  (The heating vents were (clearly) added later, with an eye towards practicality rather than attractiveness.  The house did not originally have central heating).

One imagines that John Foulk, in putting all of this together, pictured himself entertaining guests in this formal room, it presenting as a luxurious formal area providing comfort and visual interest; and - let’s be honest - making a statement about the level of success of its owner. And there was a community here. The church down road was built to serve the spiritual needs of the German-speaking settlers in the area, it’s stained-glass windows testifying to this still with script indicating “In Geftistet Von”[1] (donated by) followed by the person’s name.

Living in the house, seeing it, one wonders how much any of that actually happened in John Foulk’s time here. The bulk of the wood in the house is soft pine, and those formal steps look pristine, as if they were rarely trodden, while the steep, back stairwell shows the bevels and grooves from many a footfall. One suspects these decorative elements were put into place for the show, and then left to sit for those prospective guests, despite the fact they rarely actually came.

This is a component of our culture that still lingers, though it seems to finally be fading. How many of us within Generation X grew up in homes with at least one formal room that had to be there - “for guests” - which we were allowed maybe - maybe - to look at, but not to enter or touch? I am certain I am not the only person who grew up in fear of accidentally using the “good” towels to dry my hands (thanks Mom).


  1. I am well aware this may not be spelled correctly. Google Translate didn’t like it, and I remember looking it up years ago, as a teenager, in my English-German dictionary. I’m reproducing it here from memory, which may well be, at best, a little cloudy.  ↩