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.
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.
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.
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.
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” (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).