30 June 2016

Surveying Interior Wood Casings to Distinguish Original from Alteration

There are several methods for distinguishing original construction inside your home from later alterations and additions. You can look for source documents, such as permits, photos, or drawings as evidence of your home in a previous condition. You can look at floor plans of typical homes of the time period and try to determine if your house's layout ever fit that arrangement or something similar, and interviewing former occupants may be the most helpful. Additionally, you can examine the existing physical details, such as interior wood trim. A stark, or even subtle, but noticable, divergence from the overall trim detail scheme in a house (or portions of a house) can hint of a detail or a wall that was constructed later than the original. Although distinctions can be discerned from any type of trim (such as baseboards, wainscoting, or crown moldings), this article will focus on looking at casings.

Why Casings and What Exactly Are They?

Interior casings are a type of wood trim that serve the primary purpose of finishing the gap between a wall's finish (i.e. drywall, plaster, or wood paneling) and a door or window's frame. Casings also are used to frame "cased openings"-- a wall opening with no door in it.
This image shows how the casing trim covers over the gap between the wall finish and the wood frame of the opening. Image via Fine Home Building.
The interior trim is an opportunity to inject character through either intricate or simple detail, and its use throughout history has served as a method of associating the interiors with an overall architectural style or movement. Casings can incorporate details to your heart's content, such as keystones, plinth blocks, corner blocks, entablatures, and are often formed with molding profiles of varying depth and detail.

Classical detailing in this cased opening. Photo credit: Mark Lohman, via This Old House.
Door casings with a fluted profile and rosette corner blocks. Photo credit: Shannon Malone via Houzz.
Now, why do I focus on casings? I contend that they simply are less likely to have been modified or added over the course of history in an older home than other types of interior trim. As opposed to baseboards and crown moldings, casings are generally at eye level and more easily in the field of vision, meaning it was near impossible for the builder of the original home to avoid giving significant thought to their appearance. Sure, they may have been painted over 10 times, but once in place there generally isn't much of a reason to change the casings out unless one goes out of their way to change the character of their home's interior. Baseboards, on the other hand, might hold more impetus for change if flooring is upgraded or changed. Crown moldings, wainscoting, and chair or picture rails generally are treatments provided on a per-room basis and could have been added at any time. The casings are elements most likely to have been given consistent thought upon original construction and to have stayed that way.

When examining the casing trim throughout a house, remember the word consistent, as this does not mean that all casings are treated equally by the builder. A higher level of detail and ornament may have been provided in more public rooms, with simple detailing in bedrooms or on the second level of the house. The same could be said for size-- larger rooms or openings might have consistently been given larger-scaled trim to remain in proportion. Again, we're looking for changes in consistency-- if you see a prominent room that has casings with a fancy frieze and entablature over top of most openings, but one wall has a door with corner blocks, someone may have added that wall at some point or punched a new door into an existing wall.

A Case In Point

Our 1920's bungalow has always been a modest home. It has never included incredibly rich architectural details, such as what you might find in a true craftsman home, but nonetheless it is not without its character. Most of the casings in my home are flat stock on the jambs (sides) but have a 6" tall entablature crowning the top of the opening. They look like this:

It is remarkably consistent, except where it isn't. Look at the picture below of what you see when you walk in through the front door of the house:

The opening to the right of the photo has just flat stock trim all the way around, with no additional detail whatsoever. It looks like this up-close:

Is this a less-important opening? No, not really-- it is a smaller opening, and it does lead into the "back-of-house" bedroom areas of the house, but most of the casings in those bedrooms have the more detailed entablature. The answer is that the opening with the flat trim was added several decades later, I believe in the 1950's or 60's. In the close-up view you can see two more openings beyond-- one with the more detailed trim (on the left) and one with the flat stock trim around the door (to the right). That opening with the detailed entablature was originally the entrance into the front bedroom from the hallway. Take a look from the bedroom side of these partitions:

Through the current bedroom door, you can see the casing of the original door opening just visible beyond. That entire bump-out in the entrance corner of the bedroom is a later addition, not original (you can see what I believe to be the original layout of the house here)-- the closet door to the right has our tell-tale entablature detail, but the current bedroom door opening has the flat stock. Again, look for breaks from the consistency in your house-- if the original builder had wished to make a distinction between less-important openings with the flat stock trim, that closet door would be more likely to lack the detail than the actual bedroom door.

Aside from the fact that I have documentation and other clues of previous alterations to the house, the flat wood casings are a dead giveaway throughout the house that they are not original. In truth, the casings with the added detail are so consistently similar to each other, and the flat trim is so consistently inconsistent with that overall theme, that I believe all of the flat trim was installed by the Cantlin family, who were the home's only owners from 1932 to 2001. I have full confidence that if it has flat trim, then either it's a wall that is not part of the house's original layout, or a new door or opening was made in an original wall. This is a theory that plays out when I compare the locations of various trim styles with the evolution of the floor plan of my house.

Here are some further examples throughout the house:

Casings in the original portion of the house all exhibit that entablature detail, unless the wall itself was later modified.
All of the casings within the 1940's addition are flat stock.
Even in the original bedrooms, we have entablatures at the window casings.
But no detail was added to the window and door casings in the 1940's addition.
Yet, one more trim style exists, and that is at both bathrooms. Here, we see standard-issue casing trim that you'll find at any big-box home improvement store. This was installed by the owners prior to me.

Entrance to the bathroom on the left, with a basic casing profile from the home improvement store.
This is not to downgrade its status-- on the contrary, the majority of the updates post-2001 work quite nicely for this modest home. It's what most people today would use. However, the difference from the other trim clearly marks its timeline in the house. On a side note, one question this leaves me with is whether the window in our second, more public, bathroom is in a window opening that was always there or whether the window opening was added (the window itself is a modern double-pane replacement).

If you'll notice, it has the same Home Depot window casing. Perhaps the original, more detailed (and entablatured) casing was ripped out, either when the original kitchen was converted to a bathroom in the 1950's or when new owners modernized within the last 15 years. The other possibility is that the casing trim never existed and that a new window was created during that bathroom conversion-- something to investigate further if I ever get to the point of replacing our exterior asbestos siding.

Hopefully now you are able to look for both the consistencies and differences in the trim of your house. Although the contrast between the two main trim styles in my house are more obvious, even a more thoughtful renovation job done in the past can show subtle inconsistencies that can clue you into non-original alterations. Put your mind into that of the original builder, and think about what he would have done...
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25 May 2016

Interpreting Historic House Blueprints

The conception of most buildings, residential houses included, has historically involved some sort of architectural drawing. Whether crudely crafted as a rough hand sketch or professionally drafted and reproduced, drawings serve to visualize, communicate, and translate a building's design. I've written before about the importance of at least making an inquiry at your local building department regarding the possible existence of your home's original permit drawings. The older your house is, the more likely you are to come up empty in this search. However, the value which bona fide architectural drawings can bring to the richness and understanding of your house's history make it worth the effort to try a few other places as well, such as historical societies, county archives, and architectural archives. One such repository here locally is the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, which houses an extensive collection of drawing archives and maintains an outstanding online database of Philadelphia Architects and Buildings. While age may decrease your odds of finding plans, if your home has local significance then the odds may increase that some drawings have been preserved throughout its history at such a repository. One other way to potentially locate old drawings for your house is through previous owners or their descendants. Perhaps the son of an original owner felt deeply connected to the house in which he grew up and was able to hang onto the plans.

So let's say you score. You are able to locate historic drawings for your home-- now what? Let us look at a case study. Last month, I published a Saturday Spotlight article featuring a 19th century folk/vernacular home in Roxborough, which had been significantly modified with renovations and a major addition by noted Philadelphia architect Robert Rodes McGoodwin in the mid-1930's. Fortunately, a blueprint copy of drawings for the project has survived and been passed down through the progression of ownership history of the house. The current owner has been kind enough to grant permission for me to share and interpret the blueprints here, so let's do exactly that. A scan of the entire sheet is shown below and includes primarily floor plans and elevations.

Scan of blueprint copy. Courtesy of the home's owner.


As described, we know that this an authentic copy of the original architectural drawings. That is of no doubt, due to its having remained with the house. In drawing set standards, the title block is essentially what it sounds like-- a block of space on the sheet reserved for basic information including project name/location, the name of the architect or firm, client's name, drawing scale, the drafter's initials, and the title and date of drawing issues and revisions.

The drawing sheet title block, providing basic information for the project. At right is a photo of architect Robert Rodes McGoodwin. (Photo source: University of Pennsylvania Archives)
Looking in the lower-right corner of the drawing sheet here we see the title block. Some of that basic information includes:

Title: "Alterations & Additions to Frame House at S.E. Corner of Spring Lane and Paisley Road, Roxborough, Phila., Penna."
Owner: Mrs. Samuel F. Houston
Architect: Robert Rodes McGoodwin, Registered Architect

These pieces specifically tie the drawings to its exact current location. McGoodwin is known to have been commissioned by Samuel Houston for a number of residential properties in Roxborough. As described in the previous article on this home, the Houstons never lived in this home but did own it and alot of land in the neighborhood, commissioning the expanded design of this home as part of a larger effort to bring up the standards of Roxborough at-large. The specification of Houston's wife as the Owner might be an indicator that she may have been more heavily involved in dealing with McGoodwin and his associates for this particular house than her husband was. The original date of the drawing was October 19, 1935 and a revision is noted and dated November 12 of the same year. That November 12 date is likely when the original hand-drafted version of this copy was produced. While there is the possibility that this or some version of this drawing was used for construction, there likely were additional drawings for the builder. I believe that this copy is a final or near-final progress copy used by the architects to communicate the design to the owner, thus its having been passed down through ownership history.

Floor Plans

Most people understand what floor plans are. An architectural floor plan depicts the layout of a building, viewed from overhead, as if one were to take a horizontal slice through it about 4-feet above the floor (in order to show doors, windows, etc). Taking a look here at the first floor plan, I've highlighted a number of standard architectural drawing conventions in yellow. Of course, each room is labeled with its intended use "Kitchen", "Pantry", "Living Room", etc. Primary dimensions of various rooms and of the overall addition are provided. Window tags assign a number to each window, which would typically correspond to a window schedule (not seen in this blueprint), which is a list of all the planned windows with their sizes and other pertinent information. Standard symbols show locations of electrical outlets as well as lighting locations.

A few things to note about the layout itself. McGoodwin's task in 1935 was to design an addition onto an existing house. On the blueprint, I can see the original house comprising the rooms labeled "Living Room", "Alcove", "Dining Room", and "Hall" as this resembles a common arrangement of rooms in many earlier vernacular homes. There are other clues here as well which tells us where the old ends and the new starts. At both the top and bottom of the plan, there is a line cutting through the center of the house labeled "Face of Old Studs". The studs are the vertical wood framing members of the original house. To the right of that line, all the walls are "unhatched", meaning they aren't colored in by the draftsman. This drawing convention in this case indicates all of the existing wood-framed walls. To the left of that line, the walls are "hatched" or "poched" (colored-in solid), indicating new walls built of cinder blocks.

This 1935 addition essentially turned a fairly basic house into an upper class or upper-middle-class residence. The addition is setup as the "servant zone"-- it is more or less an "ell" addition, meaning it is not as wide as the original house and relocates the kitchen function there. The original kitchen may have been where the dining room is now, adjacent to the fireplace. A new garage is added onto the ell addition, and a secondary set of stairs has been added at the kitchen for use by servants to travel to the Laundry Room directly below in the basement and to the servant's bedroom above the garage.

There are a few significant differences between the 1935 layout and the current 2016 floor plan of the house. A powder room is now provided at the 1935 coat closet off of the front Hall; the access to the basement remains with an additional door within the powder room. Today of course there are no servants, no service "wing" of the house, and the house merely functions as a residence for only the family itself. Thus, at some point in the past, there was less need for a separate storage pantry at the kitchen; the wall separating the pantry from the kitchen was removed, giving way to the modern trend of a larger centralized kitchen.

The current kitchen. At the far wall are two doors to the staircases which once were used by servants, as well as built-ins original to the 1930's addition. This photo is taken standing at a spot which was formerly part of the pantry. The wall between the kitchen and pantry would have been where the oven range currently sits, cutting to the left across the view in the photo. Photo courtesy of The Sivel Group.
The space marked "Alcove" on the First Floor Plan is now a home office, with access off of the main hall and now closed off from the Living Room. That Living Room was expanded over time by enclosing the porch and filling in the remainder of the depth of the original house with a one-story cinder block addition. This is the area covered in yellow by me on the first floor plan above. The result is the generously-spaced living room existing today.

The current living room. The walls painted in green, and the fireplace, in this photo are all within additions which occurred after the primary c. 1935 renovation. The original exterior wall of the house would have existed approximately at the left edge of the larger built-in shelving, coming out perpendicular and crossing to the back face of the house. Photo courtesy of The Sivel Group.
The most significant difference at the second floor between the 1935 floor plan and that of today is seen in between the two bedrooms marked "Chamber #1" and "Chamber #2" on the Second Floor Plan blueprint below. The alcove to the right of the bathroom has been eliminated by removing the wall between it and the bathroom, effectively creating a large master bathroom off of the master bedroom (Chamber #1). There is still access into this bathroom from the second bedroom.

Scan of Second Floor Plan blueprint, courtesy of the home owner. Although the image is stretched a bit, the Bath and Alcove have recently been combined into a larger master bathroom, seen in the following image.
Current master bathroom. The wall between the original bathroom and the "alcove" / dressing area used to come across where the vanity exists currently. Door to "Chamber #2" seen in the background. Photo courtesy of The Sivel Group.
Two more bedrooms on the Third Floor. They're still there, I saw them. Scan of blueprint courtesy of the homeowner.


The term "elevation" in architectural drawing parlance refers to a straight-on view of the exterior facade. On this drawing sheet, we have elevations for all four primary facades of the expanded 1935 house. In this analysis, we will focus on the street-facing (front) facade as well as the backyard (rear) facade.

In the Northwest Elevation above, I have added a few marks in yellow to call out what the architect is conveying with certain drawing conventions. Again, we delineate the extents of the original house as well as those of the 1935 addition. As part of the building's facelift, most of the window openings remained as-is, but some were filled in and others were created new to produce the rhythm McGoodwin sought on the home's exterior. At those new window openings, we see annotation calling out the size of window headers required to span the opening structurally (8"x10", 8"x12"). Also on the elevations we see the basement and foundation construction drawn in lighter, dashed lines, indicating that this construction is below ground level. At the left side of the elevation drawing, each floor level is noted and the floor-to-floor height (vertical dimension between floor levels) is provided. Throughout, building materials are called out with additional annotation: "T&G boards" refers to tongue and groove wood trim; "clapboards" are the horizontal wood siding;"wood lattice" is called out at the side porch area; and on the rear facade of the house, McGoodwin's firm included a "wood and W.I. trellis", W.I. standing for wrought iron. This trellis, as well as the side porch, no longer exist today, so this is a fantastic and accurate depiction of what these features once looked like on the house.

Blueprint copy of the rear elevation, courtesy of the homeowner. A trellis!

Capturing a Home's Evolution

This particular house has lived several lives, taking on a new personality on multiple occasions. Originally, in the 19th century, it existed as a relatively simple home with a Folk Victorian style. Then, in the 1930's, a well-known architect crafted an extensive renovation and addition. Without the blueprints which have survived for 80 years, while we might be able to determine this house's evolution, it would have taken much more detective work. Had this home been significantly altered even further after the 1930's addition, these blueprints would have been invaluable in coming close to understanding the house's history at the particular point in its history. These professionally hand-drafted drawings provide insight into the mind of the architect so many years ago, and hopefully now you might be able to interpret more of what you'd find on a set of blueprints if you happen to locate some for your historic house.

At left: the rear of the house as it exists today, trellis long gone. Photo courtesy of The Sivel Group. At right: the rear of the house prior to McGoodwin's intervention, pre-trellis. Historical photo courtesy of the home owner.
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14 May 2016

Saturday Spotlight- Circa 1926 Dutch Colonial Revival in Havertown

This week's Saturday Spotlight takes us into Delaware County for the first time, with this Dutch Colonial Revival in Havertown, PA.

Image via listing of Erica Deuschle, BHHS, Fox & Roach Realtors

The 2,500 square-foot home is a quintessential example of this Revival subtype, ubiquitous in the northeast United States in the first half of the 20th century. The gambrel roof (with a steeper pitch at the start of the second floor, meeting a shallower pitch up top) is what defines a Dutch Colonial Revival. True Dutch Colonials from the colonial era sometimes utilizes a gambrel roof with flared eaves. You will generally see the Revival houses either with the long gambrel roof facing the street (common from 1895-1915, with a fairly prominent centered entrance) or the other way with the shorter end (the gable end) facing the street. Here, the gable is facing the street and the side of the house includes a long shed dormer on both sides at the second level. This orientation to the street prevailed in the 1920's and 30's. The gambrel roof is quite steeply pitched, thus allowing another 1/2 story at the attic level.

Masonry was used quite often in Dutch Colonials, especially at the ground level. In this example, brick faces the first story, with cladding above. The front chimney, centered on the facade and splitting the windows evenly, was very common as well. In addition, many homes of the style, especially those of this gable-front facing variety, incorporated a front porch, as we see here with a hipped roof over it meeting the pent roof within the gable.


This house sits on land between Cobb's Creek and Saint Denis Church at the eastern end of Havertown. Situated so near to the creek, this vicinity became the locale for a number of early 18th century industrial mills-- in fact for decades, a successful wool mill sat just to the east of where the house now sits. Early owners of this land included enterprising miller Dennis Kelly, and later a Patrick Boyle. By the 1880's, and for the next 30 or so years, the mill and its land were under the purview of a Todd & Murphey Company. But the milling industry had mostly passed-- by 1908 the wool mill building itself was down to ruins only. This local milling history was chronicled in 1917 by John W. Eckfeldt in his "Cobb's Creek in the Days of the Old Powder Mill". In that year, not many before the Dutch Colonial's construction, Eckfeldt lamented:
"Nothing of the people, places or industries is left to mark the day of prosperity. The landmarks have become greatly changed to the eye by destruction. The magnificent old trees have reached their limit of life and gone, and the familiar places in many instances are dumping grounds. Modern improvement has come to the valley, but the real beauty of the place has vanished."
Part of that modern improvement was new residential streets and subdivisions. The old wool mill property was developed in the 1920's as Merwood Park. Mixing Dutch Colonial Revivals with Tudor-Style home every other lot, the creation of Merwood Park also included winding the new roads of Poplar Rd, Linden Drive, Cherry Lane, Rosewood Lane, and Wynnefield Drive inwards and outwards of each other to the east of the Saint Denis Church property. The subject house of this article is seen as one of the first phase of houses built in Merwood Park along the western half of the subdivision in a 1926 atlas map and a 1928 aerial photograph.

Merwood Park in 1926 atlas map, portion of map via Franklin Maps. Dutch Colonial house highlighted with purple arrow.
Aerial view of the neighborhood, circa 1928. Via PhilaGeoHistory.

1930s to Present

One of the earliest owners of the house, if not its first, was a railroad engineer named Fremont Harry Tietze. As of the 1930 census, Fremont was 43 years of age, and was living in the home with his wife, 39-year-old Kathryn, and their 10-year-old daughter Dorothy. The family came to Havertown by way of North Philadelphia, where the couple had lost multiple children in infancy during their earlier years of marriage. Dorothy was their only surviving child. Although this area would remain their long-term permanent home, they would move from this house to nearby Turnbull Avenue by 1940.

By 1954, linotype printing specialist Edward Iannacone had come into ownership of the home, along with his wife Elizabeth. The couple had at least one child, a daughter Rita Anna, who would have been about 15 years old at this time, The Iannacones owned the property for over 45 years, until 1991. The house went through three more owners during the 1990's, until its current owners purchased it in 1999. The Dutch Colonial is currently on the market, seeking a new old-house lover to steward its historic charm!
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05 May 2016

Who Designed My House?!? Was It a Kit House?

I am an architect by profession. Although the firm for which I am employed does not design single-family houses, I have designed a single-family house in the past. I might never design my own personal new-construction home from the ground up as some architects do, but I do have designs in my head for an upwards addition to this current home. I currently live in a 1920's bungalow of simple and unadorned design-- although I would pine for a slightly larger-scale home with superb Craftsman details. My wife and I both love the charm and history of older homes, if it wasn't painfully clear by the existence of this blog. Whether it's this home, or another, I may yet get to direct a large-scale renovation and/or addition of an older home for our family. I have patience in spades, so for now those designs in my head remain quelled. So, in my quest for the most thorough gathering of this home's history as I can muster, a natural question occurring to me and to any older home owner would be "Who Designed My House?" It's a question that, more often than not, may have no definitive answer.

Most Homes Aren't Architect-Designed

When one considers the traditional manner in which a trained architect would design a single-family residence, this historically has been a realm reserved for larger and more custom houses. A very large percentage of older American houses have no architect in the definition of that profession, but were rather fashioned by owners or builders using very prevalent folk and vernacular forms. This is especially true in pre-railroad days prior to the 1870's or so.

Even after the advent of the railroad system, when architectural styles became less regional and were adapted more swiftly at a wider geographical scale, designs from pattern books were heavily consulted and many owners purchased floor plans. Mail-order kit houses, such as those sold by Sears, became incredibly popular in the 1910's through 1930's. Either of these two methods meant that the house design was already prepared. According to Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl in their book Houses By Mail, staff architects working for the company (in the case of Sears) prepared most of the kit house designs, however many were modifications of already prevalent styles and successfully-proven house designs. The same would generally be true of today's more prevalent "cookie-cutter" subdivisions erected by home-building companies.

If you are fortunate enough to own a larger older home, there is a better chance that its original owner commissioned its design by a professional architect. Regardless of whether or not your house is a good candidate for having been "architect-designed", it is worth a trip to your local municipality's building department or records office. There, you can inquire about the permit history for your property. You just might luck out and find an original building permit (although many of these records may no longer be in existence). If you are very lucky, you might find plans. Either the permit or the drawings would likely bear an architect's name, if there was one.

Who Designed My House?!?

So, we return to this question for my singular house. In my case, the question is as perplexing as determining which owner had my home built: Jayson Stover, Harry Renninger, or Andrew Gutekunst. Frankly, both questions might have the same answer. All three men owned this building lot separately between the relatively short span of May 1922 and October 1924. Stover was a carpenter, Renninger was a real estate broker/investor, and Gutekunst was a flooring contractor who had a known partnership with carpenter William Brosz. My prevailing theory is that the house was designed and built at the earlier portion of that span, in either 1922 or 1923, although any of these three men could have been its creator.

Some time ago, the previous owner who sold this house to us mentioned that he thought that this might be a "kit house", although I have yet to find any evidence supporting that. Aside from the fact that the location near the Ardsley train station makes delivery of a house kit a distinct possibility, I've yet to find any marking on joists or other original lumber and building materials (I will discuss kit houses in more detail in the future, but for more information you can always turn to Rosemary Thornton, a foremost authority on the subject).

Despite having found no evidence of a kit house, that did not stop me from searching through scores of kit house designs, looking for a comparable. I was most struck by this example, "The Florence" sold by Montgomery Ward in their 1930 catalog:

Courtesy of Antique Home Style
Now, this is NOT the design of my house. Most glaringly is the roof over the front porch, which extends the shape of the gabled roof fully over the porch. My house has its own separate hipped roof over the porch. Nor was this mail-order design the inspiration for my home's design-- although there could have been an earlier version of this Montgomery Ward offering, my home was built several years prior to this publication in 1930. However, there are quite a few similarities to examine here:

First, on the exterior, the overall form of a 1-1/2 sory bungalow is similar in both examples. Each has a front-gabled pitched roof and a simple, prevailing rectangular shape oriented with its length from the front of the lot to the back. Each has a front porch with three piers, and just a few steps raises the porch and the main living floor above the ground. The primary difference of the extended gable over the porch in the design for the "Florence" versus the shorter hipped roof in my house was already mentioned-- in the kit house the space above the porch added a bit more attic area. Other noticable differences are that the porch piers are trimmed lumber in the kit, whereas the builder of my house used local Chestnut Hill stone. A minor difference is that the porch is entered on the front side in the kit as opposed to the side at my house.

Further, my house has a projecting bay window at the left side facade. The kit house does not. Even though, as you'll see below in the floor plan examination, the remainder of the windows correspond to the same room functions, the size, proportions, and sash patterns of the fenestration do not match between the two designs. The front door is separate from all windows at my house, where the "Florence" incorporates the door in between two double-hung windows. (Note: the windows you see towards the back of my house are the rear addition from the 1940's, a piece not relevant in the comparison to the kit house design).

However, what most struck me when I found the "Florence" were the similarities between floor plans. Below is a comparison between the 1930 floor plan of the kit house design and what I believe to be the original 1920's floor plan of my house.

First, I must make it a point to myself to draft this sketch of my house more accurately. As an architect, I'm not thrilled with myself that I haven't yet taken the time to draw this properly, so please excuse the crudity of the sketch on the right.

The layout of the kit house and the original layout of my house are near identical. While I admit that I do not know this original layout for certain, I feel pretty confident based on conversation with the Cantlins' (long-time owners) daughter-in-law, who lived in my house for a few years in the late 1950's. I also admit that in a house of this size and shape, with five rooms plus a bathroom, there is not an infinite number of possible floor plan layouts. However, this is by far the most similar I have come across.

In both floor plans, one enters into what was the primary living room, with clear views through a cased opening into the dining room beyond. The kitchen was at the rear corner of the house, with access to the basement at this location. In my house one could also have proceeded directly to the backyard through a rear door, whereas in the kit house the back exit was at a landing a few steps down. The right side of the plan in both cases hold the two bedrooms, with a bathroom sandwiched between and a connecting hallway entered off of the dining room.

Now, with kit houses, the dimensions of the house, especially at its exterior, must match exactly in order to verify it as a kit house. This is due to the fact that in these kits, lumber was shipped in pre-cut sizes-- deviation from the lengths provided would have proved more costly and would have required more skill. The "Florence" measured 34'-0" x 22'-0", and my house measures 34'-2" x 24'-2". It's pretty close, but my house is clearly too wide to match up with this kit house design. The dimensions of the interior rooms also differ from that shown in the "Florence" design, although not by as much as is implied by my drawing.

So It's Not a Kit House-- Who Designed It?

Well, I suspect that due to the carpentry skills either of the men (Stover, Renninger, or Gutekunst) themselves, or their association with carpenters, that an existing design from some source was chosen and modified to suit the builder/owner's taste. It was not a kit, but was built-to-suit without significant elaboration, although the use of the stone piers indicates to me that the builder took some license. I hope to continue to hack away at some of the questions surrounding the house's history, and who knows, perhaps further details about this house's origins will come to light.
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28 April 2016

Finding and Interpreting Historical Aerial Photographs to Inform the History of Your House

When attempting to determine an exact construction date for a home, we often turn to maps to aid in this effort. This is, of course, as a form of visual/graphic evidence in conjunction with other documentary evidence, such as deeds, mortgages, etc. Not to be overlooked, however, are historical aerial photographs. In the same way that maps from various years can help to narrow down a range of possible construction dates or to observe development of a neighborhood over time, aerial photographs can provide a literal and visual representation. The key, as with maps, is knowing where to look and how to interpret the images found. While the ideal scenario would be to find at least one dated image prior to the house's construction and be able to compare it to one or several images post-construction, this would not be possible if the house you are researching is older than about 1920. Still, it is likely that aerial photographs exist for your home dating back several decades and thus still extremely interesting and useful to examine for your research.

A circa 1928 aerial photograph of my neighborhood, located via PhilaGeoHistory. My house is highlighted with the purple arrow, about 5 years after its construction.

A Brief History of Aerial Photography

Aerial photography has been linked to the documentation of our built environment ever since its invention in the mid-19th century. According to the Professional Aerial Photographers Association, early aerial images were taken over Paris and Boston by pioineers in hot-air balloons in the 1850's and 60's. Over the next fifty years, photographers continued aerial experiments, strapping cameras to rockets, kites, and even pigeons. By World War I, photos were being taken from another recent invention, airplanes, and were regularly used to document battle maps during the War. Due to further technological innovation, largely by Sherman Fairchild both during and after WWI, aerial photography became adopted and popular for wide government, civilian, and commercial use starting in the 1920's. Nowadays, satellites capture the bulk of aerial imagery, but the moments in times past which we wish to view here would have been taken from airplanes.

Sources for Aerial Photographs

Places to inquire about aerial photographs throughout the past 90 or so years include libraries and historical societies, which can possibly point you to more specific repositories or quasi-governmental agencies or planning authorities. The latter may have commissioned aerial photography in your area for regional planning purposes at several points in time.

Many of these may ultimately be available to access online. Try a Google search for "historical aerial photographs (your state/city)" and you might run across a government agency or library with a stash of old aerials. Locally (to me), the PhilaGeoHistory website run by the Philadelphia Athenaeum includes a section of aerial photographs not just the City of Philadelphia but for the metropolitan area at large. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a plethora of satellite and aerial imagery available, including an entire section of "Historical Photographs" from 1937 to the present. A link leads to the USGS Earth Explorer image search where you can search by address, then select different checkboxes under "Data Sets" to see if you can find any of those images for your area. Basic resolution images are free to download, whereas high-resolution images are available for a fee.

A number of commercial websites are available as well. Google Earth is likely the most well-known, has some historical imagery (in Google Earth 5 and later), and also has a neat "slider" feature which allows you to slide back and forth between images from different years. Most of the images in Google Earth appear to be fairly recent (1990 or later).

Screenshot of Google Earth historical imagery. The "slider" is shown at the upper left. The earliest available image for my neighborhood on Google Earth was from 1992 (and the roof of my house is washed out in the low-resolution image, rendering it difficult to see. Image quality varies from year-to-year.
Two other commercial sites worth checking out are www.historicaerials.com and www.vintageaerial.com.

The homepage of Historic Aerials displays a map of the United States covered in two shades of green-- the dark green areas have "historic" images available, whereas the remainder only have aerial photos from 1990 or later. Although the website considers anything before 1990 "historic", I've found that many of the shaded areas have available images back to the 1920's and 1930's, with several years in between available. It is quite easy to navigate from year to year at a specific location. The only difficulty is the large watermark which can make it difficult to view detail and only goes away if you purchase the image.

Screenshot at the homepage of Historic Aerials. Although images are generally available throughout the United States, the areas marked in the darker green are more likely to have earlier and older images available.
Screenshot on the image viewer at Historic Aerials. For my neighborhood, images are available to view for 13 different years, spanning from 1948 to 2013.
Vintage Aerial is a very unique website, focusing on rural areas and small townships, and their collection of images are oblique views (rather than a straight-down bird's eye view), which is a neat perspective. One can select any county in the U.S. and the results will tell you if their archive includes images from that county, as well as from which years. It appears that manually browsing images by film roll is the only way to view them at this time, but it is relatively simple to pick a film roll and scroll through the images in the roll. As for finding the right roll, many archive years are accompanied by a "flight map" of the county which includes a guide (which appears to be hand-marked by the original photographer), marking the coverage areas of each film roll. Locate the area on the map you are seeking and hopefully a flight path is marked with a film roll number. Navigate back to the list of film rolls from that year and choose the correct film roll to scroll through the images.

1964 Flight map from Vintage Aerials website in Montgomery County, PA. This map marks each film roll's coverage. The image below was found in Film Roll 88.
Although there do not appear to be any aerials from my particular neighborhood, I did find images from 1964 from the street where I grew up, but not my house's exact location. I was able to locate this image of a huge Victorian house I've always admired, about a mile from the house in which I grew up.

1964 image of a Victorian-era home, found in Film Roll 88 under Montgomery County at Vintage Aerial.

Finding Useful Information in Aerial Images

As you gather images from various years, you will find a wide range of image clarity-- even an image from as recent as the 1990's may not be as clear as an image from 1930. Within the last decade or so, however, satellite imagery has become extremely clear. The most helpful aid which a series of aerial photos could provide would be to help pinpoint the year of construction of a house. If you happen to find an image from 1948 and a house does not exist in it, but it does appear in a 1950 image, then you know that the house was constructed sometime from 1948-1950. This image below is a comparison between a circa 1928 image and a circa 1930 image. Houses which appear on the later image, but not on the earlier image we know were recently constructed as of the date of the second image.

The houses marked by the arrow in the 1930 image were recently completed as of that date, since they did not exist at all in 1928.
As mentioned previously, since aerial photography did not become common until the 1920's, if the house you are researching is older than that, then you will not be able to find images for this purpose, but viewing and examining what you can find will still be useful and interesting.

You may recall from my previous posts that I believe the construction date of my house to be between May 1922 and November 1923 based on numerous types of documentation and analysis. The earliest aerial photograph I was able to locate for my neighborhood was an image labeled circa 1928 (found via PhilaGeoHistory, as part of the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia). There are no images from prior to my house's construction, but it is still neat to see photographic evidence of the house's existence this early, only a few years after its construction.

Portion of an image, located via PhilaGeoHistory. My house highlighted with purple arrow.
Although the resolution of the image is not extremely clear, you can see the house as one of the few existing on this portion of Central Avenue, something that further confirms evidence found in early atlas maps. The lightly-colored area is actually my entire current property, with the actual house only distinguished by a shadow line at the back of the house. The reason why the whole lot is lighter than other undeveloped lots may be that grass and other growth may have been cleared off of the property and had not yet re-grown, or had regrown in a distinctly visual way.

What you also notice here is the loose outline of a tree line running from northwest to southeast just along my property line, continuing on along multiple properties. This tree line then turns northeast a few blocks away, on either side. To see the reason, see this clip from a 1916 atlas map.

Portion of a 1916 atlas map, via Franklin Maps. My house's location highlighted in purple.
We can also zoom out on the c. 1928 aerial image.

Portion of a c. 1928 aerial image, located via PhilaGeoHistory. To the right, the Spear tract is highlighted with a purple boundary. To the left, we see how a tree line defined much of this boundary.
Although the map is oriented to align with the property, this 1916 map is the latest which depicts the land tract previously owned by Emma Spear. In 1919, she sold this land to Philadelphia jeweler Reginald Ferguson, who subdivided the land into individual home lots. The tree lines in the c. 1928 aerial image correspond to the border of Spear's former land. In the aerial image, we see that this land has only sparsely been developed in the preceding 7 or 8 years, although most of the streets have been laid out (although nearly certainly unpaved) to align with other existing roadways. The 1928 photograph also shows us the already-established residential development to the southwest (labeled "North Glenside" to the left in the 1916 map).

Jumping ahead in time to 1959, some of this tree line remains, and you can see that the neighborhood of Ardsley has now been largely filled with single-family homes throughout. Suburbia has taken hold.

Aerial image of the Ardsley neighborhood, 1959. Located via PhilaGeoHistory.
Zooming in on my house now.

Most of my neighbors' houses have now been built prior to this 1959 image, including the long row of stone-fronted Cape houses running to the southwest. The exception is the ranch house on the north side which was built in the 1970's. You can see the empty lot adjacent to my house which at the time of this image was owned by the owners of my house, the Cantlins. This image was also captured at least a decade after the Cantlins expanded the size of this house-- the purple arrow points to the rear addition constructed in the 1940's.

Have Fun!

These types of images should not be overlooked as part of the historical analysis of your house's history. They are an extremely fascinating way to gain photographic and visual evidence of the evolution of both your house and its context within the greater neighborhood. See if you can locate multiple aerial images over time for your home, and have fun taking a peek at these literal snapshots in time!
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