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Understanding Old Buildings:
The Process of Architectural Investigation - Page 4
Showing the Evolution of an 18th Century Farmhouse

Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

Most structures evolve over time. Houses, perhaps more than other building types, are often subjected to a full range of change that reflects a wide variety of solutions for creating new living space or eliminating outmoded spaces. Architectural changes to historic houses can be studied through the close physical examination of construction and decorative details. Tracing the history of alterations over time is tantamount to "excavating" the structure, somewhat like an archeological investigation. By peeling back its layers of occupation and assembling plan changes, a sequence of consecutive solutions or transformations can be developed that reveals people's ongoing desires for new and improved living conditions.

The example of a Sussex County, Delaware, house-from ca. 1790 to the early 1900s-illustrates how complicated the pattern of change over time can become in outlining an individual house history. The Hunter Farm House was built in the 18th century as a double-cell, double-pile, half-passage plan (a). Two bays across the front and two stories tall, the house possessed back-to-back corner fireplaces with fully paneled fireplace walls in the front and back rooms. A stair in the rear passage provided access to the second floor. A one-story, two-room shed that was attached to the gable wall farthest from the fireplace was accessed by a low door leading from the front room.

During the course of its history, the house was altered at least three times. The five-part illustration shows the house's transformation from an open plan to a Georgian plan and the subsequent addition and re-arrangement of service rooms for cooking and storage. The first remodelling occurred in the early nineteenth century when the lean-to shed was removed, and a two-story, single-pile, two-bay house was moved up and attached to the northwest gable of the existing building (b). (The newly attached building had originally been furnished with opposing doors and windows on the front and back facades, a fireplace on the southeast gable, and double windows on the opposite end.) When the second building was joined to the first, the fireplace in the newer building was relocated to the opposite gable; the front door in the older house moved to a more central position; and a center-hall plan created with a roughly symmetrical front elevation ©. A subsequent alteration later in the nineteenth century included the addition of a one-story rear service ell (d). Finally, in the early 1900s, the one-story service wing was increased. During this last remodeling, the large kitchen hearth was demolished and replaced with a stove and new brick flue (e). Sidebar: Bernard L. Herman and Gabrielle M. Lanier, University of Delaware. Drawings by: Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering, University of Delaware.

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This publication has been prepared pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, which directs the Secretary of the Interior to develop and make available information concerning historic properties. Technical Preservation Services (TPS), Heritage Preservation Services Division, National Park Service prepares standards, guidelines, and other educational materials on responsible historic preservation treatments for a broad public.

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