The people of the 19th and early 20th centuries are gone, for the most part, but they built the world that we live in. When your home is in an old part of a proud Midwestern city, this is literally true. German immigrants settling around the breweries of St. Louis drove demand for the stately brick boxes that still give parts of the city its distinct flavor. Wealthy industrialists in Cincinnati left behind the odd Greek Revival mansion flanked by tall pillars.
These homes were there before us and, with proper care, they will remain long after we are gone. Buy one of these residences and you never truly own it; you pay for the privilege to become a caretaker, holding a living structure in trust for future generations. Brick is tougher than flesh, and longer-lived.
Mark Clement is a remodeling contractor and one of the minds behind MyFixitUpLife. He’s rehabbed lots of older homes and he understands their unique blend of loveliness and vexation.
“While many old houses are rippling with charm and the grace of lovingly installed trim, jerkinhead roof dormers, brackets, and other luscious details of an age gone by, others seem to have been born before the invention of the straight line,” he tells Urbo. “While charming, they can be notoriously hard to to remodel and live in.”
So why bother, especially considering the fact that older homes are often drafty, lacking in modern amenities, and prone to fits of upkeep? Because they just don’t build ’em like they used to. Because the architectural features of these homes reveal long-gone ways of living that inform our modern-day culture. Because if the present is a breath, the past is the lung.
Many choose to live in an old home because old homes are packed with fascinating architectural elements that once served important practical purposes and today remind us that there were people here before us. There were.
They are gone, which reminds us that one day we’ll be gone, that one day some child of a child will describe our routers and microwaves and central air with shocked reverence. For now, though, it’s our turn. We’re amazed by things like:
1. Witch Windows
This one’s a bit strange. Witch windows, also known as Vermont windows, were normal portrait-style windows, but they were angled diagonally or horizontally so that the long edge of the window was parallel to the roof line.
They were typical of 19th century farmhouses in north-central Vermont, state-based architectural historians told Vermont Public Radio, but they’re occasionally installed in modern homes. If you don’t see them regularly, they look pretty bizarre and out of place—they might even be mistaken for shoddy construction.
Where does the strange nickname come from? Vermont natives often cite an old superstition: witches enter homes by flying in, naturally, and for some reason, they’re either unable or unwilling to fly at an angle.
Britta Tonn, one of the aforementioned architectural historians, did her best to swat this theory out of the sky: If Vermont builders actually believed the superstition, she asked, why wouldn’t they angle every window in the house? Witches could simply enter through one of the other windows—or the front door, for that matter. Tonn says that these windows are examples “of regionalism and regional architecture.”
So, with witch-warding out of the picture, why do witch windows exist? One simple answer is that the windows maximize the amount of light and ventilation in attics due to their unique angle; another is that they allow for houses with minimal window room to better utilize the available space. It has also been speculated that they were used to remove coffins from the second floor, though that’s more unlikely.
2. Coal Chutes
Up until around 1940, most families heated their homes by burning coal. Delivery drivers brought coal to each home on the street, sort of like fossil-fuel-toting milkmen. They’d open an iron door that led to the basement and toss in the coal, which would tumble into a collection bin. People burned the coal for heat, but this heat also created a unique style of family bonding.
“The coal chute powered the fireplace, which was the sort of social center of the working class home,” says Morgan Rigaud, an art appraiser, art historian, and managing director of Bryson Estates, an appraisal firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. This brings us to our next point.
3. Decorated Fireplaces
Sure, many new homes contain fireplaces, but they’re much more of an affectation than they were for the working class families who gathered each winter night around the coal-powered heat of the living room fireplace. Like the parlors of richer families, fireplaces became a gathering spot—and as such, people tended to decorate their fireplaces as lavishly as possible.
“[The fireplace] was your central heat, so you had to gather there with your family to stay warm,” Rigaud says. “So the fireplace was where you came together. And that’s often where you would find those beautiful glazed art tiles.”
To the working class families of the 19th century, the fireplace was more than a practical source of heat. It was a space of togetherness and often a source of pride.
“Beneath the mantel and around the opening of the fireplace there was often an art-tile trim, with some very old glazed tile,” Rigaud says. “Sometimes it can have low-relief figural imagery, maybe like a lounging female nude in the forest, or something to that effect.”
Even when resources were scarce, people would scrape together the funds to beautify the fireplace. The decorated fireplaces that remain, while rarely functional, tell us a touching story about the importance of family togetherness in the lives of our forebears.
“Fireplaces are often the accent element that still remains in a lot of buildings, because what they did spend on decor and aesthetics they put around their family center, the fireplace,” Rigaud says.
4. Milk Doors
Another common feature you’d find in the 19th-century working family’s home is a milk door, which is exactly what it sounds like. In the days before refrigeration, you couldn’t get your dairy from the grocery store and keep it on hand. Instead, you’d get a daily delivery.
“Milk doors were usually adjacent to the kitchen or pantry, approximately 18 [inches] by 18 [inches,] located at waist height, and lined with metal,” Carl Handman, an architect with ECH&H in Pennsylvania, tells Urbo. “There were two doors, one on the outside, trimmed and painted to match the exterior, and one on the inside, rimmed and stained or painted to match the interior of the kitchen. They were used by your milkman to deposit your daily supply of fresh milk, cream, and butter.”
5. Entry Plaques
We’re moving to a different neighborhood, now, one far from the coal-smoke and the yawns of tired working men and their families. The well-to-do decorated their homes with lavish architectural accents, many of which remain with us today.
One of these—the first one a visitor would see, actually—was called an entry plaque.
“It was a plaque that would be installed on either side of the door, or sometimes there would even be posts that accentuated a front walkway,” Rigaud says. “It was a statement, a bit of an accent piece, to welcome visitors into your home, or even maybe share a little bit of the style of your home or the theme of your home on the exterior to give folks a taste of what they were to find on the inside.”
Many of these were decorated in the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts style, which emphasized natural, folk-culture themes—ironic because lots of the owners of these estates made their fortunes in industry.
“There were lots of elements from nature, like leaves and pine needles,” Rigaud says. “These are typically artisan-made plaques that would flank the door. Sometimes they were glazed, sometimes you could find them in bronze and metals. They were really jewelry for the home.”
6. Plaster Medallions
Even the ceilings of 19th century grand homes were covered in decoration. Among the intricate plasterwork that led guests to marvel at corners, the plaster medallion may be the most arresting. Plaster medallions were decorative structures in the ceiling through which chandeliers or other ornate lighting fixtures were attached.
“It’s the buffer between the ceiling and a lighting fixture, and so that plaster embellishment there just added to the kind of fanciful elegance that more well-heeled folks could afford,” Rigaud says.
These decorations and the plasterwork that accompanied them could be extremely ornate.
“The motifs varied,” Rigaud says of Victorian plasterwork found in U.S. parlors. “It could be inspired by architectural elements from ancient Greece, or it could be inspired by the Roman acanthus leaf, which is like foliage … Plasterwork was added to ceilings and walls to provide a texture and really a low-relief sculpture that would take the eyes up to the ceiling. It’s another hallmark of what was once a fine or a proud home.”
Fireplaces, Salons, and Living in the Homes of the 19th Century
The way we live informs the living spaces we build, but those spaces inform our lives right back. There is a constant reciprocal interplay between our buildings and our lives, and this was true for the generations that came before us, too.
Take the Victorian parlor, or salon—that visiting room of the wealthy, rich with plasterwork and sculpture. During the latter 19th century, American society placed strict limits on the interactions between unmarried young men and women. For the rich, courtship took place in the salon—anywhere else could cause a scandal. The parlor was a space for safe experiments in romance, and the decorations reflect that ornate anxiety.
“If you were a young single female of age, it wasn’t proper to go wandering off with eligible bachelors,” Rigaud says. “You were expected to socialize and essentially court one another in this prominently featured front room of the home where all the socially acceptable behavior took place: intellectual conversation, music lessons, and so forth.”
Just as the fireplace was the core of the working class family’s life together, the parlor was the social center of upper-class Victorian family life. And like the fireplaces of the poor, these rooms were often the most highly decorated in the house.
“That is the area of the house that typically had the most lavish appointments, where you found the fanciest plasterwork and crown molding and medallions,” Rigaud says. “Oftentimes that’s where you would find heavy patterns or brocades, and better rugs, and musical instruments. It was where you did your entertaining, so it was often the largest room of the house.”
The elevation of style that Victorian families typically chose for the parlor matched the social function of the gatherings that took place in this room. It wasn’t just young men and women looking to court who confined themselves to the parlor; ideas also met and clashed in these spaces.
“There was this association of the intellectual movements that occurred in the salon,” Rigaud says. “It was actually a place where a lot of political activity occurred, and important conversations and communities started in the salon. It was a really important room in the house.”
But there’s a real parallel between the parlor of the well-heeled industrialist and the fireplace of the day laborer. Both were places for meeting and bonding and exchanging ideas. The evidence of this common thread is clear in the original architectural features that still exist in these rooms today.
“Essentially, you decorate the places that will be visible to others,” Rigaud says. “It’s so simple!”
It’s so simple that we often overlook it. But the adornments of old homes give us peephole into the generations that heaved and coughed up our own lives, and that’s worth taking a second look at—and it is worth preserving.