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Old House CSI: Dundas, MN

I always have my head on a swivel when I’m driving around the countryside because I’m on the lookout for old and interesting buildings.  This gable front-and-wing  house in Dundas, MN caught my eye during a recent drive.  You can see that the house has changed over the years and I thought it might be fun to try and speculate about the house’s history.  There are lots of clues that suggest particular changes. Other parts of its history are harder to determine.  I posted these pictures on social media a week ago and invited readers to see what they thought.  Rather than posting my thoughts on Instagram and Facebook, I thought it would be easier if wrote a short post here on the Historic Design Blog.   

The gable front-and-wing house in Dundas, MN.

First, a few things that we do know. Dundas was platted by brothers John and Edward Archibald and their cousin George Archibald in 1857. They named the new settlement after their native Dundas County, Ontario , Canada and built a prosperous milling business on the nearby Cannon River. According to the county tax assessor, this house was built in 1873, although several other houses in Dundas also have 1873 listed as their construction date. This suggests that this date might be a clerical default, is the date of the first assessment or something else. In other words, part or all of this house might be several years older. Or, several houses were indeed built in 1873. Often the arrival of the railroad spurred rapid growth and construction in small towns.

There are lots of ways to figure the history of a house without doing a close inspection. When doing historic resource and architecture surveys you typically do not have access to buildings on private property. As a result, you have to be creative and recognize clues that are visible from the street. Some of the most useful are foundations, siding, windows, doors, roofs and roof pitches, molding and trim and the junctures between different wings. For instance, cast concrete blocks generally appeared around 1900. If we see a foundation that is limestone under one wing and concrete block under another wing, this suggests one wing is earlier and the other was added after about 1900 or so.

The original shape of this house is unclear (especially since we can’t see the foundation), but there are two likely possibilities. One, the story-and-a-half, side-gable wing at the right was the original house and the two- story front gable at the left is an addition. Many settlement-era houses were quite tiny and were converted to a kitchen and an addition built when funds became available. A second possibility is that the house was built in it current configuration from the beginning.

One way to guesstimate the age of the house and the changes is to look at the windows. If you look closely you will see several different types of sashes. There are sashes with 6/6 glazing, 1/1 glazing and 4/1 glazing. 6/6 windows are usually the earliest and were typical of Greek Revival and vernacular houses through the 1870s. 1/1 sashess became common in the 1880s and 1890s and 4/1 are from late Victorian era and became especially common during the Craftsman era of the 1920s. Lower level sashes were often the first to be replaced, so it seems likely that the house originally had 6/6 windows, which are consistent with a ca. 1870 build date, and that the windows on the first story were replaced after around 1890 or 1900. If we could look at the sticking on the sashes we might be able to get a better idea of when they were replaced.

It seems certain that there was a porch and that it was enclosed, possibly during two phases. The window at the right is a 1/1, and suggests that a portion of the porch was enclosed to create a pantry or other space around the same time the other windows were replaced. The remainder of the porch was probably enclosed around 1920 or so and the stylish 4/1 sashes were used. The carpenter was careful to copy the older section’s window casing (note the simplified classical entablature across the top) on the right window of the porch. However, there was no attempt to copy the casing on the band 4/1 windows. It is difficult to make out the details of the other windows. There is an addition at the rear of the kitchen wing with a sightly different roof line. I can’t see the details of the window sashes, but the roof line might suggest this was an addition and not an enclosed porch. Taking a look at the foundation would be helpful here.

There you have it. A quickie look at an interesting vernacular house. I could write much more about entrances, trim, molding and on and on and on. But, I will leave that to you. If you find this little house interesting, take a few minutes and see what else you can come up with. What other clues can you recognize? What do they tell you about the house? When you’re done here find another house and apply your old house CSI skills and see if you can reconstruct its history.

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