Standing History

If you imagine archaeologists sniffing out gold and riches, forget it. The real treasures for us are tiny, broken bits of nothing special—crumbs of pottery, stone, metal, bone, glass, whatever. Old garbage is especially good at telling the stories of people who lived long ago, and that first-hand connection is the reward for most of us.

The luster of a gem like the Schneider-Bulera House can’t be dulled by trifles like mummified rats. Contrary to any number of first impressions, this is a significant historic site and very possibly the oldest standing residence in St. Paul. That is a matter of continued debate, but the house is undeniably old, apparently built during the city’s boomtown days, maybe during the 1850s, maybe in the 1840s.

My dream of living there didn’t work out in the end. Suffice it to say that I was single at the time of the rat incident. Happily, this worked out better for the house too, because it is now in the care of Joe McFarlane, a builder-turned-archaeologist. This is an ambitious project that calls for both sets of skills; and just as the house is currently being restored to life, its hidden history is being revealed.

The house was built in three stages, but the details of the first and oldest are mostly lost to history. Franz Joseph and Barbara Schneider moved into it in 1869 as renters and soon purchased the land. The paper trail for the property goes back further than that, to the 1850s, but doesn’t include the house. Though the house was moved to its current location in the 1860s, it was almost certainly built in or near downtown St. Paul. After the move, a one-story addition was built on the back. The neighborhood known now as Uppertown was countryside then, and the house was the center of a working farm near Fort Road, the wagon route that connected Fort Snelling with St. Paul. Fort Road is now West Seventh. The house faces Michigan Street. The backyard abuts the rear wall of businesses along West Seventh. A second addition (which is now gone) was extended back from the first in the 1890s. A chicken coop still stands in the backyard, in a spot previously occupied by the privy. There are some obvious indications that the house predates the neighborhood: It sits slightly skewed on its lot, and sticks out into the sidewalk, which kindly swerves to leave room for the front door. As much as anything about the structure itself, that funky, organic position speaks volumes about its age.

The Schneider-Bulera House is a vernacular structure, a folk building. It doesn’t follow an architectural plan. Rather, it was a “home-made” house, and in this case the builders incorporated elements they’d seen in contemporary Greek Revival structures. The pediment, the gable end of the roof over the horizontal cornice, recalls the form of an ancient Greek temple. The Greek Revival style was popular throughout the nation shortly after the War of 1812. With anti-British sentiment at a peak, our forebears were drawn to the symbolism of the world’s first democracy. Many large, monumental buildings are Greek Revival—basically anything with pillars in front, like plantation mansions and the U.S. Supreme Court. Humbler abodes also adopted a more stylized version of the form, however, and by the mid-1800s “wooden temples,” in the words of folklorist Henry Glassie, had sprung up across the country. The Minnesota Territory was essentially the northwest frontier at the time, and some were built here too.

That the house still exists is due entirely to the grassroots heroism of the Uppertown Preservation League, who formed to save it. Their decade-long campaign to prevent its demolition by the city produced, among other things, a playhouse-size replica (that has an address now at Children’s Hospital) and garnered the support of then-governor Arne Carlson. As temporary owners, the league raised money enough to stabilize the house in order to lift it onto a foundation. The most difficult job was finding an owner who could take over the restoration. They were ultimately successful. One of the league founders once showed me an old framed photograph that hangs in the hall of his own restored Uppertown home. It was a winter scene in the 1850s, with a dogsled team in St. Paul. Several buildings are scattered in the open landscape. A few look very similar to the Schneider-Bulera House.

The distinction between architectural history and archaeology is a false one; the distinction suggests that architectural history encompasses the study of a standing structure but archaeology doesn’t come into play until after the building has been reduced to ruins or, worse, eliminated entirely. More than once I have been part of an archaeological crew investigating the vicinity of an old house, looking for the little things that we have been trained to find and analyze. It is an absurd irony that if the house itself were gone—now a hole in the ground, or charred timbers and picked-over piles of bricks—we would be all over it like flies on garbage. Still standing, it provokes only glances of remote interest. It provides a good anchor for our excavation map, yes, but this largest and most complex artifact will generally remain unexamined, almost literally the elephant in the living room.

Until recently, this has also been the case with the Schneider-Bulera House. The history of the house, as it is represented in documents and official forms, is rich, but it is incomplete. But the yard excavations have produced a humbling amount of information about the generations who lived here, and the number of artifacts yet to be analyzed is staggering. Architectural history provides a contextual backdrop, a sense of general time and place, but the methods of archaeology lend themselves to parsing the telling details of a standing structure. Just as events can be discovered and dated by puzzling through successive cultural layers in the ground, they can be traced through scars inside a building—doors and windows that were created or blocked off, changes in materials, and so on.

Many years ago, as a young graduate student, I was on a field trip to Exeter Cathedral in England. The City Archaeologist was our guide, and he spoke at length of the archaeology of the standing structure. This was the first I’d ever heard of such a thing; but the cathedral is about a thousand years old and has undergone massive changes throughout its history, so the paradigm shift wasn’t too much of a shock. The concept has stuck in my head ever since. Piqued by the Schneider-Bulera House, I recently went back to Exeter Cathedral. At least I traveled back by way of my modem. Not much has changed there, I found, but I did discover that “buildings archaeology” has blossomed since my time in England. You can now go there, or elsewhere in Europe, and earn a master’s degree in the subject.

Pages: 1 2 3 4