Standing History

Over the years, the ground floor has had to be stabilized, but the second floor has escaped these sorts of modifications and accretions. The original floorboards and interior walls are in place. We climb up a ladder to get to the room that resembles the setting of my dream. (The old staircase survives, but it’s currently lying on the floor downstairs.) McFarlane points out the roof. The original boards in the roof slatting are charred, at first glance suggesting a house fire. There are gaps between them, through which we can see the modern plywood of the exterior roof. On closer inspection, the charring has affected only the edges of the boards, which are curved with the exterior contours of a tree trunk. Remnants of bark are still present on many. The sawed surfaces are not charred, indicating that the burning occurred before the lumber was cut, and therefore before it was used to build the house.

While mentioning several possible explanations (salvaging wood from a forest fire, for example), McFarlane favors an old pioneer belief that burning the outside of standing trees helped temper the wood. The trees were girdled (killed by cutting through the bark and living tissue), fired, and left to stand through the winter. This was a practice in the early 1800s, often when a house was built with trees that grew on the property. Axe cuts on the exterior edges lend support to this idea. The gaps were common for wood-shingled roofs; they allowed the house to breathe. Since the boards didn’t have to join, pieces from the edge of the log could be put to good use here.

There are other indications that the house was built with local timber. The boards that make up the exterior walls are huge. The biggest measures twenty-one inches in width, although the width of most of the boards varies by as much as a half-inch throughout their length. These are remnants of the old-growth forests that still stood in Minnesota (and maybe in downtown St. Paul) during the mid-1800s. The longest piece of siding is nearly twenty-two feet long. A board that length would presumably be cut as available timber allowed, but it was unlikely to have been transported too far.

Our apparent smoking gun, the board with the posters and red paint, measures just over twenty inches in width. Above it in the wall is an anomaly, a board that measures just under four inches in width, tiny compared to the rest of the boards in the original house. Upon closer inspection and further consideration, the poster board itself turns out to be an anomaly. There’s only one other board like it in the original house. The juxtaposition of the poster board and the smaller board suggests a patch, replacing a board that was damaged. This is perhaps a clue related to repair of the original house rather than a date for its construction. These pieces appear to be salvaged lumber. The entire addition, built after the house was moved to this location, is constructed of salvaged lumber. It seems likely that the boards with the posters postdate the original construction of the house.

Another indication of the move is the slight curve of the first chimney. It is plumb through the first floor, but it arcs slightly in the second story; it presents an image of bricklayers realizing they’re going to miss the hole in the roof. The house presumably couldn’t be moved with a chimney in those days. It would need to be rebuilt afterward.

McFarlane saves the biggest surprise for last. Many of the clues we’ve seen support a very early date for construction of the original house, possibly from local timber in downtown St. Paul. The house was later moved to its present location, where it sits awkwardly on the lot. Its placement appears to predate the plat for this part of the city, but if that’s so, it seems odd that the back of the house faces Fort Road. (Fort Road was one of the earliest roads in the region, connecting Fort Snelling to the settlement at St. Paul as early as 1819.The idea that the house was there before the road is something we can be certain was not the case.) This highlights several anomalies concerning the front of the house, such as the upper windows cutting into the frieze. McFarlane explains that these cuts don’t conform to the shape of the current windows, suggesting that earlier windows also had this odd position. Furthermore, the front lacks some expected Greek Revival features, such as sidelights along the door. These inconsistencies had largely been written off to the house being a vernacular structure. But what if… What if the current front of the house was originally the back? The wall of the original house that approximately faces West Seventh was largely eliminated to build the first addition. If the orientation of the house had been switched, and the back altered, it would certainly explain some of the architectural oddities.

Whether or not this is our oldest standing house, it is one with a long and colorful story to tell. If these walls could talk…well, they can. You just have to know what to listen for.

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