Standing History

Richard Morriss is a leader in the field. He writes that the roots of buildings archaeology go back to the Renaissance, when ancient buildings were first intensively studied. The ancient Romans had copied the ancient Greeks, yes, but that was largely cosmetic. The Florentine architects, in contrast, made detailed records and used the results to address their own design dilemmas. Despite this legacy, it was first widely accepted as a form of archaeology in Britain in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1993 that it had an official name. Morriss asserts that this subfield combines scientific rigor with the social scientist’s perspective on people, the environment, and art. Analyzing form, fabric, and function, buildings archaeology seeks to understand how individual structures were built and modified.

Inside the Schneider-Bulera House, you immediately encounter the hot-lumber scent of an attic, with more than a hint of sawdust. This is understandable because the house is a wooden shell, and you’re in a construction site. To Joe McFarlane, and probably anyone else accustomed to building with commercially available dimensional lumber, the house appears to be built out of a million sore thumbs. The boards vary maddeningly in length, width, and thickness, often within the span of a single piece. This strongly suggests that the lumber was cut by hand. With guidance, even I can see the different methods of construction used in the remaining two parts of the house. The types of nails change, as does the way the wood was sawed and finished. Seams are visible where old siding was replaced on part of the house and left alone in others. Some windows are original, some are clearly not, and most are a mystery.

It is easy to be distracted by an apparent smoking gun, in this case an 1850s retail advertisement on one of the boards of the structure. Formerly hidden under the plaster, it was discovered during stabilization of the house. This is an important piece of evidence, but does it date to the first construction? Or, perhaps, to the refurbishment, after the house was moved in the 1860s?

The ad is one of several overlapped posters. It depicts four proper-looking ladies, in layered dresses, with bonnets covering their ringlets. One holds a wreath with a banner: “New Goods. Mantillas, Furs, Ribbons, Laces, Embroideries, Hosiery.” On a star-emblazoned placard behind her, a less legible list includes “Shawls, Blankets, Prints, Domestics,” and more. An eagle sits at her feet. A shield next to the eagle assures that “the subscribers have received their Stock from the Cheapest and Best markets, and it cannot fail to give satisfaction.” The rest is obscured by dark red paint, although it appears that more of the message could be revealed under laboratory conditions. (I, too, wondered what a mantilla is and was kindly informed: a scarf of lace worn over a lady’s head or shoulders.)

Sometimes the environment conspires to help the historian: The summer’s heat and humidity had detached the top poster without damaging it, allowing a better look at those underneath. These are tattered and still affixed to the board. One contains fragmented images of two jaunty gentlemen showing off what appears to be a new invention with interconnecting tubes and wires. They’re both wearing vertically striped trousers and diagonally striped jackets, with high, starched collars. The contraption seems to be some sort of “machine” that will do something related to “convenience.” Under that is an auction notice for “This Evening and Every Evening Until the Stock is Closed Out.” The posters are snapshots of pioneer life in St. Paul’s earliest days.

Just as a linguist can translate archaic fashions and phrases, the archaeologist can track changes in the physical fabric of the house, carefully decoding a timeline from mundane objects. For example, much of the wood siding has been replaced. McFarlane suspects that some, however, was cut with a gang sash, which would indicate that it is definitely old if not original. A gang sash is a series of saw blades anchored in a square wooden frame. The sash was connected through a piston to a water wheel. Once a log was squared up, it could be fed through the gang sash to cut a number of planks at once.

The saw technology is important for interpreting this building’s archaeology, because it can date when the boards were cut. McFarlane gives a thumbnail sketch of saw evolution—first the handsaw, then the gang sash (early 1800s), which was quickly replaced by the circular saw (ca. 1860), and then the band saw (1890s). He points out that at least one board was cut with a pit saw. This technique is older than the gang sash, although that doesn’t mean it still wouldn’t have been used by the time gang sashes were around. The gang sash was used for a number of the buildings at Fort Snelling. It did a great job for milling structural boards. More cosmetic cuts, such as floorboards, were made with the circular saw. The upstairs floorboards are the only lumber in the house with this type of cut.

The Schneider-Bulera House is a balloon frame structure, a proud Midwestern innovation in house construction developed in Chicago in the early nineteenth century. The technique was in wide use by the time settlers founded St. Paul, and it’s still how houses are built today. Modern standards for balloon framing call for even spacing of wall studs and uniformly dimensional lumber. Nothing could be further from the case here. During the period when this house was constructed, the lengths of lumber that were available generally determined the spacing. This was a different model of efficiency. The boards used in the Schneider-Bulera House vary in length, width and thickness, and the stud placement seems haphazard. The carpenter’s trend toward standardization appears to have begun sometime after the original part of this house was built. Likewise, the rafters seem to have been cut and installed individually, which made it difficult to keep the center of the roofline straight.

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