How is it possible that a house could be lived in for well over a century without ever getting a real bathroom?! That is just one example of how intact and relatively unaltered this amazing house is!
On Wednesday I was surprised to learn that a house in Russell, Kansas, which I had long wondered about had been listed for sale. The realtor’s listing had been posted on the phenomenally addictive Old House Dreams the day before, which is how I became aware of it. I started drooling. And the best part? The asking price was only $10,000.00. I had lived in Russell twenty years ago and, as both a preservationist and the owner of an old stone house built there in 1879, had developed a strong affinity for all of the early stone houses and buildings still standing in the area. I still deeply regret having sold mine; I loved it and still miss it very much.
Was this a second chance? Would it be as interesting and intact as mine had been? I had to find out. I set up an appointment to see the house the very next afternoon.
The listing stated that the house was built in 1870 which would make it nine years older than mine. I suspect that this date might be a year or two early, but I don’t know for sure. According to Wikipedia:
“In 1865, the Butterfield Overland Despatch established a short-lived station named Fossil Creek Station along its route from Atchison, Kansas to Denver near the site of modern Russell. In 1867, the Kansas Pacific Railway reached the area and built its own station, also named Fossil Creek, later just Fossil, north of the Butterfield station. That same year, the Kansas Legislature established the surrounding area as Russell County. In 1871, colonists from Ripon, Wisconsin established a permanent settlement at Fossil Station, renaming it Russell after the county. Russell was incorporated and named the provisional county seat in 1872, and, after a two-year dispute with neighboring Bunker Hill, it became the permanent county seat in 1874. In 1876, Volga Germans, mostly from the area around Saratov and Samara in Russia, began settling in and around Russell.”
Regardless, it was obvious to me that the house was built in the 1870’s and is a rare survivor. It exhibits many characteristics typical of the early vernacular building traditions. Especially appealing is the use of two colors of limestone; the body of the house is slightly orange-hued while the handsomely tooled quoins were quarried from a lighter, more buff, colored stone. The use of two stone colors is found throughout “Post Rock” country. More about the fascinating history of this region – and the important role that limestone played in the area’s development – can be found in the abundantly informative work titled “Land of the Post Rock” by Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford.
The realtor was very gracious and answered my questions candidly. She was extremely honest and informative. I feel sorry for realtors who accept these kinds of listings… they typically take far more of their time and effort than a more expensive house and offer a mere fraction of the reward; it really is not worth their effort. As we drove home, a two-and-a-half-hour trip, my partner and I discussed the pros and cons of tackling such a project. We both agreed that the house is a significant part of Russell’s history, and likely has a fascinating back story which has yet to be researched and brought to light. Its lack of updates makes it both fascinating and rare. It may well be the oldest house in town. How the local preservation community and history buffs could ignore this house simply boggles the mind… it goes unnoticed outside of the internet.
The plan we envisioned involved first installing a decent roof; the existing one is at the end of its lifespan. It appears that the original wood shingles may still lurk beneath. Then the idea would be to commute and work on the house on weekends while trying to find a buyer who would respect the house for its history and integrity. To make a long story short, after feeling just how long the two-and-a-half hour trip each way actually was, we decided that the commute and the the commitment of time would be too draining; we very reluctantly agreed that for efficiency – and our sanity – we must find a restoration project closer to home.
Therefore we hope that someone already in the area, or who is willing to relocate, will take this project on. My fear is that someone who regularly watches HGTV will pick up their obligatory sledgehammer, install vinyl replacement windows, “update” the interior, and use it as a rental property. Going to HGTV to learn about restoration is like going to McDonald’s to experience fine cuisine; this house deserves better than that. We’ll get to the photos soon, but first I want to say that, in my opinion, because this house has had so few significant alterations over the last 130 years, it is of greater historic value in terms of accurately portraying early local history than either of the two 1870’s houses in town which are operated as house museums. The Gernon House, built in 1872, was enlarged and remodeled in the 1890’s and today reflects that era more than the 1870’s. The 1878 Heym-Oliver house has had much of it interior plaster removed from its stone walls and was remodeled by a previous owner (giving visitors today a distorted sense of what life was like on the prairie in the 1870’s) and in recent years its original (or very early) porch was replaced with a similar, but not exact, duplicate. In my opinion, the old one could and should have been retained. But I digress…
OK – let’s get to the photos:
That’s it! The house has a large lot with plenty of room for an addition and garage. I hope that this house will not be flipped or turned into a rental unit. It needs a preservationist who will respect it. Yes, it has some issues. All houses do – even new ones. Russell is only 28 miles from Hays, Kansas – home of Fort Hays State University. More about Russell and surrounding communities may be found on the web site of the local Chamber of Commerce.