Most old houses have had alterations over the years — very few come down through time just as they were built. Unless a house was altered with an extreme attention to maintaining details, it is usually possible to get a fairly good idea as to what the house looked like before it was altered by reading or deciphering the clues that remain.

The following house, in Atchison, Kansas, recently appeared on Old House Dreams and is a good example… there are several clues in plain sight which offer insight as to what the house may have looked like when new. It’s the sort of house which often gets lost in the shuffle. It’s not fancy (or pretentious) enough to get attention, yet is very desirable for the amount of quality original material it contains and its ability to portray the evolution of a late nineteenth-century century middle-class house. The house is quite interesting… let’s psychoanalyze it!

The first thing I notice is that the large center gable appears to be a bit older than the surrounding details. The flanking dormers, for example, look very early 20th-century while the centered gable is more typical of the 1870’s (and usually found on houses with symmetrical facades). The porch and angled bay window express the Queen Anne style and appear to be from the 1880’s while the rest of the house is quite vernacular and understated. Image source: via

A look at the side of the house confirms my suspicion that the house has had alterations in the past. The rear portion is clearly of a different period from the front as evidenced by a change in window sizes and casings. The windows of the front section have segmentally arched heads while the addition’s windows have slightly pedimented heads. The roof pitches also change; the front portion has a steeper pitch than the rear. Which came first? I don’t know for sure, but my gut tells me the front section is older. But I could have it backwards! Image courtesy of Google Street View.

A closer look at the foundation shows that the rear section has been parged with a thin layer of stucco or concrete, but it still appears to be made of limestone. I think I detect a cold joint where the angled bay joins the house, but it would really take close examination on the site to determine that for sure. A cold joint would indicate that the bay was added to the foundation later while an integrated foundation would mean that I’m either wrong or that the mason who added the bay’s foundation did a really good job of tying it in.

Note that the two windows at left are of differing widths; the one with the air conditioner in it had at one time been a doorway. Joints in the clapboard beneath the window reveal the conversion to a window. Image courtesy of Google Street View.

This view shows windows of the rear section quite close the front section… there does not seem to be enough room between them and the outside corner (of the rear section) for the rear section to plausibly have been an older, stand-alone house. Again, I might be wrong. It’s always chancy to do this sort of psychoanalysis from a few photos… on-site is much better!

Here is how the front looks today… and my conjecture about its possible original appearance is below:
The thing that really sways me is the centered gable… this just doesn’t show up that often on otherwise-asymmetrical facades unless they have been remodeled.

So, my guess is that the house dates roughly somewhere between the mid-1860’s to the mid-1870’s, and that it was added onto and remodeled around 1885. It later received two dormers in the front — likely around 1915. But I’m still open to the possibility that the rear section came first… this house would be great fun to explore!

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