December, as usual, was the busiest time for the Barker Mansion. Decorated with trees in every room, smiles of visitors, the Mansion never feels more alive than during the holidays. January has always been the month of recovery, starting the new year by polishing the wood and silver, which the mansion has no shortage of, to keep us busy and ready for the summer months. But this year, we are telling a much different story. From January 20th all the way to March 1st, the Barker Mansion will be closed. Unfortunately, you did hear me right, closed.
While this may not seem ideal for our many guests and visitors, this break is much needed. If you have visited us recently, you’ll notice the amount of work that is being done currently. Many rooms and whole portions of the house have been under construction as restoration of the mansion’s plaster is reaching its peak.
This is something that has been long overdue. Ever since Jessica Rosier took over the mansion as Director a couple of years ago, the Mansion has experienced more and more people coming through the door. The increased foot traffic means more body heat and increased vibrations on the second and third doors which affect the ceilings below them. Plaster has cracked over time but stayed in place (thankfully). When Emily Reth took the mantle of directorship from Jessica, she came in with a vision. Last year we still had a wonderful increase in tourism, but the weather hasn’t been kind to the Mansion’s structure. We had a record amount of water seepage, ice dams and the like which has led us to take dramatic action. Which brings us here to this moment where history is being preserved for the first time a long time.
So, what are we going to be doing during this upcoming month, you may ask? Well, let me share some projects that we will be taking on. Currently, the Master bedroom and the Morning room are being updated. The ceilings have been stripped so we can reinforce the ceilings with newer plaster using more modern methods. The rooms look like a very respectful tornado came through, moving things around to new places. Plastic hangs from ceilings and walls, plaster dust coats the floors and paper walkways trail through the halls. At first, when Emily took me on a walk-through of the progress, my heart was racing faster than I thought it could. I was stressed, anxious, and internally freaking out at seeing how everything looked. But as I continue to walk through, I can’t help but feel relieved. I am excited to see what’s going to happen, what is going to come of the new restorations. I am proud to be here seeing this progress be made. This is a new chapter in our history, and I am anxious for its outcome.
The next big step after the second floor will be the Foyer and the drawing room, hence the need to close the mansion. The intricate, beautiful ceilings which have captivated many people upon their first entry will be getting a major facelift. If everything goes right, all that will need to be done is apply adhesive to the cracking sections of plaster, lift them up and reapply some plaster to make them stick together again. But if this proves to be too difficult, and the plaster is too heavy, then a big step will need to be taken. The entire ceiling will need to be replaced. When Emily told me that the entire ceiling might have to be stripped with new molds crafted, I about panicked. These ceilings were our pride, lasting 110 years to still be here today. That is still a point of anxiety, but I know that the product if it comes to that, will be done right. My co-worker TJ and I went to the University of Illinois two years ago because they have all the mansion blueprints in their archives. We were fortunate enough to recover blueprints of the plaster ceilings in those rooms. We will be able to create an exact reproduction of the ceiling if it has to come to that.
While the reproduction is taking place, the staff here at the mansion will have the meticulous duty of cleaning and creating new environments for the artifacts to be preserved in. For the first time, the artifacts will be getting a gritty cleaning, going over every little detail as much as possible. The giant candelabras that flank the main fireplace in the foyer are also going to get a deep cleaning, meaning we get to take Q-tips to clean every nook in the silver. While many people would see this as boring and pain-staking I see it as a new adventure. It’s a privilege to be able to handle these artifacts for the Barker Mansion and make them accessible to the public’s view. History should be accessible as possible for everybody to learn from. Being involved in that process is an honor. And because of that, while we clean the artifacts, I will be taking a photograph of every single artifact we go through and writing a synopsis of each one. In the end, I will place our findings in a binder to be a new, updated inventory for the staff and public to use. We get a lot of questions about some of our artifact, and a lot of them can be quite unique and esoteric, often leaving us stumbling and needed to learn more. By doing this, the staff will be better equipped to provide more answers and let the public be able to learn even more about our history through the lens of the objects stored within our walls.
This month will prove to be difficult and quite the learning experience for all of us. History is a fragile subject which can open doors to vibrant growth. The mansion is a local history which offers worldly goods. No history is too small nor too big. Coming up on my second year as a Heritage Interpreter the mansion has become a home. And like any home, it needs to be taken care of. It will be a lot of work, but it will be the best time I’ve had. This hands-on approach to history is why I want to do history. My favorite thing, at the end of all this, will not be the work being out in, but the outcome of it and letting everyone see what we’ve done. My favorite part of history is seeing how people react to it. I look forward to seeing you all in a month.
The following article was published in the November/December 2018 issue of the National Association for Interpretation‘s Legacy magazine, aimed at professionals working in parks and museums. The content is the property of Legacy and was written by Barker Mansion heritage interpreter TJ Kalin.
Losing Control of History:
Site Research and Misinformation
Anthony “TJ” Kalin CIG
Heritage Interpreter, Barker Mansion Museum and Civic Center
I have given visitors to my site false information. In my first year as an interpreter at the Barker Mansion, a Gilded Age house museum in Michigan City Indiana, I told guests everything that was in the tour script I was given. Today, after years of research, I smack myself in the forehead when I think about some of the things I repeated to guests. I once told guests that our “Three Graces” sculpture in the living room was an original by Antonio Canova (the original is in the Louvre…) or telling guests that the mansion was built in 1905 (it later turned out to be 1909). That original tour script was written when the museum had neither a research nor an interpretation orientation. I told visitors what I was instructed to say to visitors, my interpretation was in good faith, but visitors walked away with false information. Years of research and archiving later we have written an entirely new history of our site, but misinformation still crops up.
Research is a lot of fun, and with the technologies available today, it can be fast. The massive volume of digitized archives, newspapers, and literature available makes site research move quickly. Sometimes it goes too quick. New information pushes out the old information, but as a museum with limited resources, our ability to interpret new information quickly falls behind.
The pace of research outpaces the speed at which you can update tours, programs, and signage, not to mention materials that lie outside your site’s control. What do you do when you know information about your site is false, but you can not update it in time? Are we are misinforming our visitors in this case? How do we reign history back in when it gets away from us?
We have encountered many issues with false information at the Barker Mansion. Interpretive signage with some incorrect dates, put in long before we conducted extensive site research, are in front of the mansion and around the Haskell-Barker historic district in Michigan City. These signs are too expensive to change out. Similarly, a documentary was produced for our basement theatre to be shown before tours. This documentary was produced using our most up to date research at the time. Months after the documentary was produced, I found some documents in the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign archives that showed that a few dates and statements in the documentary were inaccurate.
Several local history books as well as many online resources, including some top Google, searches for our site, contain false information about the Barker Mansion. These are the sources the public goes to learn about our site before visiting. While the mistakes in signage and in the documentary were subtle inaccuracies, these resources had names wrong, spread urban legends, and contained egregiously false information that defamed the Barker family. Even worse, most of these resources are outside of our control.
Old habits are also hard to break. It is difficult to get everyone on staff on the same page about the history of the site. Historical sites handle massive, dynamic bodies of information that are difficult to update. When facts are updated quickly, it is quite a task to get everyone on the same page right away. Two interpreters can tell different accounts on tour, both are good faith interpreters, but they can still spread the wrong information.
Interpretation is revelation based upon information (Tilden’s 2nd Principle). The information sites’ interpret can be hard to deal with. Researching, updating, and conveying site information pushes interpreters into the bounds of misinformation. In this article am talking about museums but this definition can be used in any interpretive setting. The problems we had at the Barker Mansion led to some visitors gaining false information but does this qualify as misinformation?
To understand whether the complicated cases above count as misinformation, let me start by describing a clear case of misinformation at our site. Twenty years ago, docents at our museum told several complete falsehoods to the public. For example, old tour programs talked about a dramatic assassination attempt in the dining room of the museum. This story did not have any sort of documentation to back up the stories, and basic site research would have proven it false. In this case, false information was spread without accountability. Guests were misinformed to sensationalize the site. This is a clear case of misinformation (as well as interpretainment over interpretation).
Apart from visitors learning false information, two key factors that make the assassination case a clear case of misinformation are (1) intention and (2) responsibility. Docents intentionally told a falsehood and also failed to fulfill their obligation to research and know their site.
The other cases of the signage, the documentary, inconsistency among staff, and resources outside our control fall into a grey zone. Visitors did receive incorrect information in all of these cases, but the other two factors (1) intention and (2) responsibility were absent. Barker Mansion heritage interpreters never intended to misinform in these cases nor did we fail to research our site, in fact, we researched too much.
The critical thing to remember is that interpretation is not just in the information. Recall Tilden’s second principle: “Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information.” We want to call guests to recognize the importance of preserving our site, not just learn a bunch of facts.
Also, recall Tilden’s fifth principle: “Interpretation presents a whole rather than a part.” A good interpretive plan should be able to convey an interpretive theme despite some small inaccuracies. If my guests get a slightly incorrect year for when the Barker Mansion was built, it will not affect my interpretive goals. I can still convey the role of the Barker family in making Michigan City and the need to preserve the heritage resources of the Haskell-Barker historic district.
The above cases are not ideal, but if interpreters make a good-faith effort to give the best program possible with the best information at hand, interpreters are not culpable for spreading misinformation. Still, interpreters are responsible for providing guests the most accurate information on their site, how do we get history back under our control?
One obvious solution is to research and update carefully. Do not be hasty in accepting new information. Our current director has a “5 Source” policy, for any change to signage or the tour script, there must be three primary sources filed. In the past, we may have been a bit hasty in updating and acting on new information, but our site hosts programs and tours every week and research goes on all the time. Each program and tour tried to incorporate out most up to date information, but that information was continually changing and improving. With these factors in mind, we came up with a few strategies to minimize misinformation at the Barker Mansion.
A great way to reevaluate site information is by having peer feedback. Every few months everyone on staff must follow everyone else’s tours. When we did peer feedback at Barker Mansion, we argued quite a bit, but in the end, everyone ended up on the same page. Update the tour script regularly and make sure all interpreters are aware of changes. This remedies the “old habits are hard to break” problem.
Also, think of creative ways to incorporate and spread new information. We try to offer several programs a year that include new archival sources at the mansion. This fall I am hosting a program that walks visitors through all our recently found blueprints for the Barker Mansion. Having interpreters regularly write about new stories and sources on a site blog can disseminate the latest information. Making your site a vibrant place relays to the visitor how dynamic history can be.
Being upfront and telling visitors about incorrect information on tour is a great way of interpreting the work that goes on at your site. At the end of our documentary, I head to the front of the room and point out a small date error and use that error to interpret the concept of a working museum. Small changes like this can also help with the harder-to-fix issues, like incorrect signage on site.
The worst issues to fix are the ones outside of your sites control like the books, online resources, and signs around Michigan City. Having false resources in the community can make on-site interpretation difficult, especially when guests research your site before visiting.
Approaching this daunting task can be as simple as updating your Wikipedia page or adding new research on your website. Write history columns for a local newspaper or appear on local radio to talk about the history of your site. To remedy the problem with local history books’ inaccuracies, I wrote a new history of Michigan City that includes all the latest information about the Barker family and much of Michigan City history. Writing a book is a big project but it can be great for promoting your site, and its publicity can raise awareness that other resources are out of date.
All these solutions helped us to reign history back in at Barker Mansion. History is never static, there is always more to learn about your site and your community. I have great respect for those who did the site research that gave us the foundation we work from in Michigan City. Guests may occasionally receive incorrect information but as long as we make a good-faith effort to meet our interpretive goals history can be controlled responsibly.
Freeman Tilden. Interpreting Our Heritage (University of North Carolina Press, 1957)
*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*
A few months ago I almost destroyed the mansion garden…well, sort of. I did some bad history, and this led me to make plans that would have destroyed the mansion garden…thankfully it never advanced further than my overzealous imagination.
Current garden layout
It started in October 2018, I was teaching one my evening logic sessions at Valparaiso University. I usually have about fifteen students in these sessions, and often, after an hour they either all leave, or a few students stay and quietly do homework. On this evening all the students left by 6:45, the sessions run two hours, and I wanted to be paid, so I stuck around in case any students showed up late with a logic emergency.
I had a paper on Polish collaboration in the Holocaust due at midnight, and I was woefully short of completing it. While I should have spent my quiet hour working on the paper, I procrastinated by doing work for a different project. The other project was not as pressing, but it made my procrastination feel productive.
In this case, I avoided writing my paper by surfing through the blueprints for the Barker Mansion that I found back in March (this adventure is recounted two blog posts prior). There were about eight hundred pages of blueprints, contracts, notes, letters, work orders, and photos to sift through and I always look through them when I have time, trying to gain a full picture of what it took to build the mansion and to learn every secret the walls of this old house have been keeping from me.
So there I was, surfing through these blueprints, in an empty classroom, triumphantly procrastinating, when something dawned on me. I am not sure how the train of thought went, but it may have had something to do with the incomplete garden plans for the mansion garden. The architect of the mansion, Frederick Wainwright Perkins had designed a few different architectural features to go into the garden that were never put in place. This included a large fountain in the north wall of the garden as well as a complicated series of pillars extending out from the Pergola. We are not sure why all of Perkins’ plans for the garden were not put in place.
Fountain design; University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Libraries
Alternative pergola design, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Libraries
I had been told when I started at the mansion that our garden was designed by Jens Jensen, a famous landscape architect out of Chicago. Jens Jensen had immigrated to the United States from Denmark in the 1880s. He first worked as a laborer in Chicago parks where he rose to superintendent of the West Chicago Parks System in the 1890s. There Jensen designed Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, and other parks. Later he moved into private practice and designed gardens for Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Henry Ford’s estate and supposedly the Barkers.
I was not sure if the story about Jensen and the Barkers was true. I was told that we had Jensen’s design for the garden in our archive, but we had difficulty locating it. The Jensen design we purportedly had was pencil drawn and called for a large circular path around the garden.
It would be great if Jensen designed the garden. It would give the mansion an important connection to the Indiana Dunes, which Jensen helped save, and to the broader history of Jensen’s work in the Calumet Region. I had always wanted to probe this story further. Over the past few years I had debunked a number of similar stories about the Barkers, such as the bullet hole in the Dining Room (our old tour script wrongly claimed a worker tried to assassinate Mr. Barker in the Dining Room) or that the Haskell-Barker Car Company invented the modern assembly line before Henry Ford (many, many factories all over the world had assembly lines before Ford, Henry Ford just perfected it). I liked the Jensen story, and I did not want it to end up like the bullet hole or assembly line stories.
Thinking about the garden, thinking about Jensen thinking about my blueprints from the University of Illinois, made me realize something that night. Putting all three together, I realized that I had never looked for the mansion garden design in any archives as I had done with the mansion blueprints.
I did not even have to look too far for the Jensen designs. Usually to find blueprints or rare primary sources I have to dig around on WorldCat or other databases, contact my primary source guy, Mark Robison, a library professor at Notre Dame who can find anything, or actually visit an archive or library such as the Newberry in Chicago or the Michigan City Historical Society. I instead found the mansion garden design through a simple Google search. Jensen’s papers were in possession of the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library. Digitized images of many of Jensen’s drawing were freely available on their website, and a finding aid with lists of all of Jensen’s commissions was also available.
I searched the collection for “Michigan City,” and sure enough the Barkers were there, but there was a bit more than expected. One blueprint labeled “For Mrs. Barker” from 1909 was available to download online, but there were also four more garden designs listed for Michigan City that could not be downloaded. I needed to find a way to get those blueprints….but I lacked time to drive to the University of Michigan. An imaginary light bulb went on over my head.
VU had sponsored my book writing project for the past year through a research grant as well as having it count for course credit. Since the blueprints were sources that would play a significant role in my research, I could order scans of the remaining four blueprints through the Valparaiso University Interlibrary Loan department. I sent in a long request and the next day the department told me that they could do it, but it would take a few weeks to process the request. I was ecstatic.
I had already downloaded the blueprint that was available online. This blueprint was made in 1909 and was ‘For Mrs. Barker.’ The design detailed a far different design of the mansion garden than expected. This design included the same dimensions as the current garden with the same placement of the Pergola and Tea House, but the layout was radically different. Instead of the plus-sign-shaped pathway in the garden, this design had a circular path around the outside of the garden. The same fountain that is there today was still in place, but it had a garden of “Japanese and Siberian Iris” around the outside. The circular pathway was bordered with lilies. Daffodils filled in the space behind the lilies.
The design was stunning and quite detailed, but it was not the design that was currently out there. I had now confirmed that the Barkers commissioned Jensen, but it was not clear if he designed our current garden. There were some continuities though. The design included the current fountain shape (but it was inlaid), the statue of the Greek god Hermes in the same location it is today, and other details.
This blueprint was labeled ‘remodeling’ of formal garden for Mrs. Barker. ‘Remodeling’ made me think that this was the intended design for the garden, that the Barkers wanted this design in place. I hastily (and incorrectly) assumed that this was the Barkers’ vision for the garden and I wanted to see if it was possible to rebuild it. My mind raced, and I realized that I needed to talk to someone who knew about design…I knew just the person.
In addition to being a logic teaching assistant and my job at the mansion, I also work as a project manager for an environmental consulting firm in Valparaiso, Earthwise Inc. Earthwise acts as a middleman between farms and government agencies such as the EPA. Our environmental engineer on staff, Scott Harmon, whom we call Sharmon to differentiate between him and our boss who is also named Scott, would know what to do with this blueprint. The next day I was at Earthwise, and I brought the design to Sharmon and asked his opinion on it.
Sharmon printed the design for me on large paper. I now felt authoritative and quite cool with my large garden blueprint in hand. Sharmon looked it over with me and told me any landscaping firm could put the design in place with this design.
I was tickled, my twenty-four-hour-old dream of constructing the Jensen design seemed within reach. I immediately started looking at historic garden restoration grants (there were quite a few). I located several good ones, put them into Asana, a project management software I like to use, and outlined the steps of a several year plan to wipe out the current layout and REBUILD THE JENSEN GARDEN!
This is where I did bad history, I let my excitement get ahead of me, and I drew conclusions before looking at the full scope of sources. A good historian reviews all the possible documents before drawing any sort of conclusion.
Thankfully I never even took one step in my Asana plan. Cooler heads prevailed, though the cooler head was not mine, it belonged to my boss, mansion director Emily Reth. Emily wisely told me to wait for the other blueprints to arrive before evening thinking about grants and even then it would take years to get approval to redo the garden. I calmed down, and I decided to wait for the remaining blueprints to arrive from the Interlibrary Loan in a few weeks.
A month later I was in Miyazaki, Japan visiting my future in-laws. On the morning of November 20th, I woke up early to head to Kagoshima, the farthest southern point on Kyushu island, to visit the Chiran Peace Museum. Chiran was the name of the airbase where the majority of the Kamikaze (or as they are called in Japan: Tokko) pilots took off from in the battle of Okinawa. Nearly five hundred pilots from Chiran died in the battle. My future father-in-law, Mitsuhiro, knew I was a history nerd and wanted to take me to the museum to see what my thoughts were on the Tokko pilots.
I was very excited to go because first of all it was a museum and second of all it meant a four-hour car ride in Japan where cars drive on the left side of the road (which I found quite exciting). Plus, the highway was quite scenic: we passed an erupting volcano in Kagoshima and drove through beautiful mountains the whole way, which was thrilling for a Hoosier like myself. We were setting off to leave for the drive from Miyazaki to Chiran when I made the mistake of checking my email.
There, sitting in my inbox was an email from Interlibrary Loan with four attachments. My heart raced, I knew what it was! The blueprints were here! But, I had to leave for the car ride! I had opened the email on my phone, and the attachments were too large to open on it. I hence closed my email and climbed in the car.
In the back of my head all day I knew the blueprints were there. It did not distract me from having a great day though, the blueprints did not gnaw at me and make me impatient. I went to a restaurant where you eat Somen, a cold summer noodle that you dip in a mixture of soy sauce and fish powder. At the restaurant, you put the noodles in a small river on the table and dip chopsticks into the river to fish out the noodles. Visiting the Chiran Peace Museum later was very moving; it was filled with letters that Tokko pilots wrote to their families before their missions as well as flags that the pilots signed. All day though, the blueprints were waiting for me.
At the end of the day, we went to an Izakaya, a type of bar where they serve Japanese fried food and ate way too much while I talked to Mitsuhiro and my future mother-in-law Reiko about the museum. I got back to their home very late and tired but I immediately opened the photos on my computer.
The email contained four blueprints. To my disappointment, the first blueprint was not for the mansion, it was a landscaping plan for the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) plant. The plan was signed by Jensen October 26, 1930. This design was rather plain, it included pathways and a few plant-types for the outside of the boiler and turbine buildings.
Jensen was also a founding member of the Save the Dunes Council. Jensen like many middle-class Chicagoans saw the dunes as a mythic escape from the rapid urbanization that had swallowed up Chicago in the late Gilded Age and during the first world war he worked to save the duneland from total industrialization. I was curious why Jensen, the early advocate for the Indiana Dunes, designed the garden for NIPSCO, a power plant built over the former site of the Hoosier Slide. The Hoosier Slide was Indiana’s largest sand dune. Between 1890 and the early 1920s the entire dune was sold off and shipped downstate to Muncie where it was made into glass jars. I cast this puzzle aside and looked at the other three blueprints, which turned out to exceed even my wildest historical dreams.
All three drawings were for the Barkers! All three were dated around 1909 when the addition to the mansion was complete. The first design, labeled ‘No.I’ submitted July 1909 (the only one with a month labeled), called for a large circular pool in the center of the garden with six sprayers. Flower planters with hedges behind them formed a circle around the garden.
Another design, dated 1909 ‘for Mrs. Barker’ called for a large rectangular pool with two fountains set in front of the pergola. This design lacked a number. The statue of Hermes that is today in the northwest corner of the garden was located in the small grass courtyard, labeled ‘Grass Court,’ off of the library veranda. There were some flowers along the edges of the garden and a big open space in the middle of the garden. The teahouse could only be accessed by going around the sides of the garden. It would have been interested to have such a large pool in the garden, but I was a little glad this design was not put in place because it would have meant that (1) I would have a lot more pool skimming to do at work in the summers and (2) we would not be able to host weddings in the garden.
The third drawing was labeled 1909 ‘For Mr.Barker,’ and to my surprise, it was the current garden design. It included the same benches, fountain, walkway, and other design elements that are there today. This design also had all the original plants listed. There were circular flower planters in each corner of the inner garden when I started working at the mansion, there were hedges in the spots. We took the hedges out two years ago, and those spots are only grassed now. The small area off the veranda was labeled ‘The Green.’ The Green left empty and may have been used for croquet. Today this area is heavily planted and has a large trellis.
I smacked myself in the head, my hasty impetus to rebuild the first blueprint would have destroyed the true Jensen design. My boss Emily was right, I certainly lacked patience. Historical-humility and primary-source-patience were a valuable lessons Jensen’s design taught me, but I also learned a lot more.
Here’s what we can know from these blueprints: Jensen submitted at least four designs to the Barkers. One was submitted in July 1909 and labeled No.I, meaning ostensibly that these designs were commissioned in the summer around the time that the Barkers moved into the new addition to the mansion. Three of them were commissioned by Mrs. Barker, and a fourth was ordered by Mr. Barker. Two of the designs are numbered one and four, so other designs may have been submitted. We now definitively know that Jensen designed the garden, but we do not know the order in which the designs were submitted, how many were submitted, nor can we know what the Barker’s intentions were. I will dig further, and hopefully, I can find more.
While the big question of whether Jensen designed the garden has been answered, new questions have presented themselves. Is the current design the first garden design put in place? Were all the other design remodel’s? Why was Mr. Barker’s commissioned design put in and not Mrs. Barkers? After all, she made most of the decisions for the design of the mansion, why is the garden different?
When answering questions about the past, a historian also maps out the possibilities presented by documents. These possibilities are not definitive answers, but they can guide the questions we ask. For example, all the blueprints were dated 1909, but they lacked specific dates. Thus it is possible that the first blueprint was submitted after the ‘For Mr. Barker’ design was put in place. Mrs. Barker may not have been happy with that design and had ordered this design and others from Jensen. She passed away in May 1910, a time of year when the Garden would have been remodeled, and these designs may not have put in place because she passed away.
I need to learn more about the garden to see the full story. Catherine Barker made some changes to the garden, supposedly she put in broadleaf plants that were popular in the 1920s. Purdue University made changes, we have a photo of them laying the concrete for the current fountain (which is the right shape, but it is raised, Jensen’s design called for an inlaid fountain). Some changes made by the museum, such as flower beds around the fountain. Piecing together the timeline of these changes is another step that I need to take.
These blueprints made for one great adventure in the mystical world of primary sources. In the spring I will offer an interpretive program about Jensen in the Barker Mansion garden, and I put a small exhibit about the garden designs together on the 2nd floor. The blueprints also made their way into two chapters of my book. Besides interpreting the blueprints, I also want to put them to their original use.
Our goal inside the mansion has been to rearrange things to match the layout in our 1911 photos of the interior, Jensen’s design gave us a guide to now match the exterior to 1909. In the spring I hope we can use the 1909 design to guide how we prepare the garden for the summer. While we lack the resources to put it in place completely, we can potentially add some details such as the urns around the fountain or possibly sodding over the Green. Someday I want to install an interpretive sign about Jensen in the garden that includes the blueprints and information about Jensen’s role in the history of landscape architecture and the fight to save the Indiana Dunes. Jensen’s design is one point where the history of the mansion touches on the broader history of the region, my dream is to make this point of contact more robust. With any luck, we can add a few more pieces of Jensen’s vision to Michigan City history.
The Christmas season has fully descended at the Barker Mansion! This is one of my favorite times of the year here as we get more guests in the doors who have never been before, and many of these new visitors are kids brought in on school field trips. Now, in my opinion, kids have the best questions about a variety of subjects simply because they are still learning and don’t have preconceived notions about how something should be done. Kids that come to the mansion on field trips or who are brought by friends and family to see the Christmas decorations always manage to figure out at least one question that makes me stop and rethink what I know, or think I know, in order to answer them correctly. The questions the staff here get from kids are often the subject of our conversations as we try to one-up each other on who got the best, oddest or most impossible questions. Sometimes however, the questions are not impossible to answer, they are simply ones that make me realize that I need to explain something better while giving tour.
One such instance happened earlier this month when I was giving tour to a group of 2nd grade students. One young man, the first to gather the courage to ask a question, wanted to know why we didn’t have real Christmas trees in the mansion. His reasoning for asking this was the fact that the Barker family would have “most definitely” had real Christmas trees for decorations. This began a discussion with the entire group which I started by asking why they thought the Barker Mansion staff would not bring in real Christmas trees. Of course there were the correct answers of “can’t keep them alive all month”, “they won’t stay pretty”, and “they make a mess”, however the same little boy who first asked the question again said that we work so hard to make everything else original so why aren’t the trees real?
As he kept insisting that we had to have real trees to be “original”, it made me wonder how many others walk through the mansion at Christmas time and wonder where the real pine trees are. After explaining to this group about the history of artificial trees, I decided to write this blog post to share a rather interesting part of history that most don’t likely think about.
The first artificial Christmas trees are believed to have been invited by Germans during the 19th century due to massive deforestation that was devastating certain parts of the country. The trees they created were made with dyed goose feathers. Feather trees were common for many years before they were replaced by plastic versions at the beginning of the 20th century. From there, artificial trees became very popular in America. Trees of different colors, trees with attached candle holders (this is before string lights) and trees made to stand the test of time skyrocketed in sales. While the Barkers probably did in fact have “real” Christmas trees, artificial trees were common enough that it is entirely likely that they had an artificial tree at some point during their lives.
Another tree we often get questions about is our silver Angel Pine tree. This is a 1950-1960 era tree that we use to represent the decorations from Purdue’s time at the Mansion; 1948-1968. This tree is not decorated and instead has a rotating color wheel that shines on it from across the room.
So, in the end, artificial Christmas trees are true to the time period of the Gilded Age. Whether or not the Barker family would have used artificial trees is another story, but the little boy from my field trip, and likely many others, can be assured that we are staying true and “original” even if we use artificial trees.
*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*
The emails you write, the tweets you tweet, the letters you send, the documents you sign, the advertisements you see, everything bit of garbage and trace you leave behind on this world may someday make a historian’s day. These are all ‘primary sources,’ the evidence historians use to reconstruct and interpret the past. Anything can be a primary source. In our archive at the Barker Mansion, we house thousands of such sources, from John Barker Sr.’s letters to his father in the 1830s to Catherine Barker’s baby shoes. On my desktop, I have a folder with 2,355 such sources used to write my upcoming book on Michigan City. Another folder has 1,182 files for a project on suicide in 19th century Chicago. These are mostly photos, newspapers, census records, and scans from various archives. This is nothing compared to professional historians; one of my former professors at Valparaiso University took over 20,000 photographs and scans in just one archive he visited for his dissertation.
Of course, we do not use all of these sources. Historians gather sources far and wide, read through them, ponder them, read secondary sources to gain context, and then interpret them. Usually, a select few will make into their work. A book may have a couple hundred directly cited in the footnotes, but the thousands of others were still used for context. Many times historians will gather these sources and then have no use for them. For example, I spent months working on gathering sources on the Barker Family’s early genealogy for a book project. I found original wills from 1600s Andover Massachusetts, diaries from the revolutionary war that talked about Barker Sr.’s uncle ordered another historian’s research notes from an archive in Missouri, and read through piles of sources on the family’s history. From these sources, I wrote an extensive chapter on the family’s history for the book, but a change in the scope of the project cut that down to about two pages. All that work for two pages…it’s frustrating, but it happens to everyone. Despite such difficulties (as well as the allergies), I love primary sources.
My favorite primary sources are not newspaper articles, census records, diaries, or letters though. My favorite primary sources are blueprints. Blueprints are marvelous, through them one can learn a person’s tastes, see how a family lived, intimately experience an architect’s vision, grasp the impact of new technology, among many other insights.
Since I started at the Barker Mansion, I have been obsessed with finding the original mansion blueprints. In our archive, we have around three hundred and fifty blueprints, primarily of the Barkers’ freight car factory and a few blueprints of the mansion from the 1980s, but not the original 1905 or 1857 blueprints.
My search for the original mansion blueprints has been one of the greatest adventures of my young life. While that makes my life sound rather dull (looking around for dusty scraps of paper), to me, it was a thrilling escapade into the mystic world of primary sources.
The adventure began at my computer screen in my office in what used to be the Barker’s Valet’s bedroom. There I found out that the mansion blueprints were located in an archive in Illinois. The papers of the architect who built the mansion addition, Frederick Wainwright Perkins, had bee donated to the Lincoln and Illinois History Collections at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign library. The collection had an online finding aid for the Perkins collection, listing all his buildings and commissions along with a listing for the boxes and folders that housed each one.
There were several boxes with the ‘John Barker’ in the label with several folders in each. The finding aid did not have specific details on what was in each folder, some were labeled “correspondence,” some “specifications,” others labeled “drawings.” I desperately wanted to see what was in these folders, but I had lacked the time and resources to drive down to Illinois to view these blueprints on my own.
At the time I was working on my book project on Michigan City, and these blueprints were necessary for my research. This was in fall 2017 when the project was supervised by Dr. Robert Elder, my advisor at Valparaiso University. Dr. Elder had agreed to have the project count as an internship so that I could receive class credit for all my work. Also helping me on the project was Mark Robison, a library professor at VU. Part of Professor Robison’s job was to assist us in research, helping students locate sources for projects as well proving feedback.
To many of the history majors at VU, Prof. Robison was our hero and savior. He was always able to find the best sources for any project (it was a sad day when he left for a job at Notre Dame this year). From documents on ethnic cleansing in the Soviet Union to Ethiopian foreign policy records, Professor Robison was the best. With this project, Professor Robison arranged for the library to order photographs and scans of the documents of several folders in the Barker boxes.
Several weeks later I received a PDF document from the library, including about eighty pages of scans and photos of documents related to the construction of the mansion. The included contracts for the construction of the house, decoration orders, and letters between the Barkers and the Perkins, the architect.
These were incredible. I was able to see the how the mansion construction was organized, what the Barkers were saying to the architect while the house was under construction, which parts of the interior were decorated and when it was an incredible find. But, this was only a small piece of the puzzle.
In the email with the PDF, the library notified me that the archive in Illinois had several hundred more documents to scan and that VU’s library could not afford to pay someone to have all of them scanned, it would run well over six hundred dollars, and the limit per student request was fifty. I would not stop though––I wanted to see those blueprints––in fact, I needed to look at those blueprints!
Dr. Elder came to the rescue. He recommended I apply for a research grant through the Valparaiso University Committee for Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression. Dr. Elder wrote me a letter of recommendation, and I filled out an expense projection as well as an outline of how the blueprints would be used. A few weeks later, the committee awarded me the grant. I was ecstatic, the next semester I made plans to venture down to the University of Illinois over spring break in early March using the grant money for gasoline, a hotel room, and photocopying expenses.
Months of anticipation passed and the day arrived. My coworker, friend, and fellow VU history major, Bailey Roberts joined me on this intrepid adventure. We drove three hours down to Illinois and arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign library in the morning.
Over the next several days, my mind was blown. In the archive we were able to find more letters and documents on the construction of the house, samples of original lampshades and wallpaper, drawings and designs of furniture for the mansion, drawings of other buildings Perkins designed for the Barkers, and most importantly: the mansion blueprints.
Drawing of Library Table
Pattern for the Drawing Room ceiling
The blueprints were in an oversize folder, about five feet square. In the folder were drawing of all the woodcarvings in the walls of the house, plans for the cabinets, the staircase, the fireplaces, a full-scale drawing of the library clock, and nine different blueprints for the mansion. These included the foundation, the basement, the three floors, the grounds of the mansion, two side views of the house, and the front of the mansion. It was an incredible find that revealed to us a new history of the Barker Mansion.
The first thing that jumped out was the date the blueprints were signed off, July-August 1905, this means that construction of the mansion did not begin until this time. Previously it was thought that the Barkers moved in in 1905, now with these blueprints and the letters with Perkins, we know that construction did not start until late 1905 and the family did not move in until at least 1909. This means that Mr. and Mrs. Barker lived in the mansion for less than a year before they passed away.
We also found out what each room in the mansion was intended for. My office was definitively proven to be the Valet’s bedroom, our archivist Jackie’s office was a butler’s bedroom, and many other rooms were relabeled or labeled for the first time. We also saw that the mansion was designed differently than we originally thought. The servants’ quarters were originally blocked off from the Barkers’ area of the second floor by a sewing room; the archives were three separate bedrooms originally; the third floor was designated as Catherine’s Playroom and not a ballroom. The third-floor Playroom had two different designs as well. One design in July 1905 included a small sitting room with a fireplace, the second design from August 1905 matched the current plan.
Throughout these blueprints were sketches of other small details in the mansion. We could see the original design for the wine cellar, with schematics for the shelf sizes and the design of the wine racks. The garden cisterns were included as well, with drawings of their depth, design, and connected pipes. Also included were a number of drawings of things that were never built at the mansion. We found a drawing for a fountain designated for the north wall of the garden. A drawing for an extension of the Garden pergola that included a ring of columns leading out to the garden walkway.
Through these documents, we gained insight into the different voices and perspectives embodied by the mansion. The majority of the correspondence between the architect and the Barkers was actually correspondence between Perkins and Katherine Fitzgerald Barker, John Barker’s second wife. She picked out the interior décor, consulted with Perkins on the design, even gave orders to contractors. She also had a separate account with Perkins’ firm in her name for the commission. The mansion, more than anything is an expression of Mrs. Barker’s vision and agency.
Alternative pergola design, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Libraries
Fountain design; University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Libraries
We also found that Perkins’ vision for the mansion went far beyond just the walls. Perkins designed most of the furniture, clocks, fireplaces, light fixtures, wood carvings, and other small details in the mansion. This was common in the time period, architects thought of themselves as designing a ‘lived-space’ and not just a structure. Designing furniture and other interior items was a way for the architect to design how the space within the house would be used by the family.
From the outside looking in, this adventure was merely an awkward Midwestern college student sitting at his computer screen, driving to southern Illinois, sitting in a small room full of old paper for several days, and then spending more time at the computer. But from my perspective, this was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy makes his way through the temple in the Amazon and switches a bag of sand with a gold idol. Finding these blueprints was just as thrilling as running from a giant stone ball or later protecting the Ark of the Covenant from Nazi archaeologists.
Over the past year, these blueprints have proved indispensable for me. I first revised all our tours at the mansion to match some of the new information. We changed the date the Barkers moved in from 1905 to 1909, updated which sections of the house were built in 1857 and which were from 1909 (quite a bit of that changed), the origins of the furniture (many pieces thought to be from Europe were designed by Perkins), and other small details. This new information also made its way into my book, and I also presented my findings at a conference at VU and in several presentations, most recently our “When Walls Talk” event on November 29.
This new information gave us a new story on the mansion but some things we could not change though. Our documentary, some signs in the downtown area and in front of the mansion, and previously published articles and websites all use the old information. I felt troubled that I was responsible for spreading false information to the public. These things were out of our control. History was out of control! But then I was reassured by my former boss Jessica Rosier, that as long as we try our best to give the public the best information possible we are not misinforming anyone. Heritage interpretation is after all not just information but revelation based upon information (Freeman Tilden Interpreting our Heritage 1957).
Someday the new information will completely replace the old, but until it will require a lot of publishing, updating, and researching. History is always changing though, new documents will always be found, new interpretations will be made, contexts will change, nothing is ever truly definitive. So, who knows? Maybe someday another historian’s adventure will rewrite everything I have discovered and written, I would be happy with that.
[All photos are from the University Of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Lincoln History Collections, Perkins Papers]
Christmas fever has officially began to descend on Barker Mansion! The lead up to December is always a hectic time as staff and volunteers attempt to ready the mansion for the Christmas season. With everything that goes on during this time of year related to Christmas I have never paid much thought to Thanksgiving in relation to the Barker family. So like a good historian, I got curious and started poking around, and what I found honestly surprised me.
When we think of Thanksgiving today our minds tend to go straight to the same few things: Black Friday, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, family, and the food of course. Today most people simply sit down for a meal with their closest friends and family and I assumed that it would be the same for the Barkers, especially considering that I knew through previous research that in the early 1800s many people celebrated at home with their family. This of course got my mind going with ideas of what kind of menu would be served at a Barker Mansion Thanksgiving 100 years ago, so I went searching completely expecting to find an outline of an extravagant meal with expensive foods. When I found a menu, however, I was surprised to see that the menu itself was from a prominent New York hotel. With a little more digging I discovered that the turn of the century was a time where the trend was to eat a fancy meal at a restaurant, boarding house, or hotel. Due to their wealth and position in society, the Barker family would have spent Thanksgiving in a prominent Chicago hotel, likely the Palmer House.
This trend of eating dinner on Thanksgiving in a fancy restaurant or hotel only lasted from 1890-1920. After the end of World War I many decided to stay with their loved ones on the holiday, a decision that was re-enforced with the beginning of the Great Depression. Since then, Thanksgiving has returned to being a family oriented meal much like it is today.
Make sure to swing by the Barker Mansion this December during our extended hours to see the Christmas decorations!
Sometimes one of the most difficult things here at the Barker Mansion can be redesigning old exhibit cases. The issue we often run into is how much of what can and should be displayed is already on display. A vast majority of the items in the archive consist of paper, photograph, and small items. It can be difficult to create a new exhibit out of the 3D items as they are a true hodgepodge, and displays of just photographs and documents are not nearly as gripping as the displays with beautiful items of the time period. Despite the difficulties we can sometimes have with creating exhibits, we are always looking for ways to bring new information to the public in the form of temporary and permanent exhibits.
The small exhibit case in the foyer of the Barker Mansion holds temporary exhibits that we change out every 1-2 months with items that tend to be related to upcoming events. Currently the case houses an exhibit of Catherine’s toys that are typically in a case upstairs and are not always seen by guests. We moved some of her toys down to advertise for an event we hosted earlier this summer called The Doll Tea. This case will be redone within the next few weeks for an upcoming event in November. The larger cases, like those in the Ballroom, are not changed out as frequently, making the task of creating a good, more permanent exhibit very challenging.
There are several reasons why permanent exhibits can be difficult to deal with, especially in a museum like the Barker Mansion, which does not acquire new items to display.
This causes two problems: First, items can be damaged from remaining incorrectly displayed or displayed for an extreme length of time. A good example of an item that was incorrectly displayed was the dress that was on display in the Barker Mansion for over 30 years. We took the dress out of its case earlier this year and we were all terrified about the dress just falling apart as we tried to move it. Getting it out of the case was quite the production; taking six people hovering around and carefully lifting out the dress. Although it was on a mannequin, we still feared what the condition of the dress would be as we started to move it and take it off of the mannequin. As we lifted it out of the case we noted that it had been sewn onto the mannequin, it was too small for the dress, which worried us even more since we would now have to remove the stitches without tearing the dress. Luckily we were able to remove the dress from the mannequin without damaging it more. Another plus was the fact that the dress had much less damage than we thought it would. The worst of the damage was on the inside of the skirt where the weighted silk had pulled itself apart, which happens often to old clothing made of weighted silk. After removing the dress we packed it away and put it in the archive where it will stay for the next few years and rest.
The second issue is that permanent displays cause stagnation in interpretation and programming. A lack of change in our displays can cause returning visitors to lose interest in the displays they have seen before, so changing the displays not only pleases our visitors it reinvigorates the mansion as a whole and allows us to display new items and bring a new side of the Barker story to our visitors.
But this brings us back to question, “what do we display?”
I will admit that when we pulled the dress out of its case earlier this year I worried that whatever display I put together wouldn’t be able to stand up to the beautiful dress that had occupied the case for 30 years. Luckily for me, I found a gold mine hidden away in what we call the Trunk Room.
My original plan was to pull some of the original steamer trunks out and display them open in the case with some of the smaller travel related items we had in the archives. Imagine my shock when the first trunk I opened turned out to be a Louis Vuitton ‘Ideal’ men’s steamer trunk c. 1905! This was a very happy moment because I had just found my center piece for the case. I went on to find another Vuitton trunk that had belonged to Mrs. Barker as well as a leather bag from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Along with these three items I pulled out two more trunks and several small items and created what became one of my favorite exhibits to date.
While I adored the case, I knew that there were some small problems with it that I would like to address the next time I created an exhibit or had the chance to fix this one. A few weeks ago the case next to my trunk case was emptied and I was asked to create an exhibit for it. In the beginning I was stumped, because what am I supposed to put into it? There were no large ‘matching’ collections in archive that I could display aside from some of the travel related items I didn’t use in the original trunk case. Then I got the idea to connect the two cases. This allowed me to display more items in a better fashion. One of the mistakes I made with the original trunk case was overcrowding. There were too many items jammed into the case and it made it hard for visitors to take it all in. By taking out some of the items, I was able to really highlight the Vuitton trunk in the center. A few of the items that came out of the trunk case were put into the long case next to it along with some new items from the archive. I then took the time to number every item and create a list that described each item. I also recreated the sign for the display and put it between the two cases. In the end, I prefer this new display as it is not as overcrowded and it is easier to learn what each item is thanks to the itemized list.
Though it can be difficult to put together these exhibits, there is always something so satisfying seeing them finally come together. Moving forward, the staff here at the Barker Mansion plans to redo many of the exhibit cases throughout the mansion. Keep an eye out the next time you visit for our new exhibits!