By Anthony “TJ” Kalin, Heritage Interpreter
*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 Barkers’ 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 been 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 ‘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 as 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 dollars. 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.
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.
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]