A Gap in the Historical Record

TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter 

*The views Expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion* 

A lot of small historical details in the mansion keep me awake at night. Is the desk in my office original to the Barkers (it doesn’t have an inventory number, but it has a turn-of-the-century Marshall Fields label)? When were the bricks replaced on the 1857 wing of the house? Was this the first home in Laporte Country with electricity?  Who gave Catherine the sewing machine that is on the second floor? What happened to the dumbwaiter (I have documentation that one was installed)? Or, from my last post: was the dining room table button connected to a light bulb or a buzzer?

Last week I was able to rest a little easier, having found the answer to one of the more perplexing questions about the layout of the mansion. Every once in a while on tour, I am asked about this space in the Butler’s pantry: 

It is a gap, about three feet wide by five feet deep, between the cabinet on the west end of the Butler’s pantry and the wall of the kitchen pantry. The kitchen pantry was a small room between the Butler’s pantry and the kitchen. This is where some food was stored and where pastry dough was rolled on a marble countertop designed to keep the dough cold in the summer. Stacking small pantries such as this between the kitchen and dining room was a means of preventing the smells and sounds of the kitchen from reaching the dining room. When I first learned of this, I assumed the small gap was a part of this function, providing a means into the Butler’s pantry that did not require opening the main door to the Butler’s pantry.

This was a bad answer, and it did not very make much sense. The gap might have had different airflow, but it still did not have a door on it; the gap would not have restricted airflow very well. Without photos of what the room was like originally (the Barkers did not leave behind any photos of the servant’s areas, and likely none were taken) and without documentation, this poor answer would have to do even though it seemed very unnecessary.

A few other details about the gap were perplexing. The window in the back was of a different type of wood than anything else in the house, and the lock on it was much newer. The light in the gap also seemed to be a much newer fixture, possibly 1960s or 70s. There also was a small open cabinet in the back of the gap. Many things have been replaced in the mansion though, there may have been a window and a light fixture there originally which was replaced at some point. I needed more documentation to answer this riddle the Barker’s left for me.


The Cabinet and window in the back of the gap


It turns out the documentation was quite literally right in front of me. Taped on the wall to the left of my desk is a series of print-outs of the blueprints for the mansion. These are a few of the several hundred pages of blueprints, drawings, contracts, bids, and letters documenting the construction of the mansion that I found at the University of Illinois last year. One of the drawings on my wall was of the cabinets that were originally designed for the Butler’s Pantry, Kitchen, Kitchen Pantry, and Servants’ Dining Room.

IMG_1620 copy

A big chunk of the work I do at the mansion requires me sitting in my office chair, e,.g., running the website, writing these blog posts, research, polishing silver. Usually, after a few hours of sitting in the same position, my back becomes a bit sore. My other job in Valpo is more flexible, and I normally leave and work from home or a coffee shop when my back becomes sore (I regularly become restless there because I sit in a boring cubicle as opposed to the Valet’s room of a 35,000 square foot mansion). At the mansion, I usually switch and work under the garden pergola, find outdoors work to do, or I do what many people do and I recline very far back in my chair and stick my feet on the desk (every once in a while I tip my chair over and fall on the floor).

Last week I was cataloging some documents on my computer, and I started to lean far back in my chair. My head was very close to the print-out of the drawings for cabinets when I realized something that I never noticed before. Right there on the wall next to me was the answer to my historical riddle. The drawing had the gap labeled as “old refrigerator.”


Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 12.46.50 PM
“old refrigerator” labeled on the right


I was ecstatic, I finally found the answer! I quickly searched through my files and found some more blueprints that labeled the space the same. The 1905 addition blueprint for the first floor also had the “old refrigerator” marked in purple. The purple lines were parts of the mansion that remained in the new addition, the walls, doors, windows, and other features removed were drawn in dashed pink lines (the dashed lines in the photo below mark the old wall of the 1857 house that was removed in 1905). The refrigerator seemed to have been installed more recently was something worth saving when the Barkers planned the addition to the house.




Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 12.47.24 PM
Refrigerator labeled on 1905 blueprint. The pink dashed line is the wall of the original home that was removed with the addition.


The refrigerator filled the gap between the cabinet and the wall and gave me a definite answer to give on tour but it still left some questions open. How did it work? What did it look like? Where did it go?

I am not sure how to answer the third question. It may have been removed by Purdue University when they were here, which might explain the dating of the lighting installed in the gap. Catherine Barker may have switched it out for a new model in the 1920s. All I know is that it is gone and that someone put in a window and light bulb in its place. I also am not sure when the small cabinet was added in the ba,ck, like the window, it is made from a very different type of wood from the rest of the cabinets.

To answer the first two questions, I had to dig around a bit more. The refrigerator that was in place would have been very different than what we use today. Electric refrigerators were not common until after 1911 and the refrigerator in place at the mansion may have had a system of mechanical coils that used ammonia to keep things cool. Refrigerators of this type were manufactured in Michigan City at the time. Below is a photo of a refrigerator manufactured in Michigan City that was displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair. I found the photo and a newspaper article about it at the Lighthouse Museum last year. I had scanned it as part of some research I was doing on the World’s Fair and had no idea that it would come in handy with my research at the mansion.


Michigan-City-made refrigerator displayed at 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Courtesy of Lighthouse Museum and Michigan City Historical Society.


I originally had thought that the refrigerator in place was an ice box; a series of cabinets lined with zinc or tile that kept food cool with ice that was regularly replenished by ice deliveries.  Below is a photo from the Lighthouse Museum of an ice delivery wagon in the Michigan City from around the turn of the century. This wagon would pull up and drop off big cubes of ice at Michigan City homes. The original mansion would have had ice delivery. as ice boxes were common at the time the first house was built. The addition also may have had ice delivery as well, for use in drinks in the summer. Oliver Mansion, a historic mansion in South Bend, still has a ten-door ice box installed in the 1930s (I’m jealous).


Michigan City Ice delivery wagon, date unknown. Courtesy of Lighthouse Museum and Michigan City Historical Society


Like every adventure in the world of primary sources, I had a great deal of fun with this project. I always enjoy looking at blueprints and especially at old advertisements from the Gilded Age; on a future post I might share my collection of strange Gilded Age advertisements that I have found in my various research projects. I can now rest easy knowing that this gap in the historical record has been filled.

TJ Kalin 6.30.19

The Barkers’ Smart Home

TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

Historians today refer to our current time period as a “New Gilded Age” an era marked by the same economic issues and cultural debates of the first Gilded Age, e.g., similar levels income inequality, debates over immigration, the rise of mega-corporations (Standard Oil vs. Amazon). While these big parallels bring up very important historical questions (I’ll write a blog post on them soon), I am more interested in some more subtle parallels that may or may not be parallels as much as they are points on a single line of continuity from the Gilded Age. These parallels are technological.

The Gilded Age was an era marked by extreme technological change. Before the 19thcentury humans had never traveled faster than wind, water, or horse but suddenly in the Gilded Age, the onset of railroads and steamships meant that humans could travel incredible distances at never-heard-from-before speeds. Today our society is seeing public interest in similar changes in human abilities, such as hyperloops, accessible space travel, and even teleportation (recently researchers have been able to teleport photons). The first Gilded Age also saw the rise of a print media and the first wire press services, e.g., the Associated Press. With telegraphs and telephones human ideas and communication could travel much faster than ever before (I always think about how in 1815 Andrew Jackson fought the battle of New Orleans without knowing that a peace treaty was already signed on the other side of the Atlantic). After the millennium, humans’ ability to communicate and transmit knowledge has been rapidly expanded to all corners of the globe and as well entirely new mediums of communication, i.e., social media.

I try to keep these parallels in mind when designing interpretive programming. Freeman Tilden’s first principle of heritage interpretation calls for this:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

To make meaningful interpretive programs and to ultimately provoke visitors to take part in stewarding our site, programming needs to connect to the experience of the visitor. I try to do some of this every day during the 1pm guided tour of the mansion. When on tour I invoke the technological parallels of the first Gilded Age to explain how the Barkers’ warming oven was an ‘old-fashioned microwave’ or that Mrs. Barker’s calling hour filled the same function as Facebook. This is of course simply using metaphors, not invoking concrete historical parallels. Some of these similarities are historical continuities; i.e., the warming oven was a device filled to fit the exact same demand as the modern microwave, the microwave is just more advanced.

A lot of new technology seems to lack a Gilded Age precursor for me to interpret. I previously thought that smart home technology such as Amazon Echo, voice-activated lights, smart TV’s, wholly lacked Gilded Age precursors. I am not a fan of this technology, in fact, I loathe smart home devices; at one point where I ordered my roommate to remove an Amazon Echo from our dining room. I am not afraid of technology, I wrote this blog post on a mac, after all, I just distrust the introduction of this technology into my life. The smart home is just too much too fast for me, too similar to the Telescreen in George Orwell’s 1984 or the spaceship in the movie Wall-E. My fears might be unfounded though, the smart home might not be that radical, in fact, this week I found some historical precedents for the Amazon Echo in the Barker Mansion.

Every week I reread bits and pieces of the several-hundred pages of work orders, drawings, blueprints, contracts, and bids for the construction of the mansion that I have saved on my desktop. This week I ran across the original plans for the telephone and bell system inside the mansion and decided to spend some more time picking them apart.


The telephone and bell system was described in a two-page work order from May 16, 1905. The plans were drawn up by the architect Frederick Wainwright Perkins and the contract for the work was signed two months later on July 22, 1905. The contract was between John H. Barker and electricians, Boyd and Garrettson, and the original cost was $1,300 for everything all together (roughly $35,000-40,000 in 2019). The contract included the “bell and telephone work” as well as the electric wiring in the mansion. The contract called for the conduits and wiring, and it is not clear if this included the telephone and bells themselves. Using these documents along with the remaining buzzers, bells, intercoms, and telephones in the mansion, I was able to paint a near-complete picture of how the system worked.

Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 2.23.38 PM.png

The plans called for a “cabinet furnished oak annunciator of four drops” in the Butler’s Pantry and another one “of six drops” in the second-floor servant’s hallway. The annunciator was a wooden panel which contained rows of ‘drops’ that would signal when and where call buttons built into the walls of several rooms were pressed. The Butler’s pantry had four drops for the front door, porch, library, and drawing room. The annunciator on the second floor had six drops; one for each of the five second-floor bedrooms and one for the master bathroom.

Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 12.54.49 PM

What did the drops look like exactly? Well, there are a few different types of drops in annunciators at the time. Some annunciators had drops that were holes which would uncover when a button was pressed. Another type had “drops” that were tabbed which would flip over like the numbers in a 1980s alarm clock (like the one that woke Bill Murray up in the 1993 film Groundhog Day). Other annunciators had arrows that turned when the buttons were pressed. I am not sure what the Barkers’ looked like, but I will keep digging in the historical record.

None of the annunciators are still in place, but most of the call buttons remain on the second floor. The plans ordered that the call buttons would be “bronze plated.” The buttons that remain on these floors are all set inside the bronze plates around the light switches. The buttons on the second floor were of this variety while the buttons in the drawing room and library were “Pullman pushes” with “black rubber buttons.” The drawing button appears to have been walled over, but you cans till feel the wiring behind the cloth wallpaper beneath the light switches. The library button was still in place and was set in wood. I did not see any black rubber on the button.

The front door and lower hall door (the garden door) included doorbells that would ring two different tones from a spot near the Butler’s pantry as well as in the servant’s hall upstairs. The butler’s room is across the hall from the butler’s pantry, and the first-floor one was likely situated so that the butler could hear them in either room. The two doorbells would also ring a ‘faint single stroke bell’ throughout the first floor. The bells would also be connected to the annunciator so that whenever a call button was pressed the servants would know to go look at the annunciators to see where they are needed. If a servant was by the annunciator, they could turn a switch that would turn the bell off so that it would not ring when the annunciators are pressed. This was likely to be done at night so that the on-call maids could watch the annunciator while not having the entire house woken up by the bells playing. Two buttons that remain in the Butler’s pantry are likely the ones used to turn the bells off.

In additions to the doorbells were two bells in the dining room and the Valet’s room. The Valet’s room bell was connected to a “silk cord extension push” in Mr. Barker’s bedroom; the two rooms were connected by a walk-in closet. A silk cord extension push was simply a porcelain button like the other call buttons in the house. The silk cord was a silk covered electrical cord that ran out from the top of the button panel. The silk cord and the buttons have nee taken out of these rooms, but some silk cords still remain in the mansion, attached to some telephones and lamps.

The plans called for another silk cord extension push in the dining room that turned on a “buzzer” in the Butler’s pantry. This specific detail has turned out to be a major puzzle for me. Today, a wooden outline of a button can be felt in the dining room table, and I was instructed that the button turned in a light bulb in the Butler’s pantry and not a bell. The light was at the end of the pantry, and it was above two buttons built into the wall that controlled the bells sound. The angle and placement of the light make me think it was used for signaling because it would not be providing much light where it is, and it is close to the buttons in the wall.

This historical detail has proved elusive. I have poured through the extensive electric lighting contracts and have not found any order for an electric light connected to the table button nor have I found instructions for the light bulb at the end of the Butler’s pantry. The electric specification called for an overhead light and two lamps over the windows, but no light bulb at the end of the room. It is possible that the buzzer was changed out for a light bulb at some point after all the work specifications are not definitive, changes occur all the time, and the Barkers may have changed their mind at some point after the buzzer was installed. It is also possible that the buzzer was used and instead the light bulb was added to give extra light in front of the refrigerator that sat across from where the bulb is today. The refrigerator was behind a cabinet at the very end of the room and would not have gotten very much light from the overhead light. Thus I am at a historical impasse, but hopefully, I will be able to piece together the puzzle soon; there is surely some detail out there I have missed in either the 800-page architectural documents or in the mansion archives. This is why I love primary sources.

The documents also included orders for quite several telephones inside the mansion. The mansion includes “six-eight station intercommunicating telephones,” these were intercom phones that could call one another throughout the home. The phones were “eight stations” rather than six because the Barkers had two extra phone lines in case they needed more intercoms (it did specify where the outlets were). Three intercoms were in the laundry, kitchen, and servants’ hallway. Another intercom was in Mr. Barker’s bedroom while another was on the third floor. An intercom is still in place on the third floor, but it does not appear to be the one installed in 1905. While the plans called for eight phone lines, but the one installed on the third floor has ten numbers lines and then two extra lines “H” and “I.” I am not sure what the extra two lines and “H” and “I” were for.

It is possible that this phone was added in by Catherine Barker in the 1920s, but it is still possible that the phone is original. The original specifications had called for three white oak intercoms and a mahogany intercom on the third floor and another mahogancy intercom in Mr. Barker’s room, but the words white oak and mahogany have been crossed out on the specifications. The third-floor intercom that is there today is made from what appears to be brass or copper. The words appear to have been crossed out by Boyd and Garrettson (their signature appears in the same color ink a few inches below where they are crossed out) and may have been a change added in when the addenda were signed. This means it is possible that the current metal intercom and more lines were added when they were first installed.

Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 12.54.59 PM

The sixth intercom was a “nickel-plated desk instrument” in Mrs. Barker’s morning room on the second floor. This final phone was the only phone that was able to call out of the mansion. The phone, along with a telephone register filled with the names and numbers of various businesses and society individuals in Chicago still sit in Mrs. Barker’s sitting room today.

The final instructions in the contract was an addendum to the specifications when the contract was signed on July 22, 1905. The addenda specified that the telephones would be “non-interfering flush telephones” made by the “Electric Gas Lighting Co” through “Allen Haines, Agent Chicago.” Flush telephones are phones where the receiver hangs on a hook which, when pressed by the weight of the receiver, ends the call. The same company would also do the wiring in the mansion, which called for rubber wiring on all the phone lines (the electric wiring was covered with canvas).

This complicated system of buzzers, telephones, bells, annunciators, and call buttons made the Barkers’ home a smart home. Like an Amazon Echo, the Barkers would press a button or pick up a phone anywhere in their home and order anything they want whether it is a meal, an outfit, a massage (they had a massage table in the master bathroom), or a grocery list. Similar to a smart home, the Barkers would call the intercom and order the house to be cooled or heated as they pleased (thanks for a complicated modern heating as well as an early cold air register) or they could have servants turn on the lights as needed. The big difference though is that the Barker’s system cost the equivalent of $40,000 to install and required ten people working around the house to meet their demands.

This system allowed the Barkers’ servants to have a high level of coordination. Many of these servants would always be at the whim of the system; a typical domestic servant in the Gilded Age worked twelve to fourteen hours per days and was on call around the clock, with the exception of Sunday afternoons. This is a historical gap I find difficult to cross. I see the buzzers and bells with great excitement, another detail in the history of the building but to really understand the system I need to get in the servants’ heads. I need to understand what this system meant to them, the what-its-like of their historical experience. The system is more than just an interesting historical parallel, it directed the lives of ten people, and hopefully, this project can get me a little closer to understanding those lives.

TJ Kalin 6.26.19




TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

 *The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

 This week has been very exciting at the mansion! Well, exciting to me. See, I, TJ, love the mundane, the every-day, the unseen in history, things that appear boring at the outset. In the past I have gotten overexcited about small historical details such as finding old electrical outlets in the floor of the mansion, tracing out the stops Catherine Barker Spaulding took on her honeymoon in 1915, learning the original species of plants in our garden (see my next blog post for an update), finding out which pieces of furniture were designed by the mansion’s architect, and many, many more minute details. I live for this kind of history.

This week my ‘big’ discovery was the mansion’s drainage system. Outside the window of my office are three large manhole covers, hidden behind a hedge on the south side of the garden. I knew that they all led into cisterns, but I wasn’t sure what role they played or how they worked. Cisterns have historically been used to collect rainwater for drinking, laundry, and other uses. I was originally doubtful that the cisterns at the Barker Mansion were for drinking water since the mansion had pressurized plumbing installed in the new addition in 1905-09 and the cisterns were built as part of the addition. The original house also had cisterns, but they were taken out with the addition; The od cisterns were removed because the new house had far higher drainage demands given the size of the addition compared to the original house and the original cisterns may have been in the way of the planned addition. The cisterns that were added with the addition were used for laundry, the boiler, the bathroom and many other functions inside the house. They were connected to a special tank that pressurized the cistern water to carry it anywhere it the house, check out my post on water use at the mansion to learn more.

The cisterns are fed by rainwater collected from all of the gutters on the mansion. All of the roof gutters in the new part of the mansion collected in a big pool on top of the pergola. This pool drained into a pipe that ran through the wall of the pergola.

The older wing of the house had gutters that drained into the cisterns through drains around the basement windows. The pipe inside the wall was iron. This iron pipe fed into one of several tile drains that ran beneath the surface of the garden. Tile drains are made from a porous material, usually clay or porcelain that allows water in the soil to drain into the pipe. Tile drains run all throughout the garden, connecting drains inside the north wall to the Cistern; all of them were fed by similar iron pipes. Some even connected drains on the south side of the mansion bordering Washington and 7th streets, taking water at a right angle all around the house to the cisterns. This means all excess water in the gutter and soil of the grounds of the mansion would be able to find its way into the cistern.

The mansion garden is a sunken garden about 4-5 feet below street level. A well nearby the NIPSCO plant has the water table marked at about 7.4-8.3 feet below the surface (special thanks to Dr. John-Paul McCool for looking into this for me). The water table may be higher where the mansion is located. Apparently, there is a spring downtown that flooded the basement of Barker Hall one block away while it was under construction. All this means that the sunken garden at the mansion would likely be flooded or oversaturated during large rainstorms. The tile drains prevent this from happening, pulling excess water into the cisterns. I think they do a pretty good job given that in over three years at the mansion I have never seen standing water in the garden.

The two cisterns on the side of the garden were connected to the basement of the 1857 wing of the house. The two cisterns were made from brick all around with an extra layer of concrete on the bottom. Between the two cisterns was a box-shaped part labeled ‘filter system.’ After a little research, I learned that this was a chamber where water flowed through bricks to purify it for drinking water.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 3.56.46 PM

In the photo above are three man hold covers. The middle cover is for the filtration chamber, and the other two covers are for the chambers of the cisterns. The Cisterns are quite deep, around 10 feet (the exact depth marked on the blueprints is smudged and hard to read). When I opened them up last week, the water was very clear inside the cistern that was fed from the filtration system, evidence that it was still working great after 110 years. All the cisterns were full of at least 5 feet of water or more; it was hard getting enough light in to take a decent photo. The filtration chamber was also quite clear. I had some trouble safely lifting the manhole cover off the cistern closest to the tree, it was covered in moss, and some bricks seemed to have fused onto the iron cover. With the help of our new gardener, James, we were able to safely lift it off without damaging any of the bricks. This cistern was also half full, and there was quite a bit of debris in it. At some point, someone had thrown a metal signpost into the cistern, and there seemed to be some more small pipes or pieces of wood on the bottom of the cistern. There also was a large metal pipe that was heavily, heavily corroding inside the cistern. This pipe was not included in the blueprints, so I am not sure when it was put in or what its purpose was. It would not have been the water intake for the cisterns since the intake had to be lower than the level of the tile drains that fed into it. The blueprint had the intake pipe entering the cistern about a quarter of the way up from the floor of the cistern.


I am not sure where the cistern let water out or where the overflow might be. The blueprints do not have the overflow labeled. There may originally have been a spout in the basement that allowed water to flow out from the cistern, but I do not have any listed on the basement blueprints. There also could have been a hand-powered pump in the garden above the cisterns, but this also unclear. I went down into the basement and looked at the walls on the side where the cisterns are, and I did not see any spigots coming from the wall nor did I see evidence any that have been removed. Since the basement bathroom is right across from the cistern that collected purified water, it may have been in there, but the garden-side wall in the bathroom has been covered in drywall. I will keep looking, and hopefully, in a week or two, I can update this blog post with the correct location.

On the other side of the tree was another manhole cover. The lid on the cover read ‘sewerage,’ and I was worried that it might have been a modern sewage pipe, in which case I would not have dared open it. The blueprints listed this spot as the location of a catch basin for the fountain, with a single tile drain running from a corner of the fountain to the basin. When I opened the cover (which was a light circle of metal compared to the heavy cistern covers), I was surprised to see a very deep brick basin, with several small inlets at the bottom and a large pipe through which water was running. This pipe may have been a sewer pipe that drained excess water from the mansion’s interior plumbing. In the cistern blueprints, a sewer pipe is labeled running parallel to the cisterns toward the catch basin.



Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 3.56.57 PM
The fountain overflow is the top blue line running off the left side of the page. The supply for the fountain comes up underground in the lower left, most likely connected to the water main at the Barker’s factory. The access for the water main was in the alleyway on the other side of the west wall.


The blueprints also list another catch basin of a similar size on the north side of the mansion, right outside the laundry room windows. This basin appeared to be for excess water from the laundry as well as cooled water from the boiler, and possibly for water that drained into the window wells on that side of the house. Unfortunately, there is not a manhole cover in the garden where the basin is supposed to be so either this basin has been buried, removed, or was never put in place. My boss told me that I am not allowed to dig for the catch basin, so this will remain a mystery for now.


cisterns foundation
Laundry and boiler catch basin on the left side, listed in 1905 foundation blueprint.


I had a lot of fun with this project, I was able to do a little archaeology, and anytime I can be in the mansion garden is a good time. I am not sure what the next step with this project is. I am thinking of either designing an interpretive program on water use in the Gilded Age which would be a tour of the garden and cisterns. What I am also thinking of is doing a children’s program on sustainability that meets STEM education requirements. At my other job as an environmental consultant, I help make sure that manure from dairy farms does not leach nutrients and pathogens into the groundwater beneath the farm. This involves measuring the speed of groundwater flow using wells, and by analyzing maps, tile drains that many farms still use today. For a children’s STEM program, I might do something similar by having kids map out where pollutants would flow in the mansion’s garden drainage system. I would give kids a simplified map of the tile drains that they can draw on it and have them pour cups of water in the garden after which they would draw a line where the water flows. I can use the garden as an illustration of how the how drainage works throughout the Calumet region, interpreting the continental divide just north of Valparaiso as well as the places where pollutants can get into Lake Michigan. I have never been one for STEM education, but this project made me think a lot more about the overlap between historical interpretation and environmental interpretation.

TJ Kalin 6.23.19