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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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