Cisterns!​

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.

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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.

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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

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