Tuesday, September 01, 2015

301 Front St.: An Architectural Treasure?

301 Front Street, Portsmouth: An Architectural Treasure?

    One of the unfortunate things about the history of Portsmouth architecture is that in the original hand-written records, instead of listing the year, or at least the approximate year that an old house was built, somebody in the Scioto County Auditor's Office simply wrote "old." When the records were digitalized around 1998, "old" was a vaguely useless bit of data, so the Auditor's Office arbitrarily adopted the year 1900 for the birthdate of all nineteenth century buildings it did not have a definite year for, and 1950 for all twentieth century buildings it did not have a definite year for. If there was an ideal solution for the problem of dating Portsmouth's old buildings, attributing the years 1900 and 1950 to them by the Auditor's Office was far from  ideal.  Instead of being  vague about when a building was built by classifying them as "old," the digitalized records now are misleading because there are no asterisks or other indications that 1900 and 1950 are arbitrary and not the actual dates when the buildings came into being.

      Unlike wooden structures, which were victims of time, fire, and termites, one old brick building that survived and could be dated was  associated with a prominent, prolific family whose history was a matter of record,  namely the Kinney family. The style of the original Kinney house reflected the sober, even austere  Federal-style that predominated in  New England and the Northeast from the time of the Revolution to about 1830. The founder of the clan, Aaron Kinney and his wife were from Pennsylvania, whose state motto is "Virtue, Independence and Liberty," which suggests that morality had priority in the Keystone State.  The construction of the Kinney house was begun in 1810 but was not finished until 1812. At first,  as was the custom, the age of a building was dated from the time it was completed, not from when it was begun but from when it was finished, as a baby's age was determined not by when it was conceived but by when it was born. So the Kinney home became the 1812 House, but because the older a building was the more prestige it and the family associated with it had in a new county like America where everyone was supposed to be equal, the 1812 House became the 1810 house.  But not only was the date of the Kinney house changed, so eventually was its style of architecture. What makes the style of the 1810 House pretentious is the incongruous pillared front, which was added in 1913, over a century after the house had been built. Since it was like a Southern mini-manse in the ante-bellum South, it was a front in more than one sense. Those Kinneys who were born and raised and  became well-to-do in Portsmouth were the members of the nascent aristocracy of southern Ohio.  Like the Appalachian migrants they rubbed elbows with, the Kinneys were more influenced culturally and politically by the South than they were by Pennsylvania and New England. The unofficial motto of the city became, "Portsmouth,  where Southern hospitality begins." As it is currently looks,  the 1810 House could be said to be where Southern pretentiousness begins.

The 1810 House: "Where Southern pretentiousness begins."
   301 Front Street   

      If the date of the  construction of the Kinney house was known because of the prominence and importance of the Kinney family, the date of the house at 301 Front Street was lost because its occupant, James Salsbury (the spelling varied) was not the founder of a prominent family and the two-story brick Federal-style house he lived in, and perhaps was owner of, was a plain and unpretentious example of plebeian, vernacular architecture. The house  was built no later than 1820, and probably at least a few years earlier. It has apparently not been altered at all, at least externally, in the nearly two centuries of its existence. Salsbury was a saddler, a moderately successful one, or he wouldn't have been able to build a new house, assuming he owned it. He was active in local affairs, but he was obviously no Kinney, intellectually and socially, with no descendants who kept the Salsbury name alive who might have fiddled with 301 Front Street to make it more imposing and stylish. That is the beauty of 301 Front: its plainness and simplicity, its democratic, somewhat anonymous and by now gritty dignity. If John G. Peebles had not mentioned the house in passing in his journal, which Nelson W. Evans reprinted in his History of Scioto County (1903), where I found it, 301 Front Street might have historically gone up in smoke, so to speak.

      The current  records in the Auditor’s Office say 301 Front Street  was built in 1900, the arbitrary year assigned to older buildings. The unpretentious, two-story house  is an example of Federal-style architecture, which was popular in the United States between 1780 and 1830, and particularly in the thirty years between 1785 to 1830. There are few Federal-style houses  remaining in Portsmouth because there were relatively few to begin with, and the couple of unoccupied examples that remain are in sorry condition, with the exception of 301 Front Street, which up to now has been  a neglected, architectural treasure. (The reason it is a treasure may be precisely because it was neglected.) Its proportions, which haven't changed, seem perfect, like a small Greek temple. The reasons it was neglected may be in part because of errors made by Evans and/or by his  contemporary John G. Peebles, who had drawn a map in 1894 of Portsmouth as it purportedly had been in 1820, which Evans had relied on in drawing the  map he included in his history (Vol. 1, between pages 441-442). Evans is a somewhat unreliable source in determining the age of an old building.

   What's in a Name?   

      The names of Portsmouth Streets had changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Water Street had become Front Street, and West Second Street had become Madison Street. Either Evans or Peebles or both had made a hash of those streets in the following passage (I, 439), in which Evans appears to be quoting Peebles: "In-lot,  Number 227, on the southeast corner of Madison and [West] Second streets, had a small brick house in which James Salsbury lived after his marriage to Nancy Kehoe." The first mistake in this passage is that what is now 301 Front Street could not have been located  on any corner of Madison and [West] Second streets because those two are one and the same street, a street that was  first called West Second and later renamed Madison; and the in-lot on which the brick house was located, that is, the in-lot on the corner, was number 228, not number 227, though the two in-lots adjoined and were probably both part of the property. The house that was later numbered 301 Front was in 1820 on the corner of West Second and Water Street, or West Second and Front Street, if the name of Water Street had been changed by that time to Front Street. The passage of Peebles' journal that Evan's quotes from is in the section with the heading "Residents of Portsmouth, 1819-1821," so what is now 301 Front Street could have been in existence as early as 1819, and probably  at least several years earlier. It is remotely possible that 301 Front Street is about as old as the 1810 (really 1812) house.

      The  confusion about 301 Front Street is a reminder that words are symbols of the thing they represent, and not the the thing itself,  not what Kant called the "ding an sich," which is strictly and epistemologically speaking, unknowable. If we equate reality with the things language represents, we are being not only presumptuous but vulnerable. Words as symbols are not hard to manipulate and even when they are not being intentionally manipulated, they are subject to slippage, with one street becoming two and a corner occurring where none really exists, and with Water Street becoming Front. The latter change, incidentally, was probably an example of the conscious manipulation of symbols, in this instance words, for a purpose. Naming a street Water Street because a river is adjacent to it becomes a disadvantage when the river periodically floods over not just Water Street but half the city,  something a real estate agent and property  owners on Water Street would not want prospective buyers to be reminded of. Similarly, the change of the name of West Second Street to Madison was done for patriotic, i.e., political reasons, as was the change of another street to Jefferson Street. Later, in the twentieth century, I discovered in the Portsmouth Public Library, a woman trying to raise money for the 1810 House gave as one of the reasons the public should  support the house was because it represented "the American way of life," not just the Kinney way of life. But since the 1810 House had become architecturally Southern "gentrifried" by that time, what she was really saying was that the house represented not so much the American way of life as the Southern American way of life. Wasn't  the periodic appearance of  the Ku Klux Klan in Portsmouth throughout the twentieth century a manifestation of the darker side of this Southern American way of life? And is not Jo Ann Aeh's imminent return by underhanded electoral means to the Portsmouth City Council not a reminder of the recent underhanded return to the city manager form of city government. The return to a city manager was a virtual coup d'etat orchestrated by the International City/County Managerial Association. It  did not change Portsmouth politically for the better, and the hiring of a convicted perjurer as city manager virtually guaranteed that it would be crooked business as usual, a feature of that crooked business being the game of musical chairs that is facilitated by the four-year terms of council members who frequently do not finish their terms, giving the council the opportunity to appoint their obliging, rubber stamp  replacements?
      The  bright spot in the recent history of  301 Front Street is that it was purchased in  September, 2014,  by a  young  sociology professor  at Shawnee State University. Sean Dunne is not an ivory tower academic. He is actively involved in community projects, which has earned him a place on our prevaricating city manager’s hit list. Derek Allen's attempt to pass a falsehood off as truth got him in a lot of trouble when he was a member of the city government in Piqua, where they would not hire him as dogcatcher after he was found guilty of perjury, having  testified under oath to what was not true. But that did not prevent the Portsmouth City council from hiring the perjured Allen at a $100,000 plus salary, with a generous severance package as city manager after he persuaded the search committee, with his deceptive words, that he was not really a perjurer.  In the year Dunne  has owned 301 Front Street, he has made major improvements in the inside of the building, probably spending more money than anyone ever has  upgrading the property.  He estimates he has already spent and gone into debt to the tune of about $30,000, without a dime of assistance from the city government or semi-public agencies, Among the improvements he has made was ridding the cellar of termites and removing the huge old sycamore tree near the rear of his house. Because the tree had become hollowed out as it aged, which happens with sycamores, it was leaning toward and in danger of falling on and crushing the small old house. In addition, an inspection of the house by a professional revealed the roots of the sycamore was  damaging the foundation of the house, making its removal imperative.  

      That Professor Dunne was willing to go into debt to buy and upgrade the property—and remove the menacing tree—is ironic in view of what has happened to another historic,  far larger  and more imposing Boneyfiddle house that I have recently written about in River Vices (see link below). I refer to  633 4th Street, the last two owners of which, a lawyer and a doctor, with much more earning potential than a college  professor, were not willing to go to the  expense of removing the towering trees that had turned into  twin Frankensteins. What  the present absentee owner of 633 4th, the doctor, did, instead of removing at least the more menacing of the two trees, was hide its exposed roots behind a new brick wall, the old wall having been pushed over by the tree’s  slowly clambering roots. For anchorage and nutriments, a  tall tree needs its roots to extend up to fifty feet from the trunk of the tree. The tree in the confining northwest corner of  633 4th Street  had become imprisoned, and in an attempt to break out of its imprisonment, had put pressure on the wall, which eventually toppled over. Walled up again, that partially uprooted tree could topple over onto Washington Street at any time, but especially in high winds. It was fortunate that the tree whose roots had been cut had not killed or maimed some child when it fell in  Tracy Park (see the link below). If and when the Frankenstein tree falls on Washington Street, who knows what it might do? Perhaps what our city  needs are more civic-minded college professors and fewer shyster lawyers, like Mike Mearan, fewer absentee landlord-doctors, like Dr. Singer, and fewer prevaricating city managers like Derek Allen.

Sean Dunne with SSU students at a recent meeting 
of the North Central Sociological Association.

Relevant Posts

Update on a Cover-up (click here)
Deathtrap for Tots (click here)
The Dragoness Jo Ann Aeh (click here)
Don't confuse the Klan with the Klutzes (click here)