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Adams Family Home: A House Divided

August 22, 2013

How can historians use the clues hidden in the floor plans of houses to piece together the past?

The Adams House floor plan in 1937 (left) at the time of The Henry Ford’s purchase, and the layout depicting 1878 (right), The Henry Ford’s chosen date of interpretation, are similar but have noticeable differences.

Every home is a reflection of the people who once resided there, at once a testament to the past and a projection into the future. In few cases is this more evident than in the George Matthew Adams House in Greenfield Village. Originally built in Saline, Michigan, in 1846, the house was moved to the Village in 1937 and reconstructed on the crest of a hill, not unlike many other houses in Greenfield Village. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it became apparent that the home was slowly sliding down. This of course signaled the beginning of a battle against time and gravity to save the Adams House; every problem that arises, however, brings with it new opportunities to try different approaches and put the latest scholarship into practice.

The recent work on the Adams House (also called the Adams Family Home) has given researchers a chance to look at the old house from a fresh perspective. When houses are renovated, historians do their best with the available sources to ensure the house in question is as close to the original plan as possible. Precision can prove to be difficult, as some important information is often absent from the written record. This is when logic and deduction come into play, much like detective work. Historians can use photographs and floor plans to discover the truth and uncover the mysteries hidden in the house.

This 1937 picture of the Adams House before relocation is exhibitive of changes to the house, including a stucco covering, a rear addition, and the window to the far left. The window’s lack of uniformity with the others suggests that it was added at a later date. This image and others shown here come from The Henry Ford's Greenfield Village buildings records collection (http://bit.ly/18Mx2qw), accumulated records documenting the history of each individual building in Greenfield Village, and colloquially known as the "Building Box collection."

Houses are rarely static objects. As the years go by, people change, families grow, and structures pass into different ownership. Homes are adapted to meet the needs of their residents, and in doing so, those same dwellings are able to share their secrets with those that have a discerning eye. Consider, for example, this picture of the front entryway of Adams House, looking into the kitchen. The way to the kitchen is open, just as it is at Greenfield Village, but what about the opening to the left, immediately in front of the kitchen door? When we study the blueprint, it appears that this passage would lead into the sitting room, although it is not depicted in the 1876 interpretation of the Adams House in the Village. It is entirely possible that this passage was open, and the doorway to the kitchen solid wall, when the home was built in 1846, more than three decades before George Matthew Adams. The kitchen of the 1840s was a far cry from the kitchen of today. While modern kitchens are open and inviting, often combined with or indistinguishable from the dining room, antebellum kitchens were usually cut off from the rest of the house, a place that the family never exhibited and where guests were rarely allowed. In fact, it was more likely to have a passage from the main hallway lead into the sitting room than the kitchen. It might be the case that the door to the kitchen was added many years later, when homeowners insisted on a greater degree of convenience and changing domestic patterns made the kitchen into more of a social and familial gathering place.

From the hall. The openings to the kitchen (straight ahead) and to the sitting room (to the left) may not have been built at the same time.

Looking into the kitchen from another angle, even more interesting features can be spotted. The wall with the doorway in the picture below shows a division in the kitchen, which in all likelihood was a pantry. So while it is unclear if the pantry wall in the picture is original to the house, there are several clues to help scholars determine a rough chronology. Many kitchens in the early Victorian era had no need for a pantry. After the Civil War, however, mass production and an increase in commercial products led to a need to store food and keep it organized. The Adams House as it stands today does indeed have a pantry, although not in the same location as the one depicted here. Like the other walls in the picture, the wall in question is made using plaster applied to strips of lath. This is the 19th-century equivalent of the beams and drywall system of today. All of the strips in the house are split laths rather than sawn laths, indicating that the interior wall is close to the rest of the house in terms of construction date. Laths that were sawn off of logs rather than stripped would illustrate a date closer to the 20th century and an increase in sawmill technology, when there was greater uniformity both in the form of houses and the materials that were used to make them. The pantry wall, with its construction indistinguishable from the rest of the original structure, could be original to the house or, if not built right away, a very quick addition afterwards.

The laths in this interior wall help to show its age relative to the rest of the house.

Using the evidence discovered from viewing old photographs and other floor plans, historians at The Henry Ford outlined this conjectural layout of the George Matthew Adams House at the time of its construction in 1846.

Like the foundation of the Adams House, the floor plan has shifted and fluctuated. The great gap in years, as well as the gap in the written and photographic record, makes piecing together the layout of the Adams House a daunting task. By using a combination of photographs, blueprints, and oral histories, employees at The Henry Ford have been able to conjecturally construct the history of the George Matthew Adams House. With this fresh and logical outlook, it is easier than ever to see the changes in the home between its construction in 1846, George Matthew Adams’ birth in 1878, and the purchase of the house by The Henry Ford in 1937. These changes over the years show how the role of the house evolved to meet the needs of new families and domestic ideals. The recent study on the Adams House layout has helped uncover not only what features of the house had been modified, but also how and why those alterations took place when they did.

Jacob Thomas is one of the 2013 Simmons Graduate Interns at The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village buildings

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