Friday, April 23, 2010

A.J. Stephens House

The A.J. Stephens House was built about 1908 by Andrew Jackson Stephens, a Chariton building contractor, and Edward Stephens, his eldest son. This house was the family home until 1919, when Stephens sold it and moved to a farm near Chariton. In 1923, he moved to Des Moines and later to Oklahoma After the family left, the home was owned and occupied by several families and in the 1950s, turned into apartments.

The building, placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 17, 1987, is unique primarily for the material used to build it --- concrete blocks with a surface rusticated to resemble stone that were formed on site in molds that Stephens made. Concrete blocks, including rusticated ones, were commonly used for foundations at the time, but infrequently for entire buildings. Chariton’s First Presbyterian Church is constructed of the same material.

Concrete blocks were combined with blonde brick for trim in the Stephens House to create the overall impression of a stone building. Extensions --- three window bays and a bay on the front staircase landing --- are of frame construction.

Guests would have entered the Stephens House through the front hall, viewed here through the front parlor doorway.
The house has been described as American vernacular to which a somewhat surprising two-story classical portico has been appended. There is no truth whatsoever to the old story that Andrew Jackson Stephens designed the house to resemble the Hermitage, home of his namesake, President Andrew Jackson. The houses are not at all alike. When built, there were few houses in this neighborhood and many open fields and pastures.

Here is a view over the stair rail into the southeast corner of the foyer where two costumed mannequins stand. Note the light fixture. The house originally was heated with hot water, but when it was decided to air condition the building a new forced-air system was installed. All elements of the old hot-water system remain, but now are purely decorative.
Inside, the plan is fairly typical of dwellings constructed at the time for middle class families with aspirations. The front door leads into a square entry hall from which an open stair ascends to a bay, then turns back to the second floor. Immediately ahead, between the hall and dining room, is a narrow hall that once led to a short flight of downward steps, an exterior door and to the basement. This door and the basement stairs were removed at some point and the area has been used both as a bathroom (during the home’s apartment phase) and as an office.

A view of the front parlor taken through the doorway separating it from the back parlor. The light fixture is not original although the fireplace apparently is.
To the right or north of the entry hall, opening through a doubled doorway, is the front parlor with large east-facing bay window and fireplace. We are often asked if there once were pocket doors between entry and parlor since there are two other sets in the house. The answer probably is "no." Pocket doors require double-wall construction and that consumes space. There isn't room here for double-wall construction. Evidence that hinges once were mounted on the east vertical of the door frame suggests double doors that folded back on themselves may once have been used.

The southeast corner of the front parlor. The parlor piano was donated to the historical society by Audrey (Mrs. Warren) Blue during 1965. It was purchased ca. 1885 by Capt. James H. and Almira McFarland for their daughter, Maude Mary, born in Chariton on Sept. 12, 1876, who married A.B. Gookin during 1902.
We're also asked, because the fireplace is not especially attractive, if it is original to the house. The answer probably is "yes." Although not attractive it is extremely well made with molded brick projections supporting a cast concrete mantle shelf carefully notched to allow a hot water pipe to ascend to the bedroom above. The floor shelf in front of the fireplace opening is covered in glazed green tiles with a reddish insert that matches the color of the fireplace brick. The coal-burning insert suggests the fireplace was used as a supplemental source of heat, perhaps before the central heating system was fired up in the fall or after it had been turned off in the spring. The fireplace chimney, which also served the furnace, has been taken down below roof level and capped, so it is no longer functional.

A columned double doorway in the west wall of the front parlor leads into the back parlor.
Columns separate the front parlor from the back parlor to the west with another large bay window, this one facing north. A parlor pump organ, old-fashioned  Victrola, fainting couch and curio case filled with glassware are features of this room. There also are portraits of Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Stephens in this room.

Here's another view of the back parlor, taken looking north through pocket doors from the dining room.
Pocket doors in the south wall of the back parlor separate it from the paneled dining room with large south-facing bay window and built-in sideboard.

To the west, a pantry and kitchen stretch across the west end of the house. Back stairs connect the kitchen with the upstairs hall. A large one-story extension includes a back entrance and unusually spacious staircase to the basement.

Upstairs, a small bedroom (now called the girls’ room) is located over the entrance hall and two large rooms, divided by pocket doors, over the front and back parlors. A small bedroom in the northwest corner of the house (now called the boys’ room) may be entered either from the center hall or the middle room, now treated as a sewing room.

What is called the master bedroom is located over the dining room, facing south, and it opens into a large dressing room with built-in storage units and a large closet adjacent. The bathroom remains in its original location at the west end of the upstairs hall, although some of the fixtures are replacements.

The house along with with 3½ acres were purchased by the Lucas County Historical Society in 1966 for $10,500. Plaques were sold to be on the exhibit for $50 each as part of the fund-raising effort. The house was repaired, restored and redecorated and on Sept. 19, 1968, a formal open house was held. There were 2,326 items in the collection by then, all house in the Stephens House. Today, more than 40,000 artifacts are displayed in six buildings.

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