Friday, March 30, 2012

The Oldest Bricks

Yesterday Amy and I visited The Betts House which is "is the oldest residential structure in the downtown Cincinnati area and the oldest brick house in Ohio still on its original site."  I had never been there before, but some time ago we got a postcard from the Betts House with an offer of free admission for Smithsonian subscribers.  While at the house I overheard the docent explain the program to someone.  Apparently the museum participates in the Smithsonian Free Museum Day each year (which is well worth exploring--many museums around the country participate, typically on the last Saturday in September) and as a result they get mailing list information from the Smithsonian.  So this year they budgeted for a mailing and the docent said that she has seen people nearly every day come in with the coupons.  However, don't let the fact that you don't have free admission deter you--the entrance fee is only $2.00 and well worth it.

In its early years, the house was the hub of activity on a busy, 111 - acre working farm. Back then Western Row, today known as Central Avenue, was a quiet lane leading into the Betts' peach orchard and brick yard. The western plain of the Cincinnati basin was a seemingly vast stretch of grassy undeveloped land which residents of the day called "Texas."
Today however the house is deep inside Cincinnati's West End though it is part of the Betts-Longworth Historic District.  We drove through much more modern areas, and one area that was just grass, but looked to have been a neighborhood where all the houses were torn down at some point.  We even walked by one alleyway that looked pretty neat with fire escapes and seemingly old cobblestones.  Clark Street, where the Betts House resides (at 416) is beautiful old street lined with old trees and even older homes--the shade must feel wonderful during the warmer months.  While the original house is from 1804 the street wasn't platted until 1833 (it was named for William Betts' mother, Elizabeth Clark Betts, who died in 1832)

The house itself sits above the street quite a bit, I think one sign mentioned that the street was dug out when it was paved at one point, so there are stairs leading up--but the front yard is also beautifully overgrown.  I saw plenty of tiny blue flowers as well as several flowers in a yard right next door.

Of course there is a large historical marker in the front yard--though it was apparently only placed in 2004, though the house has been open as a Museum since the late 90s.

I believe the renovation efforts started in the 80s after the house had sat vacant for several years.  It was turned into two apartments for a while and the revenue from these leases helped to pay off the mortgage.  Martha Tuttle, a descendant of the original Betts family was the one who led the restoration efforts.  You can see her portrait and story on the wall next to the stairs.

I rather liked the stone and fence-work facing the street.

I believe this is a doorway to a passage leading to the basement.  I found a picture of the passage way in a scrapbook upstairs in the house.

I wasn't entirely sure what we should do when we came to the front door, but since I knew we were there during the regular operating hours (which aren't too frequent) I just opened the door and headed inside.  Once we were in the docent came downstairs, was excited to get our postcard, and gave us a brief explanation of the layout.

The first room was the original portion of the house, built in 1804.  Behind this was an 1810 room, an 1811 kitchen addition (after the 1811 New Madrid earthquake damaged the original summer kitchen), and last an 1864 addition.  The first floor contained an exhibit on the New Madrid earthquakes while the upper floors contained a permanent exhibit about the house, its occupants, and the history of Cincinnati.  Also, in the original 1804 room there are marks on the floor and walls to show the original locations of walls, windows, and the firebox.

The current special exhibit is called The Big Shake – How the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes Rocked the Ohio River Valley.  It mainly consisted of signs, but there were several other components.  Hurry though as it will only be on display through May 31, 2012 (it has apparently been up since September 2011 though).  Of course if you know me you won't be shocked that I took the time to read all of the signs. They were quite educational and informative.  Some of the information overlapped with what I've learned (or had reinforced) recently while reading a book on Krakatoa and visiting the Pompeii exhibit at the Museum Center--after finding out photography is allowed in that exhibit I definitely plan to blog about it in detail.  Since I grew up in earthquake conscious Southern California I also remembered some information from my childhood.  One brochure showed kids ducking and covering under desks and Amy had no idea what they were doing.  I have vivid memories of earthquake drills each year and stocking supply bins with food supplies just in case there was an earthquake and students were trapped at school for a time.

Midwestern residents are accustomed to natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, and blizzards, but what about earthquakes? The region is in proximity to several active faults, particularly the location of the greatest known seismic hazard east of the Rocky Mountains, the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ). From December of 1811 through May of 1812, the greatest series of earthquakes in United States history took place in the NMSZ centered in Missouri. Although the earthquakes affected much of the Midwest, most people living in the area today have no knowledge of this event or its impact on our region.
I heard about the Richter scale quite a bit in California, so it was especially interesting to learn more about that.  I didn't realize however that he imported the word magnitude from astronomy into the study of earthquakes.  The Richter (and other more modern) scales are usually logarithmic so that each level is ten times great than the one before.

In the center of the room were a couple interactive pieces.  One showed how you could, using only a couple special blocs and several pieces of foam simulate the different kind of faults we see in the earth's crust.

This sign detailed the size of the New Madrid fault.  Needless to say the outcome would be quite a bit different if a large quake were to originate there due to the much larger population in the Midwest.

One of the interesting people to read about was Dr. Daniel Drake.  I've heard of him before as he was one of the originators of the museum that eventually became the Museum of Natural History and Science at the Museum Center.  He also apparently collected quite a bit of information about the New Madrid quakes--especially in relation to their impact on Cincinnati.  There was also a large topographical map of the city (it actually looked a bit like it folded up into some type of suitcase or satchel--or at least it had a handle on the side).  I think it is interesting to see how much Cincinnati has changed over the years--from a small settlement close to the river to the sprawling city that it is today.  Some areas that were far outside of the city boundaries in the early 1800s are now just a short drive away and definitely considered to be well within Cincinnati itself.  the picture below is a closeup of that map I mentioned above:

At the back of the house we started exploring the house itself (as we'd read all of the signs concerning the special exhibit) starting with an old fireplace.  Originally used for cooking in the 1811 kitchen addition the fireplace was plastered over at some point and not re-discovered until the renovation project began in the 1980s/90s.

There was also a sign detailing the impact of the earthquake on the house itself--I'm not sure if this was an exhibit sign or if it will be permanently on display.

Next we proceeded upstairs.  Apparently before the stairs were built (in the 1840s) there was a small "boxed staircase in the northwest corner of the room."  This staircase also originally went all the way into the attic of the 1804 portion.  I also picked up a booklet that detailed some of the discoveries found as a result of exploring that attic.

For example the joists were discovered to have "been created by pit sawing.  Pit sawing required a pit dug into the ground and a long double handled saw operated by two men; one stood in the pit while the other worked above....  The existence of pit sawn joists at the Betts House is a surprise as water-powered saw mills, established on the nearby Millcreek by the time of this 1804 building project, provided a far easier and more efficient method of reducing trees to building material."

I really enjoyed the staircase and with that I had taken the time to snap a few more pictures, perhaps from some interesting angles.  I think we'll definitely be back at some point, though I don't know exactly when.  The museum apparently offers several walking tours of the historic district and they're only $10.  I'd really like to go on one of those--a great opportunity to glean more historical information and likely get some good pictures of historic buildings.

Amy and I both enjoyed the wood floors upstairs.  I'm pretty sure that most of them dated back to the 1800s when the expansions were originally added.

I really enjoyed the exhibit signage upstairs as it covered both the history of the house and the family that built it, but also Cincinnati, so you could see how the city developed around this house.

This house model looked pretty interesting, though a few labels would have been nice.

Of course finding a sign relating to Cincinnati's Union Terminal was especially fascinating.  The house is located quite close to the building, though on the other side of I75.

The signs continued and were equally fascinating as time passed--though the house did pass out of the family in the late 1800s.

I'm not sure of the purpose, but in the upstairs kitchen (leftover from the days when the house was subdivided as two apartments I'm sure) I saw a box of Lego bricks.  I thought they looked cool--and I could tell that some of the pieces were a bit older.

Ah, I forgot, but I did take a couple other staircase pictures.

After we left the house I took a few pictures of some of the houses on the street.  I especially thought the house next door looked interesting.  It almost looked like a small church building.

So if you're in the Cincinnati area and you enjoy history then you owe it to yourself to take a trip up to the Betts House.  They're open a few days a week (but check the website for more information):

Tuesday - Thursday: 11:00am - 2:00pm
2nd & 4th Saturdays each month: 12:30pm - 5:00pm
(Other days and times by appointment.)

Interestingly enough we also picked up brochures about a few other local, historic houses, so I have a few more trips planned over the coming months.  I'm really starting to enjoy these little trips that we can take on my days off.


PS Be sure to check out The Betts House on Facebook, especially if you're planning to visit.  I'm sure they would welcome views and likes.

PS Sources for the above quotations: The Betts House website
Explore the Betts House! and More Explorations of the Betts House: An Investigation of the 1804 Attic (both produced by the Betts House Research Center)

PPPS All of the above pictures (and a few more) are to be found in this Picasa album:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An Explosive Read

I just finished reading this book on the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883. Now I'm not sure I'd actually call it an "explosively good read" as that might be a bit over the top--but I did quite enjoy it.

The book covered the European voyages to (and through) the East Indies as well as their eventual colonization. There was also an extensive section about this history of plate tectonics. I appreciated all of these sections along with the main sections that dealt with what preceded and followed the eruption on August 27, 1883.

Here you can see where Krakatoa lies, directly between Sumatra and Java, in the midst of one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. It is marked by the yellow square in the middle of the Sundra Strait.

There are actually four islands today. Two on the sides of the group are thought to be the remnants of an ancient super-Krakatoa (immediately post-Flood I'd think), while the one to the bottom of the group--as viewed in this picture--is the remnant of the mountain that blew itself to bits in 1883. The center spit of land is Anakrakata, or Anak Krakatoa, "Son of Krakatoa." It started to rise above the waters in 1930 and after three false starts really started growing and now is considered a real island.

The author also had some very interesting thoughts about the growth of radical Islam in the Dutch East Indies after the eruption and the similarities to today (for example the bombings in Bali in 2002). Indonesia is the largest populated Muslim nation on earth.

All in all I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who would enjoy such a historically enjoyable trip through time. It was definitely worth the four dollars I paid for it last Friday.


-- Posted from my iPhone
(c) 2012 iWolff Ltd.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Library Sale in Cincy

Thursday night into Friday morning I worked an overnight at the Creation Museum.  But I'd gotten work done the day before, so I didn't have too much to do after the overnight was done.  I actually left by around 10:30 and was home well before noon (which was a nice switch from other days where I didn't home as soon as I'd wanted).  After I ate lunch a bit later Amy and I were sitting on the couch when an alarm on her phone went off.  It was a calendar reminder to go to a library sale.

Several weeks ago I'd seen the information in an e-mail from the Cincinnati library that there would be a library sale in Clifton (on the west side of Cincinnati) on March 15-17.  Well I knew I was working the 15th and 17th, but I'd have the afternoon of the 16th off due to the overnight.  I'm glad I put the reminder on the calendar--otherwise I would have forgotten.  It took a little while to find the place, but we finally did--thanks to our GPS.  We drove past the building at first (but that meant we got go see some amazing old homes as we turned around) but then came back and found some parking behind it.  This wasn't the library, but all the signs said that it was the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.  I gathered from a display inside that the library is looking for a new home, or perhaps they've found it but need to remodel it.  Anyway, the building that housed the sale was pretty interesting, but more about that later.  [Yes, the Friends of the Library site says that "Proceeds from this sale will benefit the Clifton Library renovations."]

I looked through the old book section rather thoroughly.  I found quite a few books from the 1800s--several from the middle part of the century and some from the later part.  I even discovered one volume from 1810!  However, I only ended up buying one book from this section.  They were all (except for the most beat up of the old books) priced at three dollars or above.  I'm used to much cheaper library sales.  We'll likely end up going back to the "Warehouse" their main location that is open several times a week.  Though I might have to save up some money before I go there.  I didn't end up buying any of the really old books (at least not for myself--I bought one for someone else) because none of them were quite interesting enough to justify their "high" price.  With a regular library sale I can justify buying the book because I'll eventually read it and I can get a couple dozen for $10.  I bought an old (of indeterminate age) copy of Swiss Family Robinson, since the only copy of the book I own is an old Scholastic paperback edition.  I also picked up a book on Krakatoa from the historical section.

I couldn't help but notice several cool features of the building as we walked around the book tables.  Finally after we'd paid for our books (Amy picked up a likely original copy of Elsie Dinsmore--which I'd never heard of, but was all the rage when she was a kid I guess).  There was tile on part of the wall--and I took a picture of the corner of one section of wall.  Sure, it isn't the most amazing picture, but I just had fun capturing some of the old architectural features of the building.

The stairwell was what had first caught my eye inside--especially the front of the steps.  They looked to be somewhat of a latticework pattern.  We also looked up the stairs and saw more interesting things there.

I noticed an interesting grille along the floor as well as the stair rails.  Both were obviously older construction.  I like seeing old architectural details (it is one of the reasons I really appreciate Cincinnati's Union Terminal).

Outside you can really appreciate the architecture of this more-than-a-century-old building.  I'm so glad that it wasn't torn down after the decision to relocate the school was made.  Too many old buildings have been torn down because they couldn't be repurposed.

I took a couple shots of the front of the building--one was from further away while the other was closer and mainly of the upper part of the structure (I was also trying to avoid photographing the kid hanging out on the balcony).  This view with the large banners hanging down reminded me of "classic" museums like the old Smithsonian buildings, the Field Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History.

After walking to the front of the building we headed back to our car to leave.  But I had one more picture to take.  Looking through all of the old books (I must have handled every one in visible in the picture above--or at least all of the ones with really dark covers--in the process of looking over their titles and publication dates) my hands had gotten quite dirty looking.  I took a picture before we walked off--though by that point they weren't quite as dirty as they had been but a few minutes earlier.


PS The very top picture is a panoramic that I stitched together with an app on my phone.  I need to remember to use this more often when I'm looking at large buildings or when we travel out west this summer!