The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 22, 2002
July 22, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 40


The Legacy of Owen House

In its last days at Homewood, a farmhouse gives up its secrets

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Owen House was poised to live out its final days in relative obscurity. An 11th-hour discovery, however, granted the building historical immortality and a brief moment in the spotlight, a two-week period during which, by all accounts, it held the title of the oldest building on the Homewood campus.

It was thanks to a team of volunteer investigators that the walls of Owen House finally talked. And what a tale they had to tell: The farmhouse, which was coming down to make way for a new chemistry research building, was likely a good 100 years older than thought.

Assembling for a photo midway through their investigation of Owen House were Judith Proffitt, Kennon Pearre, Ed Shull, Peter Pearre, Bernie Herman, Catherine Arthur, Ken Short, Heather Barrett, Scott Whipple, Marsha Miller, Nicole Diehlmann, Tom Reinhart, Doug Anderson, Ryan Brogna, Adele Philippedes and Peter Middlethon.

Sitting in the shadow of much grander Georgian-style academic buildings, the modest two-story structure, thought to have been built in 1850, was somewhat out of place. In addition, with the exterior having been remodeled several times and the interior carved up for use as office space, the house wasn't considered historically significant.

But one day last month, architect and historian Peter Pearre, who is a regular consultant to Homewood House, walked by Owen House and had a hunch that there was more to this structure than met the eye.

Pearre's curiosity prompted him to call Catherine Rogers Arthur, curator of Homewood House.

Homewood curator Catherine Rogers Arthur points out signatures discovered during the investigation.

"What do you know about Owen House?" Pearre asked Arthur. "What do you say you and I have a quick look around?"

The two sleuths, joined in the mission by Judith Proffitt, Homewood House's program coordinator, poked through the structure, noticing some details, such as door trim and moldings, that reminded them of more simplistic details at Homewood House. While these findings were significant, the real "aha" moment came when the three opened the cellar door.

On one side of the stairwell were wide wooden planks fixed to support beams by wrought iron rosehead nails.

"It was quite clear right away that we were looking at an original exterior wall," Pearre said. "And those planks and nails were typical 18th-century materials, not mid-19th."

Delighted by the discovery, Pearre and Arthur knew a more thorough inspection was needed, and time was running out. The building was scheduled to be demolished on July 8.

Architectural historian Ken Short and archaeologist Esther Doyle Read discuss their findings.

The two quickly formed a team that eventually included Proffitt; undergraduate Kip Bohnert; Ken Short, a local architectural historian; a group from the Maryland Historical Trust; investigators and photographers from the Historic American Buildings Survey; Bernie Herman, director of the Center for American Material Culture at the University of Delaware; and a team of archaeologists led by Esther Doyle Read, head of the Baltimore Center for Urban Archeology.

The JHU Office of Facilities Management arranged for Barton Malow, the construction company using the house as headquarters for the chemistry building, to vacate the space, and gave permission for the investigators to have unlimited 24-hour access to the building until its demolition date, which it was able to push back two days.

"We owe both Facilities Management and Barton Malow a huge debt of thanks for letting us study this house further," Arthur said. "They let us be there, which is the first part that fell into place."

The team's goals were to map out in less than two weeks the dimensions of the original building and attempt to determine its age, all the while collecting information and building up a historical record.

Working day and night and on the weekends, the volunteers carefully tore down some of the 20th-century drywall and framing to expose some of the older elements. Pearre describes the investigative process--which involved cutting holes in walls, ripping off siding and using sifting screens in the basement--as "peeling away layers to get to the heart of a mystery."

"The more we uncovered, the more our suspicions were confirmed that this house was older than previously thought," Pearre said. "Hidden behind an 1850 veneer of Gothic and Italianate elements was [all this] 18th-century architecture."

Pearre said that based on his preliminary findings the construction date for the original house is now estimated to be around 1750.

Items discovered along the way included a 1790 coin, some turn-of-the-century postcards, mid-19th-century initials carved in plaster and the 1911 baseball card of George F. "Peaches" Graham, a catcher with the Boston Nationals.

The most important discoveries, however, were made off-site.

In their research, Marsha Miller from the Maryland Historical Trust uncovered a 1798 Baltimore tax assessment that listed on the Homewood property a house that matched the dimensions they had just mapped, and Arthur found a letter written by Charles Carroll of Carollton to his son Charles Carroll Jr. about the property he had bought for him to use as a country retreat.

The letter, dated Feb. 12, 1801, read:

"While you live in Baltimore, it will be necessary for the health of your family and for the exercise of your mind and body to have a house on Homewood to retreat to in the summer and autumn--I would recommend the repair of the present building on that farm and some additional rooms to make it a comfortable, cool and convenient residence during those seasons."

Arthur said "present building" likely referred to the structure that would become Owen House.

"Yet clearly this house did not meet [the younger] Mr. Carroll's requirements, so he decided to build his own," Arthur said with a grin, referring to the grand Federal-style mansion that is now Homewood House.

Pearre said it is possible that Carroll lived in the farmhouse while his family's new home was being built. As for other uses of the structure prior to 1902, when it was given to the university, Pearre said that is part of what he hopes to determine using the wealth of information the investigative team extracted before July 10.

Since then, the Maryland Historical Trust has been working on determining the precise dimensions and elevations of the original house, Pearre and Ken Short are assembling a chronology of the house's history, and a final analysis of the building is being drafted.

Pearre said the team is proud of the work it has done and "elated" to have had the opportunity to unearth clues to the structure's past.

"We have certainly gotten a lot of information out of this old house--more than I thought we would in such a short span of time," Pearre said.

While there are no specific plans in place, some of the saved elements of the house may be included in the upcoming exhibition Building Homewood, which will open in September to mark the house's 200th anniversary.

Arthur said that she is confident that a gap in the history of what is now the Homewood campus will eventually be filled, thanks to the vigilance of some two dozen people.

"When it's all said and done, we will end up with a very complete record and learn about Owen House even in its absence," she said. "As for the oldest building on campus now, I guess Homewood House has regained that title."

A Brief History of Owen House

Located on the property donated to Johns Hopkins in 1902 was a building that has been known as both the White House and Owen House. It's thought that the trustees had it moved in 1908 from the area where Remsen Hall now stands to the north side of the Decker Gardens, as a residence for the gardener.

In 1931, the Psychology Department's Child Institute, a combined kindergarten and child psychology research center, took over the building. After the institute closed in 1937, the building was occupied at various times by the Department of Physical Education, the Student Health Service, the Office of Counseling and Psychiatric Services, and the Arts and Sciences Development and Alumni Relations Office. Its most recent residents were the Expository Writing Program, the Writing Center, the Center for Research on Culture and Literature, and the Program for Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality.

Owen House was named for nuclear physicist George Ernest Owen, who came to Hopkins in 1951 as an assistant professor and was named chair of the Physics Department in 1968. He served as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences from 1972 to 1978 and as dean of the Homewood Faculties from 1978 to 1982, when he returned to research activities. He continued as University Professor until his death on Feb. 24, 1984, at the age of 62.