Yes, you can see daylight through boards intending to cover what once were glass sidelights on either side of the front door. Yes, the water-damaged former roof is still heaped in a second-floor bedroom. And, yes, small trees are trying to grow between the stones of the foundation.
But really, says Michael Galbraith, the Dr. Merchant Huxford House isn’t all that bad.
It’s square, and it’s level, and the floors are all still there. The fireplaces are there, and although there’s some broken glass, the windows, and the window frames, are still there, Galbraith says.
It isn’t as bad as it seems. Besides, I love this stuff.
The mid-19th-century homestead of one of Fort Wayne’s early mayors might be the kind of place only a dedicated preservationist such as Galbraith could love.
But the battered and boarded brick structure at 520 Tennessee Ave., near the southeast corner of Tennessee and Spy Run Avenue, will soon be getting lots of love from ARCH Inc., the nonprofit historic architecture preservation group.
ARCH acquired the home last year and will begin stabilizing and restoring the place in the next few weeks, says Galbraith, ARCH’s executive director.
The home has several claims on history, he says.
Huxford, its original owner, was one of the city’s fathers from the era when the Wabash & Erie Canal was built, bringing growth and what some considered civilization to what had been a frontier outpost.
A native of Conway, Massachusetts, and born in 1798, Huxford arrived around 1831. A medical doctor, he established Fort Wayne’s first pharmacy at the corner of Barr and Columbia streets in the city’s thriving canal mercantile district.
He was the fifth mayor of Fort Wayne, holding the distinction of being its first elected mayor who did not resign or be removed from office. His three terms ran from 1845 to 1849, beginning just 23 years after the town’s streets were laid out.
Galbraith says Huxford likely built the house around 1854 on land he bought from heirs of Capt. William Wells – a colorful pioneer and the original grantee – that stretched east from Spy Run Creek, near what is now Lawton Park, to the St. Joseph River.
But what especially intrigues preservationists are some of the house’s structural details.
For many years, Galbraith says, stories have circulated that timbers from a building within Fort Wayne’s long-lost old fort were used in constructing the house. Historical records indicate that the last fort building to be torn down was demolished in 1852, with that wood used elsewhere, he explains.
In the home’s basement, wide timbers bearing marks that identify them as hand-hewn are set vertically on what were apparently stone piles, now covered with concrete. Similar timbers run horizontally as well. Galbraith can point to 3- to 5-inch notches in some, lending credence to the idea that they were recycled from another building.
When you hear a persistent rumor like that, there’s usually some basic fact behind it, he says, adding that perhaps dendrochronology, tree-ring studies, can indicate the timbers’ age.
Galbraith says structural clues show how the home might have been used in its early days. The front door faced east, toward the river, at what now seems the side of the house. In Federal/Greek Revival architectural style, the door was at the balanced center of the front facade and opened to a large entryway with a wide staircase running north and south.
The stairway still has its original step treads and railing, curved at the end. The formal parlor, a large room that likely led to the kitchen, opens to the right. A second large room, behind the stairway and with a columned fireplace, likely served as the doctor’s office, Galbraith says.
That room, inexplicably, has two doors, but one might have been a window, and the doors’ locations might have been shuffled, he says.
The upstairs was converted into a separate apartment at some point and bears the remains of a rudimentary kitchen and bathroom, as well as the remnants of the roof, replaced some time ago after sustaining water damage.
The third floor is a barnlike attic, where some of the home’s original interior doors were found, Galbraith says.
He says it’s unclear how long the structure was vacant, but recent uses have been as a chiropractor’s office and the office of a real-estate-related business. ARCH bought the property from a member of the family who owned the real estate business, he says.
While the home is not in pristine condition, Galbraith says he can’t fault the family’s stewardship.
They didn’t tear up things, he says.
In the ways that count, including retaining original features and hardware such as door latches, he says, they did a good job.
ARCH received a 2014 Mayor’s Commercial Facade Grant for $20,000 for restoration and a no-interest purchase loan from Indiana Landmarks. It has more than $70,000 on hand to commence work, Galbraith says.
During the first phase of work, the house will be sheathed in plastic to control hazards such as lead-paint dust and asbestos, he says.
Later, a 1 1/2 -story grand porch shown in photos from the 1960s will be restored, and a small addition on the structure’s south side will be torn down, Galbraith says.
ARCH intends to sell the property, with possible uses as an office or an office or commercial or residential space, depending on market interest, says Galbraith, who is working on designating the property as a local history district.
The house also could be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places at some point, he says.
ARCH has been watching this building since the 1980s, Galbraith says, adding that at one point, the group considered it for its own office, which was relocated instead to the ARCH-restored historic Alexander Rankin house at 818 Lafayette St.
ARCH placed the Merchant Huxford house on its annual endangered list several times and periodically contacted the owner about it, Galbraith says.
It became available when the owner was selling off other properties, and he contacted us and said, I want to see it go to a good home,’ he says.
That’s where I see ARCH going. We’ll keep trying to systematically identify and acquire the scariest properties – and restore them to be usable structures again.