From the street, the John Lewis House at 412 Goodrich Ave is dwarfed by the tall spruce shading its front yard. Yet, the house’s diminutive stature is hardly reflective of its lengthy and rich history. Built in 1856 by English carpenter John Lewis, 412 Goodrich, also known as the “John Lewis House,” precedes both the Civil War and Minnesota statehood. Thus, the house offers a glimpse into Saint Paul’s far-reaching residential past, its preservation providing an opportunity to examine in detail how the scale of living arrangements has both changed and remained the same throughout its sixteen decades of existence.
Slated for demolition in 2017, the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association, Historic Saint Paul, and interested citizens saved the Greek vernacular house and have since begun efforts to preserve the house for future residency. Research into the Greek vernacular house’s history transcends the historical record and has involved numerous types of research, including archaeology. In examining the history of daily life at 412 Goodrich, archaeologist Jeremy Nienow, of Nienow Cultural Consultants, LLC, has been brought on as an historical archaeologist. Through the sharper lens of archaeology can a wider view of preservation be cast. Literal digging through the past produces artifacts of former residents and enhances historical understanding of the house’s lived, human experience, in turn better informing its preservation for the future.
For historic archaeologists, privy excavation is a rarity.
Having shifted the course of the Lewis House from demolition, the numerous groups involved in the preservation of 412 Goodrich reveal the multifaceted nature of preservation. Initially connected to the house by local architect John Yust, Nienow lends his time, equipment, and expertise to oversee the house’s archaeological excavations. These excavations are primarily executed by volunteers, many of whom are organized by the Historic Preservation Commission. This excavation has primarily been not on the house itself, but on the site of the house’s former privy in the property’s backyard. According to Nienow, the privy excavation presents a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” since most extant privies exist on private property.
Following the passage of the Historic Preservation Act, which states that when using federal money for projects on public lands, cultural resources must be viewed similarly to natural resources, private property landowners are not required to excavate when demolishing or renovating historic structures. Without the legal requirement to excavate, some privies fall prey to “bottle hunters,” which remove artifacts from their specific site, rendering historical accuracy irrelevant. Nienow was “excited” when Yust invited him to oversee the privy’s archaeological excavation: for historic archaeologists, privy excavation is a rarity.
Demarcated on insurance maps dating back to the 1880s, the privy remains the focal point of excavation. The preservation spotlight remains focused on this specific site due to the privy’s use as a depository of the unwanted items amassed by the former residents of 412 Goodrich. The artifacts found in the privy are themselves a fossil record of material culture, encapsulating the possessions of former residents documenting what was consumed, played with, and experienced within the house. The privy, Nienow says, is a “huge wealth of knowledge,” which is reflected in the sheer quantity of recovered artifacts. Indeed, thousands of artifacts have been excavated from two units alone (each of which are about five square feet in size and about ten centimeters deep). In using archaeology as one of several research methodologies, information about the house’s history becomes increasingly complex.
Indeed, the archaeological record contains unique information that can better inform preservation. “[The historical record] doesn’t tell you what [former residents] ate, it doesn’t tell you what their religious beliefs were, it doesn’t tell you about their socioeconomic status beyond the general neighborhood… what they leave behind tells us a huge range of information about the family,” Nienow says. Uncovered artifacts include animal bones, bottle caps, medicine bottles, children’s toys, such as glass marbles and a toy car, clothing items, such as buttons and zippers, and architectural items, such as nails. Other artifacts, such as electrical wiring, provides evidence about the timing of house renovations, such as its conversion to electricity. “Not only does archaeology tell you things that the documentary record will never reflect,” Nienow says, “but it will also give you clues and things to look for in the documentary record.” While the documentary record documents the house’s former residents, the archaeological record provides a history of daily life. Investigating place in this way focuses on the interaction of individuals with the material world of everyday Saint Paulites throughout the decades.
Saved from demolition by the community, archaeological excavation at 412 Goodrich is a community affair. Providing an archaeologist’s expertise, Nienow oversees a team of volunteers, who are mainly organized by Historic Saint Paul via the “Save 412 Goodrich” Facebook page. Although volunteer-fueled, the excavation adheres to historic archaeological standards. “Archaeologists do things quite scientifically, and some people think it’s quite slow, ponderous, tedious… we excavate things in very small increments, so we can see how over time the amount of artifacts, the distribution changes in the soil,” Nienow says. In situ excavation is a time-intensive process and often involving volunteers methodically digging through specific soil layers, which are then placed in buckets and screened for artifacts. Later, volunteers either wet or dry brush artifacts in the lab. Nienow says that field notes and photographs are taken and that documentation is thorough: “that’s another thing that makes [archaeologists] different from bottle hunters… [archaeology] is like a science. A scientist documents how they go about doing their work on a daily basis. Yes, the discoveries and the results are really cool, but the process that got you to that place is just as important.”
The preservation of 412 Goodrich is an ongoing process, but is highlighting a valuable piece of the preservation process. The expertise of archaeologists like Nienow and the involvement of neighbors and volunteers in the excavation process uncovers important pieces of the historical narrative of 412 Goodrich. The narratives told by these artifacts humanize the space and the stories these artifacts tell are vitally important in preserving the house for future inhabitation.
Special thanks to John Yust, Jeremy Nienow, Aaron Rubenstein, and Mark Higgins.