ST. JOSEPH — To architect and preservationist Stephen Byrns, every house in the Old St. Joseph Neighborhood tells a story.
You just have to know where to look to find the clues, explained the St. Joseph native, who led a walking tour of the architectural features of homes Saturday in a program hosted by the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.
That means being “an architectural sleuth,” and paying attention to the details, he said. To Byrns, the signature of each house is as unique as a fingerprint.
Limestone porch steps, instead of cement, can show that the original owners were well-off, he said.
Changes in the features of a house can show whether a wing was added or a porch was enclosed after the structure was built, he noted. Arched windows at the side of a house at 1103 State St. indicated its porch was a later addition, Byrns pointed out, because the windows above the porch are straight-edged.
A house at 1203 State was originally built as a summer home by a Chicago family whose name is engraved in the sidewalk. But it later became lodging for tourists, as indicated by the name Myrtle Lodge that is still visible in the walkway.
Byrns, a St. Joseph native who has worked in New York City since 1978, said he notices a lot more details in the houses than he did when he conducted a tour 40 years ago. He was appointed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be a NYC Landmarks Preservation Commissioner from 2001-10.
Features in the St. Joseph neighborhood show a mix of home styles, from Greek Revival to Italianate to the modern Chicago-Prairie style exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Byrns noted the brick Victorian-era house at 622 State as “one of the fanciest houses” in the neighborhood, designed by an architect that studied in Boston and worked from South Bend, where he created the Studebaker mansion. The St. Joseph house was occupied by a founder of the Cooper-Wells hosiery company (which later became Jockey).
The house’s porch has Tudor features, with Romanesque columns and a candlesnuff roof, for what Byrns called an “eclectic” look.
The Preston family home, built by a local businessman and one-time mayor, sits at 720 State, and is one of the nicest houses in the area, Byrns said (the St. Joseph library is named for daughter Maud Preston Palenske). The building is now owned by the Krasl Art Center and used for offices.
Preston built a barrel factory across the street from his home, and barrels can be seen carved into the wood. It is now an apartment building.
St. Joseph poet Ben King grew up in a small house nearby that has what Byrns called a “vestigial pediment,” that mimics the look of a Greek temple.
The house at 906 State shows signs of a modernist movement that originated in Vienna, Austria, with its asymmetrical features. Byrns called the house “funky – it’s breaking the rules.”
A house at 922 Lake St. was purported by another preservationist to have originally been a log cabin house, Byrns said.
“I’d love to get permission to go in and drill holes in the wall to see if there are logs,” he said.
Homes don’t have to be large to stand out. A small house at 510 Park St. is the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in St. Joseph, Byrns said, built in a “high style” with a fully developed pediment. This is the house’s fourth location, he said.
Byrns, the son of Chester and Priscilla Upton Byrns, has his own connections to the neighborhood. His grandparents, Frederick and Mary Upton, lived in the apartment building at State and Market streets as newlyweds. The building was constructed in the Prairie style, with a low-pitched roof and a horizontal look, he said.
At one point the neighborhood wasn’t in good shape, “but it has really come up,” and many of the homes have been restored, Byrns said.
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