You’re unlikely to find a butler in many Lancaster County homes these days. But you’ll still find plenty of their pantries. They are among the many architectural curiosities lingering in older homes despite having original purposes long gone by the wayside. “These can be features that just add a little charm to the property,” says Bob Heiserman, broker/owner of Donegal Real Estate in Marietta.
Heiserman even counts among those features “coffin windows” — a throwback to the days when the business of grieving was typically handled inside the home.
“There’s a kind of morbid curiosity about those,” Heiserman says. “Occasionally, we’ll run into them and people will say, ‘Why is this wood down here? Why isn’t that brick?’ And I’ll say, ‘That was the opening to take the coffin in and out.’ ”
At-home mourning also often explains why two doors were placed conspicuously close together, says Sue Lamborn, a longtime volunteer with the Southern Lancaster County Historical Society.
“One was for the funeral part of the house,” Lamborn says. “You almost never used that. The other was for the living room.”
When it comes to old homes, Lamborn is most interested in the people who lived there but also recognizes the importance of the items they used. That included things like dumbwaiters — small elevators used to carry food and belongings between floors.
There was a dumbwaiter in Lamborn’s late husband’s ancestral home, which she shared with him briefly before they had to move to make way for hydroelectric power at Muddy Run. In 1965, she and her husband moved to Nottingham, just over the Chester County line, and raised dairy there for several years.
The Lamborns took the doors and everything else that they could from the mid-1800s Muddy Run farmhouse before it was demolished. That included the dumbwaiter.
“When we moved down here, we brought it,” Lamborn says. “And we used it as a medicine cabinet for the cows.”
That dumbwaiter is still in the barn, which now belongs to someone else.
Lamborn also recalls her Muddy Run home having drawers built inside some windowsills.
Carol Gibson of Drumore Township had windowsill drawers back when she lived in a 1791 farmhouse. Gibson says she was always told by visitors with historical knowledge that those drawers were designed to hold candles.
Makes sense to Liz Flahart, who has long been curious about the window drawers in her family’s roughly 200-year-old stone farmhouse south of Quarryville.
Flahart could use those drawers to store battery-operated candles that now shine from the windows each Christmas — but doesn’t.
While some un-Marie Kondo-like homeowners may be drooling at the notion of nine extra drawers into which to cram belongings, Flahart somehow manages to keep hers empty. She has no plans to fill them.
“I could if I wanted,” she says. “I can still open them. And they’re clean. Well, clean for a 200-year-old drawer.”
Sometimes the original purpose of architectural features can be lost to the ages — even in famous homes. Visitors to President James Buchanan’s one-time residence in Lancaster are always asking about several long, skinny paneled doors next to chimneys, said Wheatland director Patrick Clarke.
Those doors once covered shelves but today hide modern piping.
“We really don’t know what they stored in there,” Clarke says. “Back in New England, where I grew up, much smaller homes had similar doors that were just wide enough for dinner plates. They were ideal for keeping plates warm so you weren’t — in the wintertime — sitting down to a nice hot meal served on frigid plates.”
Clarke doesn’t think that was the purpose at Wheatland given that the doors are in the library and parlors.
Rock Ford Plantation is an example of a home with water tables — a once-common masonry feature that progresses out from the base of a building to deflect water away from the foundation.
Those were helpful in the days before gutters, says Wes Swanson, a Hempfield School District history teacher who works as a mason in the summer and has lectured on the history of brickmaking in Lancaster County.
But water tables were expensive, Swanson says. The bricks for the base had to be specially made. That’s why in less prosperous neighborhoods brick walls were often straight up and down, he adds.
Rock Ford curator Sarah Alberico says visitors often ask about a window that is not symmetrical with the rest. She says the prevailing thought is that the window was shifted to allow light onto the staircase.
Illuminating entryways in the days before electricity is why exterior transom windows came to be, says Heiserman, who has for years taught historic home classes to others in the real estate business.
Heiserman says he’s seen exterior transoms making their way back into new construction, though the interior transoms he sees still tend to date back a century.
“Most people don’t really understand their origins. They first appeared in the Victorian period in about the 1850s and 1860s when central heat was developed,” he says.
It was gravity heat at the time, without ducts to carry heat into each room.
“So at night you’d close the bedroom door and open the transom window above it to allow warm air — which rises — to flow into the bedroom,” he says.
The effect was minimal, and it wasn’t long — maybe 20 or 30 years — before duct work became commonplace, he says. Still, builders kept installing interior transoms for years as that had become the style, he adds.
Heiserman says he is glad to see an increased interest in older homes helping revitalize some smaller Lancaster County boroughs.
“Of course, in the boroughs where there were, let’s say, well-to-do people in the ’50s and ’60s, they ruined a lot of them — especially the exteriors — by taking off roof brackets and window trim. They didn’t want to maintain it, so they covered it all with aluminum siding.”
While interiors generally fared better, plenty of details like wall alcoves have been lost to renovations and parts purchased at big-box stores, he says.
“So sometimes,” Heiserman says, “you’re lucky when you find all those little details still intact.”