Friday, August 02, 2013

Eye candy: Ottumwa's Foster-Bell House

Here's something for those who can spend hours photographing, downloading photographs of and searching the Internet for drawings, floor plans and other information about historic, interesting or architecturally significant houses --- eye candy.

Some would call it house porn, but that's indelicate.

In this case, the object of harmless obsession is Ottumwa's Tudor Revival Foster-Bell House, located at 205 East 5th Street (intersection of East 5th and North Market) in the Fifth Street Bluff Historic District. It is a house I've admired for as long as I've been admiring houses, as much for location as character.

The house crowns the Fifth Street bluff northeast of downtown with a sweeping view southwest into the Des Moines River valley (when trees are leafless). It also looks down on Trinity Episcopal Church, west across East Fifth Street and the most drop-dead gorgeous of Ottumwa's many magnificent old church buildings. When you consider the height of Trinity's bell tower, looking down on it is a major accomplishment in triumphal house building.

It also is southeast across the North Market-East 5th intersection from this wonderful old frame mansion, on the market and frayed around the edges when I wrote about it during July of 2011; now in the hands of new owners and beautifully restored.

Foster-Bell, well maintained but carved clumsily into apartments years ago, has been on the market for some time. The current asking price is $350,000. Earlier online marketing attempts included a pathetic selection of interior photographs, but that situation has been remedied. The most complete selection is at the Realtor site, located here. The other online real estate biggies, Trulia and Zillow, have lesser offerings. So all the photographs here were downloaded from the Realtor listing. Tip of the hat to Old House Dreams for the alert that it was being remarketed.

Another souvenir of the old mansion's apartment house career is a back yard paved in asphalt. A buyer able to come up with more than $300,000 and the will to live grandly, however, would have few problems removing this and coming up with a nicely landscaped and private off-alley garden.


A curious thing about Foster-Bell, built by Thomas Dove Foster --- arguably Ottumwa's most influential citizen bar none --- is that it's not quite what it appears to be. His original 1893 building was given a face transplant during 1923.

Foster was born during 1847 in Bradford, England, where his grandfather, George Morrell, founded the meatpacking giant John Morrell & Co. during 1827. Beginning at the bottom, Foster advanced to manager of the firm's American operations and during 1877, when he was 30, moved the company's American packing operations to Ottumwa in order to be closer to the livestock. In 1893, Foster became chairman of both English and American operations with headquarters in Ottumwa.

To celebrate, he built the grand mansion that still is the heart of the Foster-Bell House at the intersection of North Market and East 5th. This was a sprawling stone and timber house with high gabled attics that can only be described as eclectic since it contained elements of virtually every architectural style popular at the time, ranging from Richardson romanesque to colonial revival.

Foster lived here until his death during 1915, building a reputation as Ottumwa's most affluent and influential citizen. He was widely admired for his paternalistic and philanthropic interest in his employees that led to working conditions and benefits that greatly exceeded the norm of the day. A fierce Presbyterian, he was determined to make Christians of his workers, too, even founding a Presbyterian church near the packing plant as part of that effort.

Upon Thomas D. Foster's death, the house passed to his daughter, Ellen Foster Bell. During 1923, she commissioned the Des Moines architectural firm of Kraetsch and Kraetsch to refashion the exterior and portions of the interior into the Tudor Revival package we see today. During 1929, the firm of Tinsley, McBroom & Higgins was employed to fine-tune the interior.

Much of the first-floor's Sioux Falls red granite stonework is original to the 1893 house, but the half-timbered second floor and reconfigured and regabled slate roof are new.

Inside, the only true Tudor Revival interior is located in the great hall, which passes through the center of the house from west to east past a magnificent fireplace to a grand open staircase rising in three runs under leaded and stained glass windows to the second floor. Access to this stair from the hall was blocked when apartments were created, but those changes could be undone without too much difficulty.

Most of the other ground floor rooms retain the Colonial Revival characteristics of the 1893 house as do the rooms on the second floor, not intended to impress and therefore very plain.


The fact that Kraetsch and Kraetsch were reworking an older building most likely explains some of its oddities.

The main entrance is through a porch that is impressive enough on the outside, but provides somewhat clumsy access to the great hall. The window straight ahead is one of two west-facing openings that are the only  sources of direct light to the hall. The other window, not evident here, is jammed up against the south wall of the porch.

The entrance door itself is to the left once a guest has entered the porch recess and opens into a small vestibule.

That vestibule then opens east into the hall through a modest paneled door with leaded glass insert that blends into the paneled west wall.

The hall, which now serves as the living room of the north first-floor apartment, is beautifully paneled with coffered ceiling, but the elaborate chimney piece steals the show. The double pocket doors to the left of the fireplace lead north into what perhaps once was the parlor; a single door to the right of the fireplace (a modern replacement of the original), into a smaller room east of the parlor.

Below is a view of the hall looking east. The television is sitting in front of double pocket doors, now blocked, that lead into the former dining room. To the left, a double-columned opening once offered access to and an unrestricted view of the staircase, but that opening has been partially blocked

The staircase still is a grand affair, but the first-floor area around which it rises has been boxed and the box's ceiling formed into an odd platform at landing level. A boxed entry area that protrudes into the great hall provides access both to the first-floor apartment and the base of the staircase.

Although the approach is grand, the second-floor rooms --- carved into more apartments --- are large and plain. The biggest of them, over the former dining room and facing west, has the only surviving fireplace. The two bathrooms retain their original tiling and vintage fixtures and are of some interest, however.

A secondary stair rises from basement to attic immediately south of the principal stair.

Back on the first floor, double pocket doors to the left of the hall fireplace lead into what may have been the parlor, but now somewhat oddly serves as a kitchen-dining room. The chimneypiece and surviving moldings here date to the 1893 house, but the ceiling has been lowered and some original moldings have vanished.

A smaller room, now a bedroom, is located east of the former parlor and the shadow of the doubled doors that once led into it are evident behind the kitchen cabinets. This room, also entered from a single door to the right of the hall fireplace, also retains its 1893 character. A long and narrow modern bathroom, accessible under the hall stairs, is located behind the wall that backs the bed. In this room at least, original molding survives.

The original Foster-Bell dining room (below), second-largest on the first floor, was accessed originally through double pocket doors in the south wall of the hall (now blocked). It now serves as the living room of a second first-floor apartment, but retains its 1893 chimneypiece and some other details.

Immediately south of the former dining room (behind the large bay that projects from the front of the house) is what originally was the conservatory. Original large windows have been replaced and the area divided. The west part of the conservatory now serves as a kitchen-dining area.

The east part of the former conservatory is now a bedroom, but still in place is the tiled fountain that once upon a time must have filled the room with the sound of splashing water as Ellen Foster Bell relaxed here among the greenery on winter afternoons.

As to where Thomas Dove Foster and his daughter, Ellen, are reposing now --- well, here (courtesy of Find a Grave) is an image of the family lot in the Ottumwa City Cemetery.

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