Building 51 | Building 51 | c. 1855-60 pine wood circular “privy vault” floor with tongue and groove joints and tapered edges from the john kent russell house- j. k. russell & co., chicago, il.
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c. 1855-60 pine wood circular “privy vault” floor with tongue and groove joints and tapered edges from the john kent russell house- j. k. russell & co., chicago, il.


Chicago Buildings

About This Item

very rare and remarkable original mid-19th century early chicago residential “privy vault” pine wood floor likely constructed by j.k. russell & company, chicago, il. the defunct outhouse privy hole or “vault” floor was discovered on the john kent russell house lot, where a garage, constructed in the 1920’s protected it for decades. in fact, upon discovery, all of the contents were still very wet and intact, likely from being protected or “capped” when the cement floor sealed the ground where the privy was located. the earliest artifacts discovered at the bottom of the privy floor were two cod liver oil medicinal bottles and a cobalt blue w.h.h. soda or mineral water bottle dating to the late 1850’s or early 1860’s. it is highly likely the vault was “dipped” for the first few years of its existence until the installation of a much larger cesspool was installed closer to the residence – perhaps when plumbing was introduced into the house. the exact timeline of events is not exactly known. interestingly, the larger cesspool contains nearly identical building materials and methodologies. the smaller and older privy vault is five feet in diameter with an approximate depth of four feet. the floor was constructed with two inch tongue and groove pine boards with tapered edges for run-off. the vault was reinforced with interlocking pine wood staves secured with a riveted joint wrought iron hoop using tar, pitch or some kind of resin as the adhesive. a badly corroded second hoop was found about 18 inches above the first still tightly affixed to the staves. traces of brick or limestone for “capping” the opening was likely used, but removed when the privy was filled in during the 1880’s, when a wood framed horse stable was constructed there (later demolished in the 20th century to make way for the pressed concrete “stone” garage. the boards were likely cut and assembled at russell’s mill, prior to installation. an up/down saw was used in the fabrication of the floor, based on the distinctive saw markings left by each down-stroke of the blade. no other wood-lined vault discovered or unearthed in the chicago area thus far contained a wood floor, nor are the ones found circular in shape (i.e., most if not all are square, or in a few documented cases, triangular-shaped). the historically important john kent russell residence (built in 1855) was a remarkable example of an early gable front italianate style cottage employing chicago balloon frame construction, located within chicago’s original 1837 city limits. the now-demolished house was considered to be a rare surviving example of architect william belden olmsted, prior to his partnership with john mills osdel (considered chicago’s first architect), which together as a design firm, constructed several early chicago buildings prior to the great chicago fire (e.g., tremont house, first chicago city hall, etc). the combination of skill and availability of building materials used to construct russell’s early frame house was due largely to the fact that it was built by and for russell, who was a highly trained carpenter, and owner of j.k. russell & co., which was (at the time) a very large supplier of millwork (e.g., brackets, trimwork, doors, etc.) for some of the earliest chicago balloon-frame structures being built before and after the great chicago fire. from the time of construction, the russell house was no doubt outfitted with building materials provided by his company, which likely included the fanciful oversized gabel brackets with “bullseye” rondels, turned staircase spindles and newel post, wood fireplace mantel (located on the 2nd floor), paneled doors and impressive built-up moldings and/or casings used on both the exterior as well as interior. two major alterations (both completed in the 1860’s), including the addition of a basement to raise the house to street and/or sidewalk level to accommodate the installation of a sewer pipe added along carpenter street and a substantial addition built to the west elevation dramatically transformed the house from the time it was first built. in the 1880’s, ongoing remodeling was performed before and after the home was subdivided into five separate apartments. the highly outdated tenement was further upgraded or cosmetically altered with the addition of electrical, plumbing and asbestos siding used to cover over the dilapidated clapboard siding. the enclosed rear porch and main entrance were reconfigured, along with the addition of a garage built in the mid-1920’s. during its incredibly long and storied existence, the russell house has survived the great chicago fire, the ongoing expansion of the surrounding manufacturing district, the kennedy expressway, urban renewal and the like. amazingly, the residence has been continuously occupied from the time it was built until the present, shortly before urban remains arrived on the site to begin salvaging the original architectural elements before demolition in the summer of 2014. in addition to the careful and documented removal of surviving architectural elements dating to russell’s occupancy, urban remains, lead by eric j. nordstrom, painstakingly documented any and all changes the residence underwent over time, to not only gain further insight into its evolution as a single family cottage to a now-dilapidated multi-family dwelling, but ultimately create a more detailed narrative focusing on the exact historical building methods used to construct this non-extant wood frame dwelling. the narrative or survey, in the form of detailed notes and photographic images, along with a large collection of several artifacts gathered will be presented in both exhibition and book in 2015.