When the city purchased the house at 904 N. Buckeye St. in May 2017, officials thought they were getting a rundown property without much value. The plan was to simply tear down and clear the lot.
Fast forward to today, and that same house has now been permanently memorialized with a new historical marker deeming it one of the oldest – and most unique – houses in Kokomo.
And it’s no longer a rundown bungalow. It’s now almost fully restored back to its original condition when it was built nearly 170 years ago.
City officials helped unveil the new sign on Tuesday describing how the structure was built in the early 1850s as a tiny, one-room shack placed on a foundation of loose stone.
The house was most likely built by the railroad as a temporary lodging for workers who were constructing the first rail line through Kokomo.
By 1860, additional rooms had been added to the shack, which was then sold as a family home. At the time, the property was located on the northern outskirts of Kokomo, which was a swampy backwoods town with less than 1,000 residents.
So how did one of the oldest structures in the city go from a condemned property ready for demolition to a now celebrated historical site?
It came down to a bit of dumb luck.
Mayor Greg Goodnight said the city had purchased the house for the sole reason of vacating that portion of Buckeye Street in order to convert the road into a section of the Industrial Heritage Trail.
He said at the closing of the sale of the house, street crews were lined up to start tearing down the structure the next day.
Then the former owner made an offhand comment.
“He said ‘This house has done me pretty well considering it was built before 1900,’” Goodnight said. “ … The house was hidden by vinyl and aluminum siding. It looked like a normal house. You couldn’t tell anything about the period it was built.”
So Goodnight asked the street department to slowly peel back the siding to see what lie underneath. What they saw was old wooden planks that looked like nothing from which a newer house would be made.
The discovery was enough for the city to call Howard County Historian Jon Russell to the scene for an expert opinion. And Russell’s opinion was that the structure was old. Really old.
Now, after years of research, that opinion has been confirmed.
A major clue is the fact that the structure sits right beside the city’s first railroad, which ran from Indianapolis to Peru and was the first line built in northern Indiana. Documents indicate the first train ran on the line sometime in January 1853.
Russell said the house is the kind of structure the railroad company would have built to house construction crews. Old maps show when the house was first constructed, it was a tiny, one-room lodging with a wood-burning stove, and it was built cheap.
He thinks it likely also served as the city’s first train station before a new one was built a few years later down the track, and could have served as the lodgings and work room for the railroad regent.
Now, Russell, whose background includes preserving and restoring historic landmarks, has spent the last two years renovating and restoring the house back to its railroad roots.
The restoration of the outside of the structure is now nearly complete after he and his crews have spent hundreds of hours on the project. The front and north sides of the house now expose the original siding that was put on nearly 170 years ago. Historically accurate doors and windows are in place.
But maybe the most stunning feature is the all-wood shingling that now lines the roof and replicates the kind of covering it would have had when it was built.
That shingling was paid for through a $5,000 grant from the Efroymson Family Fund, which was created in part to encourage historic preservation.
Mark Dollase, vice president of preservation services at Indiana Landmarks, helped secure that grant. He said the kind of work being done on the former railroad house is the kind of project he loves best.
“This house is a survivor. It’s still there and still standing,” he said. “I love when historic properties that maybe people didn’t think twice about are discovered and found to be significant is some way that people had missed before.”
But with the new marker in place, no one can miss the historic significance of the house ever again.
Russell said the home should be fully restored in the next few months. A future use of the property has yet to be determined, but he’s hoping the structure will end up housing some kind of museum detailing the city’s unique railroad history.
But, Dollase said, whatever it ends being used for, the ultimate goal has already been achieved –preserving a one-of-a-kind building in Kokomo that provides insight into the city’s early history.
“It may not be a grand mansion,” he said. “It’s a much more modest structure, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important in the history of Kokomo and the state.”