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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Hidden History

This Riverside Historic District home is younger than its neighbors but makes up for it with a storied past.

Historic homes are a crucial part of a community’s cultural inheritance. They showcase times that came before and offer glimpses into the lifestyles, traditions, and idiosyncrasies of the past. Karen Timberlake’s home on S.E. First Street — a 9,800-square-foot Old English- style bungalow with soaring exteriors of gorgeous, one-of-a-kind concrete bricks and topped off with an original clay tile roof — does this and more.

Karen Timberlake
Photo by Zach Straw.

That’s because Samuel May, the original owner and for whom the home was commissioned, was a prominent Evansville businessman in the early 20th century and made the house cutting-edge for its time. Standing outside the residence, passersby today might even suspect the home was built only a few decades ago.

“It’s just aged very well. It still has the original tile roof placed a hundred years ago, and the upkeep of the exterior has been very minimal,” says Timberlake, who has owned the property for 22 years.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s other homes often are gothic and ornate or Victorian and Georgian in tone. Timberlake’s certainly is classic but leans contemporary with a material common today.

“Samuel had a lot of access to concrete. The whole first floor is poured concrete, and we know that because we had to cut through the floors and some of the walls to put in new HVAC, so the contractors really had to dig deep,” she says.

Built in 1915 and completed in 1916, the home made the newspapers for how much expense construction racked up — $30,000 at that time. May’s wealth came from Hollerbach & May, the sand and gravel company he owned that helped build locks and dams along the Ohio River, making him comfortable with concrete.

Hence, the home’s attached garage also is made of concrete.

“I think they were so fearful of the fire hazard early automobiles posed at that time, that it’s like a bomb shelter in the garage,” Timberlake says. “It’s poured concrete floors, walls, and ceiling. It’s like a little fortress.”

A fireplace in Karen Timberlake's home.
Photo by Zach Straw.

According to Timberlake, her home is among the oldest homes in Evansville with an original attached garage. The majority of the homes in the historic district have carriage houses because they were constructed in the mid-to-late 1800s.

The door leading from the garage to the home was built in steel, helping seal in any flames and thereby further protecting the house.

“It looks like a bank vault door,” Timberlake says. “Samuel must have really been worried about the possibility of a fire and the safety of the garage.”

There are plenty of other quirks of the house that make this home an important vestige of Evansville history. Although the abode is one of the younger homes in the Riverside Historic District, it has plenty of period-centric character, including wood paneling, original wood flooring and fireplaces, and a stone bench containing a carving of a gargoyle that once was part of the edifice of Evansville’s C&EI train station.

Karen Timberlake's living room.
Photo by Zach Straw.

“There was also a chauffeur’s room above the garage, the home had an intercommunicating telephone system, and there’s an incinerator — or there was, but we use it as a utility chute now — that ran from the third floor to the basement,” Timberlake says.

The home was typical of the upper-class domestic norms of its time, with the third floor offering a living room, bathroom, and three bedrooms for in-home staff.

Over time, however, the property traded hands. It served as the longtime headquarters for the southwest Indiana chapter of the American Red Cross from 1948 to the mid-1970s.

A room in Karen Timberlake's house.
Photo by Zach Straw.

After that, it welcomed the clients of Evelyn Karges, a well-known interior designer and member of the Karges furniture family.

“I think half of Evansville has been through my home one way or another,” Timberlake says.

The house had not been a home since 1948. Whether intentional or a byproduct of hosting organizations and businesses, the house was never subdivided, and all the integrity of the original structure was preserved. When Karen and her husband, Bob, bought the house in 2000, they were the first in more than 50 years to use it as a residence. Because it had functioned as a business for so long, there was no kitchen, so the Timberlakes custom designed and installed one.

Karen Timberlake's kitchen.
Photo by Zach Straw.

“Other buyers might have seen the lack of kitchen as a detriment, but I thought, ‘Wow, we can put in our own kitchen!’” Timberlake says.

She designated one large space for the kitchen and chose everything from the flooring to the wall treatments, appliances, fixtures, and countertops. Alongside is a butler’s pantry, and she wanted to keep it as is.

She and her husband disagreed for two weeks about what to do with the pantry, Timberlake says, yet she eventually won the argument.

“He wanted one big kitchen but knew how much I liked to cook,” she says.

Karen Timberlake's dinning room.
Photo by Zach Straw.

The pantry almost is a little room unto itself, with built-in cabinetry and space to store serveware for entertaining.

“It had a three-burner electric coil cooktop already when we bought the house, so I have to think the space might have been the original kitchen to the house, but we don’t know that for sure,” she says.

The couple made other improvements over time. They updated the HVAC and electrical, along with the plumbing as needed.

“We have kept a lot of the original cast iron pipes in the home,” Timberlake says.

Thus, hidden in the walls are even more tell-tale signs of the home’s history. In 2000, the house also contained a staggering 16 individual window air conditioning units and a boiler in the basement.

“We replaced all that with four modern furnaces and four ACs,” she says.

A bedroom in Karen Timberlake's house.
Photo by Zach Straw.

A downstairs powder room and the main bathroom received updates too.

“I really like that the exterior is well preserved. Inside, I can be a bit more flexible with keeping the home period specific,” she says.

Just as the home’s historic nature, unique elements, and customizable layout capture the admiration of passersby, they heavily factored into the Timberlakes’ interest in purchasing the property. In fact, the couple weren’t house hunting at the time. In a serendipitous turn of events, they had just paid off their home on Evansville’s West Side when one day Bob called and asked to meet Downtown for lunch. There, he surprised his wife with the stately abode he’d come across on S.E. First Street, and she fell in love with it.

“It was never our goal to live in an historic district,” Timberlake says, “but it’s one of the best decisions we ever made.”

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