Deconstructing the Gilded Age Mansion: Identity, Industry, and Culture through Architecture

Faculty Sponsor

Robert Elder, Ph.D


Arts and Sciences



ORCID Identifier(s)


Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 5-3-2018


Microhistory studies history in an enclosed space, interpreting the trends, themes, and forces of an era through a small context such as a single city or village, it tells the story of the whole through the parts. In this study of Gilded Age history, the methods of microhistory are taken a step further to focus on a single building. Using the John H. Barker Mansion in Michigan City, Indiana as a case study, I utilize the design, construction, and decoration of a single building to highlight larger historical forces at play. The architect’s vision, the Barker family’s history, and the economic context of the mansion provide insight into the roles of culture and symbol in a nineteenth-century industrial town. These small parts of the whole both redefine and reflect the Gilded Age; understanding the interplay between the whole and its parts is essential in understanding the time period itself. The building blueprints and family correspondence with the architect, along with myriad sources on Michigan City’s immigrant communities, labor politics, and factories provide a narrative of culture and identity that is lacking in the broader, typically urban narrative of the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age has a strong import into the present, today’s notions labor, home, faith, and community have their root in this time period. Making the cultural dynamics of the Gilded Age tangible, via the four walls of the Barker Mansion, is key to recognizing and understanding this historical import.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Anthony (TJ) Kalin is a junior history and philosophy major from Valparaiso Indiana. TJ has an interest in nineteenth-century cultural history as well as Polish-American immigration history. He is currently working on a monograph, Gilded in Duneland: Michigan City 1860-1920 that will be available through the History Press of Charleston SC in May 2019, as well as a history honors thesis on the cultural meaning of suicide in Gilded Age Chicago.

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