Monday, January 27, 2014

The Wall Street Journal and This New Old House

An article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal by design editor Dale Hrabi caught my attention.  Titled “This New Old House”, the article’s lead claims that:

“Americans fed up with over-sized, over-designed McMansions are finding saner shelter in dwellings inspired by historic models on the outside – but full of walk-in closets and modern kitchens within.”

Whenever I read about trends in fashion, food or architecture in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or L. A. Times my conservative, Midwestern nature usually leads me to discount them as fads that will quickly pass from memory.  Anyone recall brass fixtures and hardware, sconces, floral wallpaper borders or the crystal chandelier in the foyer?   Indeed, it seems the mavens of style are more interested in expressing a bourgeois desire for novelty that would distinguish them as cultural cognoscenti rather than developing a principled appreciation for form, proportion, color or taste.   I am sure the mavens of style would dismiss me as a small-minded provincial who cannot appreciate cultural innovation.  That might be true.  Then again, it might not.  While I believe I can appreciate innovation, fashion and new cultural phenomena, I also appreciate those timeless principles of design, aesthetics and proportion which distinguish the sublime from the banal.  It seems to me that the rush to create things that are “now and wow” often neglects proven principles and leads to vulgar expressions in architecture, fashion and art.  In domestic architecture this has resulted in the abomination called the McMansion.

The McMansion.  Proportion? Taste? Style?  Who cares!!!  It is big and expensive!!!

As I read this article I wondered if this interest in traditional design might be another fleeting trend or represents a real shift in the way architects design, builders build and people live in and appreciate their homes.  The fact that this article needed to be written suggests that principles of design remain poorly appreciated and that this new trend might be an expression of nostalgia rather than a fundamental change in the way people look at design. Hrabi quotes architectural designer Linda Connor of Connor Homes in Middlebury, VT , who says:

“People think it’s all about molding and detailing, but the most important thing is scale and proportion.  If you get that right the rest falls into place.”

To which I say “Well, duhhhh!!!!”  This would seem obvious to anyone who has studied architecture.  However, the fact that we have been building monstrous McMansions for years while remaining oblivious to such a fundamental principle makes me question whether people are indeed interested traditional design or simply affected by another trend.  If so, I wonder if this trend will lead to a new understanding of design or will prove to be a passing fad for nostalgia which will result in pastiche rather than thoughtful design.

I must admit I can be a bit of a cynic.  However, I can be an optimistic too.  Let's hope my suspicions are proven incorrect.   

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The I-House

When people think of 19th century houses they usually  imagine grand Queen Anne homes with towers, elaborate porches and oodles spindles, brackets and fretwork.  However, if you read through my blog you might have noticed that there aren't any posts devoted to high-style Victorian homes (at least not yet!) although  I have I have written a fair bit about more common houses.  Perhaps this is because none of my ancestors lived in Victorian mansions with stylish appointments, cultured flower gardens and a carriage house.  I suppose it is logical that I would have an affinity for the buildings that most American families called home. Today’s post is no exception as I devote a few lines to one of America's most ubiquitous houses: The I-House.

The term “I-House” was coined by the cultural geographer Fred Kniffen who studied vernacular and folk architecture across eastern and southeastern United States.   He used the term I-House because examples were commonly found in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Indiana (thus the “I” in I-House) although the house evolved from earlier forms found along the eastern seaboard.  These folk precedents, which had evolved from even earlier English folk forms such as the Hall-and-Parlor and Center Passage, provided the template for many, early house types in colonial and 19th century America, including the Salt Box, Cape Cod and I-House.  

Hall-and Parlor houses were built early in the colonies and were direct descendents of English folk houses.  They were rectangular in shape, two rooms wide and one room deep with a gabled roof.  

The Hall-and Parlor floorplan.

The Center Passage form appeared later in the 18th century and was an evolved form of the earlier Hall-and-Parlor.  Instead of the simple two-room footprint of the Hall-and-Parlor, the Center Passage had its two rooms separated by a central passage and stair.  This symmetrical footprint was especially suitable for the classical designs of the Georgian Style commonly built during the last half of the 18the century.  This symmetrical footprint also provided the template for the I-House which appeared during the 19th century in New England, Mid Atlantic and the Tidewater south.

The Center Passage floorplan.
The arrival of railroads and the influx of immigrants spread the I-House form into the old Northwest and across Mississippi Valley.   The design was a favorite form for farmers and town dwellers alike.   The developed form featured side gables, was two rooms in width, one room in depth and two stories in height.  The facade is usually symmetrical although later additions such as kitchens were very common.  Later, when railroads made the distribution of factory-made millwork possible, homeowners often added fashionable details such as brackets, scrolls and molding to the basic form.    

I found this example of an I-House along the old Dodd Road between Kasota and Mankato, Minnesota.  Sometimes the most complete examples of historic architecture with the best integrity are abandoned.  When houses are occupied people make changes so that it better suits modern lifestyles and usage.  This means I spend quite a bit of time skulking about on side roads looking for derelict buildings such as this ca. 1875 house. 

Although covered by vines and brush you can easily see the characteristic I-House form. Though the house has been abandoned for some time it remains in good condition, including retaining a few of its original 6/6 windows.   This example is quite plain with flat door and window casing and clapboard siding.  The foundation is native Kasota limestone.  Although it might not look like much, this is a representative example of a house type that sheltered many families through the hot midwestern summers and frigid winters.  

The next time you are out for a drive in the countryside, stop for a bit and look around.  I would bet you too will find a few examples of the I-House.

A Minnesota example of the I-House from the front.
Another view.
View showing the side and rear, including the kitchen addition.
One of the original 6 over 6 sash windows.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Diamond in the Rough

For several years I have been driving by a simple little house near St. Peter, MN just across the Minnesota River. It always catches my attention and I have wondered how old it is, who built it, who lived there and how has it survived.  It is a small, simple building that looks to be a typical example of the first generation of houses built during the settlement era in the upper Midwest.  Although houses of this sort used to exist by the thousands in Minnesota, very few have survived unaltered.  This Fall I finally got my courage up and decided I would introduce myself to the owner.  Beside the house is Nelson Imports, an auto repair shop specializing in Mercedes, and I met the owner Josh Nelson who graciously showed me the building.

The mystery house near St. Peter, MN. 
As you can see there isn't much to the building. It is in good condition and hasn't been cut up or altered to the point that the original structure can't be easily identified. The earliest part of the house is the section on the right with the front-facing gable.  The addition on the left was added a few years later, most likely as the family grew and separate kitchen space was needed.  Josh knew that the house had been lived in up into the early 1960s and that it has been vacant ever since.  He also had heard that it had been used as the first railroad depot in St. Peter. Since I am fascinated by vernacular architecture like this humble little house and the stories of the people who lived in it, I couldn't help but offer to research the building's history.

Stay posted through the Fall as I start studying this little gem and learn all about its story!  

Plus, if your C Class needs brakes or the "check engine" light keeps coming on, stop by and see Josh at Nelson Imports in St. Peter and he will be sure to take good care of you and your Mercedes. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Painted Floors in the Victorian Home

Late 19th century card of sample
floor colors from the New England
Paint Company
Painted floors were common across the country during the 19th century. Durable floor paints would seal soft pine flooring making them less liable to stain and easier to clean.  An 1850 edition of Miss Leslie's Lady's House Book recommends cleaning heavily soiled, common pine floors using:
   "an old tin pan with some gray sand in it; and after soaping the brush, rub on it some sand also."

Abrasive sand or pumice could remove stains but would also erode the soft, unpainted floor boards. Since painted and sealed floors would not absorb grease or stains, they could be easily cleaned by wiping or gently brushing with warm soapy water. 

Commercial, ready-made floor paints were made durable and glossy by the addition of resins that were otherwise used to make varnishes. These resins, including copal and colophony, were soluble in boiled linseed oil and were added to oil paint when it was mixed to provided the hard, glossy coat.  Painters and homeowners also used regular, home-mixed oil paint and then applied a protective topcoat of varnish.  Alvin Wood Chase's 1890 receipt book (or recipe book as we say today) Dr. Chase's third, last and complete receipt book and household physician suggests: 

"Paint the whole floor with a mixture of much boiled oil and little ochre for the first coat: then after it is well dried, give two more coats of much ochre and little oil; and finally finish with a coat of first-rate copal varnish.  It is extremely durable for floors, windows, or outside, such as verandas, porticoes and the like." 

Painted bedroom floors from the 1855
Folsom House, Taylor's Falls, MN.
The Folsom House, an 1855 Greek Revival home in Taylor's Falls, MN, an early Minnesota lumbering town, features floors painted in a common, blue-gray and  a yellow ochre like that in Chase's recipe above.   

Close-up of Folsom House floor
Stenciling was a popular way to decorate painted floors to make them resemble expensive carpets or marble. Stenciled patterns often featured repeating floral or geometric patterns and sometimes included contrasting borders around walls which mimicked carpet borders. Stencils were made from tin sheets which had designs cut out with punches or shears. The stencils were laid on the floor and the paint brushed on leaving the painted pattern on the floor. The process was repeated until the floor was covered with the pattern.   The Folsom House has a few remnants of a repeating, bottle green floral design at the top of the stairway. Examples of  floor stenciling are rather uncommon today as they were often obliterated by foot traffic, removed when painted floors went out of fashion or destroyed when linoleum or carpet was installed. 

The Folsom House is located in Taylor's Falls, MN (about 40 minutes northeast of the Twin Cities Metro) and can be visited between Memorial Day weekend and September, Friday through Sunday between 1 and 4 and on holidays between 1 and 4.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Special Offer on Color Consults!

Just $199 for a limited time only.

$100 discount on all exterior paint consults

for the 2013 painting season.

Vintage 1890s advertisement  for
C.T. Raynolds Paint

The 2013 painting season has begun!  Historic Design Consulting is offering a special promotion for House Color Consults.  If you are planning to paint your Victorian home or business this summer this is a special opportunity to save extra money while restoring your property using authentic Victorian colors. If you book your color consult before October 1st, 2013, Historic Design Consulting will complete a custom color report for a discounted price of only $199.00 ($100 discount from regular price of $299).  When many consultants charge fees of $400 or even more for a color consultation, a custom report for only $199 is a real value.   If the clock is already ticking and you need your custom report in a hurry, Historic Design offers expedited consults for a modest upcharge of only $50.  To get started, please visit the Historic Design Webpage and click on the House Colors button today.  

Historic Design Consulting specializes in assisting home and business owners select color schemes that will  reflect the customer's tastes and be appropriate for the style, age and setting of their historic properties. We use period paint swatches, brochures and advertising to develop authentic, period color schemes that complement your home or business's surroundings and accent its special features.  Our reports include a custom color palette, color maps and specially prepared photos that show how your home will look when all the work is done. 

We hope to hear from you soon!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Historic Paint Colors for the Victorian Home: Part Two

Special Offer on Color Consults!

Just $199 for a limited time only.

$100 discount on all exterior paint consults
for summer 2013 painting season.

Click HERE for details or visit the Historic Design Consulting Website today! 

To view Part One of the Victorian Paint Colors post, click HERE.
In a previous post I described my process for selecting historic paint colors for 19th century homes and businesses.  Rather than relying on so-called “Victorian” color collections from modern paint manufacturers such as Behr or Sherwin-Williams, I use period color swatches.  This way I can be sure to consider the same colors homeowners did 130 years ago and offer my customers a truly authentic color palette.

Color swatches printed on cards, however, were an innovation and widely available only after the Civil War.  So, how do I select colors for older homes?  First, I read what designers and architects wrote about house colors in the 19th century.  Andrew Jackson Downing, Samuel Sloan and many others wrote in detail about  selecting paint colors and how they thought a paint scheme should be arranged.  By working my way through these primary sources I can get a good idea how Victorian homeowners and designers picked their color palettes.

Second, I need to know how paint was mixed.  When I read Downing's descriptions of paint colors such as drab or fawn it is essential to know which pigments were used so I can imagine how the paint might have looked.  Since painters tended to be a conservative lot who mixed paints using familiar recipes,  you can often look at later color swatches to get some idea of older paint colors.  Learning about these paint recipes and pigments is a reliable way to reconstruct an early color palette.   

19th century paint was mixed using four basic ingredients: linseed oil; white lead; turpentine and pigments.  Many of the pigments used before 1875 were earth pigments, or pigments mined or refined  from soil.  In other words, earth pigments are pretty colored dirt.
Here are a few examples that were commonly used in the 19th century.

Indian Red is ferric oxide that was originally mined on the Indian Subcontinent (thus its name).  Other deposits of ferric oxide have been discovered all over the world and several have names, including English Red or Venetian Red, that indicate the place of their origin.  Since this pigment was relatively cheap, barns and industrial buildings were frequently painted with paint containing Indian Red. 

Raw Umber is also named after its place of origin: Umbria, Italy.  It is a medium brown pigment refined from clay containing ferric oxide and manganese.  Raw Umber was widely used in the 19th century. 

  Pigments could be baked in ovens to drive out water and cause them to darken.  Compare this Burnt Umber sample to the Raw Umber sample above.

Burnt Sienna is a limonate clay containing ferric oxide that was originally mined around the city of Sienna in Tuscany, Italy.  

Other pigments, such as Prussian Blue and Chrome Green, were commonly used.  Unlike earth pigments, these pigments were produced in factories.  Although found in many paint recipes, several of these manufactured pigments were fugitive, meaning they tended to fade or discolor in sunlight.  This is why few 19th century houses were painted bright blue or purple since these paint recipes usually contained fugitive Prussian Blue. 

Earth pigments proved to be durable and were widely used until the 1870s when they began to be replaced by new pigments made from the by-products of the nascent petroleum industry.   This is why the bright, saturated colors commonly used in the 1890s on Queen Anne homes look out of place on earlier Italianate and Gothic Revival examples.    

For information about color consults for your historic home, visit the Historic Design Consulting website and click on the House Colors button.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Making a 19th Century Door: Or, Why do Modern Replacement Doors Look so Strange on 19th Century Homes

There are many differences between woodworking in today's machine age and the 19th century.  Carpenters and furniture makers today rely on measured drawings, dimensions, and precise measurements to help them plan and build things.  Before the Industrial Revolution, however, things were very different.  19th century house joiners relied on pattern books to be sure, but these books didn't contain measured plans with precise dimensions for Federal or Greek Revival doors, windows and moldings.  Instead, their pattern books had drawings with proportions. 

What do I mean by this?  Lets look at a 1797 plan book by Asher Benjamin and see.  If you wanted to build an interior door today you would buy a set of measured drawings for a 2/8, 2/10 or 3/0 door which would give you the standardized width of the stiles, bottom, top and lock rails, dimensions for the molding, etc.  If you look below at a plate from Benjamin's 18th century plan book, you will see that the drawings are far simpler.

Asher Benjamin, The Country Builder's Assistant
(1797)  plate 12.
The first thing to notice is the series of 9 marks beneath each door. Rather than dimensions, Benjamin instructs the joiner to divide the width of the door opening into 9 equal parts.  If you are building a 3/0 door, which is 36 inches in width (as in the example Benjamin gives here), you would have 9 parts of 4 inches each.  On the 4-panel door each stile, muntin and top rail is one part wide (or 4 inches), the bottom rail is 1 1/2 part wide (6 inches) and the lock rail is  2 1/2 parts wide (10 inches).   

The genius of this approach is its simplicity and flexibility.  If your door opening is an odd size like 2/9, 2/11 or 3/2 (as is common on older homes), you simply step off 9 parts on the door width with a pair of dividers and there you have your base measurement.  You then use the dividers to lay out the width of the stiles (1 divider step or part), the dimension of the bottom rail (1 1/2 divider step) and so on until you have your stock ready to cut and plane.   Regardless of how wide or narrow the door, the proportions of each component to the entire door are exactly the same.  

What's better yet is you don't even need a ruler or to know the dimension of the opening.   You simply mark the width of the opening on a scrap piece of wood, use your dividers to divide it into 9 parts and start laying out your door.  The idea of not knowing or needing the dimension of a door is hard for modern tradesmen to wrap their heads around, but in the 18th and 19th century this was standard procedure. 

Ca. 1849 Greek Revival Door
Why is this important? These differences in approach explain why modern replacement doors often look so odd in older homes.  In an age where everything is standardized (e.g. the width of door stiles and rails), when modern shops build odd-sized doors for older homes the proportions of the door parts are usually way off.  They just don't know the proportions and don't adjust their designs.

Whenever I visit an historic home I take careful measurements of doors, windows, molding and other millwork and determine the proportions of each piece. Then, if I make a hand-made door for a Greek Revival home I can check the measurements and proportions for doors in similar homes and use them to make the replacement.  Not only does my replacement door have the appropriate tool marks and construction for the 19th century, its proportions, molding and shape are also correct.