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 I often wonder if they will turn out to be fads that will quickly pass from memory.  Anyone recall brass fixtures and hardware, sconces, floral wallpaper borders or the crystal chandelier in the foyer?   It seems the mavens of style are often more interested in expressing a desire for novelty rather than an appreciation for long-held ideas about form, proportion, color or taste.  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 beautiful from the banal.  It seems to me that the rush to create things that are “now and wow” often neglects proven principles that can leads to questionable expressions in architecture, fashion and art.  In domestic architecture this has resulted in 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 if it represents a real shift in the way architects design, builders build and people 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, no kidding!!!!”  I would hope this would be apparent to anyone who has thought about architecture and design.  However, the fact that we have been building McMansions for years while remaining oblivious to such a fundamental concept 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 this trend does represent a new way of thinking about how we design our homes!   

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The I-House

When people think of 19th century houses they often  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 isn't much devoted to high-style Victorian homes.  I have, however, 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 carriage houses.  I suppose it makes some sense 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 such as the Salt Box and Cape Cod.  

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 18th 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 building types 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, 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.