Antiques and old house lovers like me always have their eye out for interesting architecture. Going for a drive somewhere is elevated to a journey of discovery. Whether it is the excitement of finding something unique in old house design or the satisfaction of coming across one that is well preserved and loved, there’s bound to be something interesting or new.
On a recent visit to Newport, driving around some of its tight streets where houses are knitted together within an inch of each other, I noted how clever the early colonists had to be in expanding their homes for growing families. The juxtaposition of styles could be quite peculiar. Considering the bit of land they had to work with, it’s no surprise that some expansions might look a bit odd – like this one:
Whether old or new, odd as it is, it works for me. There’s still a charm and fancy to it. That collision of gable roof into gambrel, old materials and primitive odd chimney, the mix of clapboard and shingle, proud and sturdy window frames, crooked old door – this quirky little corner house, for me, just feels right. It’s not just the materials – which are certainly key – but the proportion, balance, the weight of it.
Unlike some thoughtless additions done to old houses today, this one was thought out, each detail considered. Down the street from me there is a late 19th century home that for the past year or so has undergone renovation (I use the term ‘undergone’ as in a patient who’s undergone a terrible surgery). In original form, it was a simple, graceful, symmetrical little thing, but the new owner needed double the size. Thankfully most of it went off the back. All things considered, it could have been worse. But then, out of the blue, out of necessity to house many vehicles, a garage the size of Mount Vernon arose. Smack in line with the front of the house and dwarfing it, the three large bays face the road. Really? Wouldn’t you want to hide that? Attach it behind the house if you must, or site it in the back forty, but don’t compete with the house.
There’s so much we can do to wreck the ambiance of a lovely home, to wake you from that dream glimpse into the past – but a major one that is hard to change is to build a garage (a giant one) with many bays of overhead doors and plop it right up front and next to your house.
How quickly this “acceptable” renovation went awry. The builder/homeowner made a decision for convenience rather than aesthetic. When a lovely old home lies outside of historic districts, there’s not much we can do. There are no architectural police. The old house doesn’t come with directions.
In the old days, their hands were tied, designs were few and fairly typical. Carpenters tools were limited, their knowledge came from a few books, and there were rules. They did their best to observe them, and when they stretched them the results were still “quaint.”
Now we have new tools, books and ideas – but no rules. For old houses, that can only work in the right hands – the hands of those who have studied those old rules and are passionate about them. Thankfully there are many. There are experts to consult – for free! Historians, historic district commissions and preservation groups – local, statewide, nationwide – all want to help. Even museums to visit. For any area outside of our own bailiwick, we need to put egos aside, and just ask. Go on a journey of discovery – and may you find many surprises, fashioned by the “right hands.”