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Respecting the Historical Narrative. PART II

In a previous post I wrote about my efforts to protect the historical narrative of the 1894 Cross House.

If X feature is missing, like a bathroom sink/vanity, I will do research to learn what sink/vanities looked like in 1894, and will then go on the hunt for such an item.

All the lighting was long gone from the house when I purchased it. So, I spent the first year acquiring early electric lighting. Then I learned that the house originally had gas/electric combination lighting. Oh. So, I sold off all the electric lighting (which was all later than the house, and not combination fixtures), and spent the second year acquiring gas/electric combination lighting. The house has been enhanced by this lighting which “fits” the house perfectly.

And so on.

Sadly though very few people work to protect what their house is.

Today, I found a small example of this, and this post will begin a regular series.

 

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This is a house in Emporia, Kansas. At first I paid no attention to the For Sale listing which showed up in my morning email. But wait…

 

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…I then recognize the house as being late 1940s. And I love love love late 1940s houses! The giveaway was the scalloped edge of the gable. Tragically however much of the original character of the house, the historical narrative, has been systemically eroded with nary a thought. All the windows are new and “Colonial” in style. The original windows would not have, likely, looked anything like the replacements windows. So, too, with the terrible Home Depot front door and glass screen door. Even the colors are of-the-moment and not how the house would have been painted when built

 

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This is another house, and which retains its distinctive 1940s period-specific windows. I apologize for the shutters. Note also the distinctive 1940s scalloped ending. You will be seeing this again real soon!

 

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And the same style windows. They just scream 1940s.

 

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In the foyer of the Emporia house the terrible new door blunts any 1940s charm. I ache to see an image of the original door. On the bright side, look at the wall paneling. VERY 1940s, and it may have been unpainted originally. Perhaps even knotty-pine? Note the fabulous scalloped cornice! This just screams 1940s. And the cornice repeats a motif, scallops, seen on the exterior gable.

 

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The living room. Yawn. And ANOTHER terrible Home Depot door. The only extant 1940s feature is the mantel. Doesn’t look like much, right? Look closer…

 

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See the sides? The are curved and fluted. FABULOUS! This detail is SO evocative of the late 1940s, yet most people would not think twice about replacing this period-specific mantel with something from Home Depot.

 

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The Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House. Hi Michelle and Obama! Golly, I am SO going to miss these classy and intelligent people. Sigh. Anyway, between 1949 and 1952 the White House was gutted by Harry Truman and entirely rebuilt. Almost everything in the finished product is from the late 1940s but few people notice the telling 1940s detailing which abounds in the White House. Now, look at the fireplace. Look closer…

 

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…for, on the chimney breast are the exact same fluted curved corners as seen in the humble Emporia house mantel.

 

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In the dining room are a pair of FABULOUS corner cabinets! Note the house motif: scalloped edging around the openings. FABULOUS. Note how the terrible windows detract rather than enhance the 1940s narrative. Ditto the terrible swivel lights in the ceiling. If this were my house I would have…

 

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…a 1940s dining room set and a…

 

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…1940s chandelier. Can you see what a huge difference just these two choices would make in enhancing the original character of the dining room? Oh! I almost forgot!

 

1940s draperies!!!!!!!!
1940s draperies!!!!!!!!

 

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Or these!!!!!!!!

 

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EEEK!!!!!!!! The original kitchen, which I have no doubt was deliciously 1940s and dripping with scalloped detailing, was discarded and replaced with…this.

 

To me, paying attention to the historical narrative — what a house is — is kinda like buying a house with an instruction manual. HERE is what to do and HERE is what not to do.

The dining room of this house is currently…yawn. But imagine it with 1940s colors on the walls, a 1940s dining room set, a glittering 1940s chandelier, and delicious 1940s draperies. The room would come alive and everybody who walked in it would exclaim: I LOVE THIS ROOM!!!!!!!!

Then imagine ALL the rooms in the house done as such.

But successful owners of this home, like countless homeowners across the country, paid no attention to the language their house was speaking, and these owners came in and imposed new languages. In the process cool bits were thrown away and over time a unique language specific to a period and aesthetic was muffled or destroyed.

These millions of homeowners are not bad. It just never occurred to them that their house was communicating with them because the many TV shows about old house and glossy magazines NEVER address protecting and enhancing the historical narrative of a house. Indeed, they do rather the opposite.

 

NOTE

In my own 1894 house I have already installed a 1960s Hollywood Regency-styled crystal chandelier in my bedroom, and will be installing 1970s Hollywood-Regency-styled lights in the library. In the parlor will be a marble-topped Tulip Table designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957.

None of these items would have been in the house in 1894. But I am making a conscious decision to have the interior decor reflect 123-years of history.

Consciousness. To me, this is the operative word. I am all for a homeowner doing whatever the hell they want with their home. Go for it, baby! But, I would love it if homeowners were conscious of what they owned. When was the house built? Each era has a specific aesthetic and today it is effortless to search via Google.

The house in this post would, in my opinion, look so vastly better if its 1940s charm was enhanced. This does not mean that every item and every choice be rigorously 1940s. Hey, I would not give up my huge flat panel TV! I am not living without a dishwasher!

The point is that I doubt that the successive owners of this home ever thought about respecting the era when the house was built. Had they, I suspect the results would be very different today and what is now kinda a YAWN house could so easily be a WOW house.

 

 

 

6 Responses to Respecting the Historical Narrative. PART II

  1. How would you (or someone without your expertise) figure out what time-period-appropriate features look like? I’ve found it hard to find relevant stuff in library collections and I don’t know enough to evaluate whether Google search results are trustworthy.

    • Good question.

      Yes, it helps that I have been collecting vintage design and architecture magazines for decades, and have forty years experience in interior design.

      I would say to repeatedly Google the decade your house was built. Look at the Google IMAGES for like six months. Go on eBay and bid on decorating magazines from the decade; they are often quite cheap. I suspect that very soon you will be surprised how you develop an eye. You will suddenly start seeing all kinds of details and lighting and furnishings which you never noticed previously but which are all period-specific to your home.

  2. Knotty pine, with those wonderfully scalloped details… the wood mellowed to “THAT” color… you know THE color I mean? YUMMY! Have you ever been in one of those rooms, and you feel your soul relax, and know that you are HOME. Yup… YUMMY!

  3. Another great post, Ross. Although my first love in architecture is Queen Anne, Eastlake, and some early Craftsman, I will always seek to work within the style, period, and theme of whatever home I own. If it was good architecture when built, it will ALWAYS look better if it remains consistent. Slapping random styles into a building with no thought of the overall composition doesn’t just interrupt the historical narrative, but typically clashes and just looks bad. If you have an eye and appreciation for architecture and decorating style, it’s even more grating.

    I feel that the consumerist “buy and take home today” attitudes are bringing respect, appreciation, and even recognition of attractive architecture steadily downhill. People see windows, doors, vanities, etc as just another interchangeable feature they can buy and “upgrade”, not part of a greater whole.

    I really hope this HGTV fad burns out quickly.

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