The Cross House
In my previous post, Travis (a guy I know and adore) stated: “I think you’re overly concerned about the “historic narrative”.”
I started to reply but realized that doing a post on the subject might be better. So, Travis, this very very very wordy post is all your fault!
IS TRAVIS RIGHT?
Often, I have written about my efforts in not confusing the historical narrative of the 1894 Cross House. By this I mean that I want the house to state, clearly, what is original and what is not.
But I would not say I am overly concerned (I know, I know, many readers just burst out laughing at this proclamation). To me, this implies an obsessive focus and this is not how I experience such a concern.
Rather, I enjoy being aware of the historical narrative of the house and enjoy being careful about it. To me, it is like grammar. While I take some pains to use good grammar I will not hesitate to write ain’t. Last week I wrote this: “In my previous post I detailed much of the work done on the Cross House in 2016. And a great much did happen.”
Yes, a grammar scandal!
During the first year I owned the house I purchased a bunch of early electric chandeliers and sconces. Later, I realized that these were not right for the house after discovering that the house originally had gas/electric combination fixtures throughout. This was quite advanced for 1894 (the White House was only electrified in 1892). So, I suddenly knew that I would never use any of the electric fixtures and would go on the hunt for fabulous gas/electric fixtures instead. Which I, nut that I am, did.
By doing so I would honor the historical narrative of the house and not create confusion as to What Was. I would also, importantly, respect and highlight a way cool historical feature of the house.
But…but…I am also installing blatantly non-original style fixtures. Like in the Long Bedroom where I installed a 1960s Hollywood-Regency-style crystal chandelier. However, because the chandelier is so obviously not original the historical narrative is protected. If I were obsessed with being 100% correct I would never go 1960s!
The main floor bathroom is another good example. If I were obsessed I would return it to what I have now learned was its original layout and with period-correct fittings such as a 34-inch wide marble vanity and a high-tank toilet.
But I will not likely do this.
I do plan to recreate the original layout of the encaustic tile floor, and at some expense. I will quite likely purchase a period-correct 34-inch wide marble vanity. However, I will hang it higher than it would have been in 1894. Then I will likely re-install the now restored 1926 low-tank toilet which came with the house. When all is done, I will hang on the upper walls the 1970s mylar peacock wallpaper I found on eBay.
This one room epitomizes the kind of thought process I apply to the whole house. WHERE I can recreate a damaged feature (the bathroom floor) I will most likely default to this. WHERE I can bring back a confirmed lost feature (the vanity) I most likely will. WHERE I cannot for one reason or another return a lost feature (the toilet, due to cost) I will make do with something from a later period, particularly if it was already in the house. And WHERE I have zero information as to what would have been there in 1894 (the wallpaper) I will do something obviously not period-correct (like 1970s mylar wallpaper) so as to protect the historical narrative.
This kind of thinking is not absolutist. It just means that depending on conditions/information I will likely lean this way or that.
In the kitchen, I have now learned, pretty much, what it would have looked like in 1894. This, in itself, seems like a minor miracle to me as I had NO idea when purchasing the house what an 1894 kitchen looked like.
Today, i do know. And there is no way I would live with an 1894 kitchen. I could live with a kitchen which was, say, 1920s. Or later. But not 1894 (coal/wood stove, ice chest, low sink, bad lighting, etc.).
Some readers have urged me to create what I call a faux period kitchen. This would mean doing the kitchen in a traditional style. The room would have more lighting than it originally had, would have a modern refrigerator/dishwasher/range, would have, say, a big 1920s porcelain sink, and traditionally-styled built-in cabinets (which would not have existed in 1894).
The finished room would look old-fashiony but utterly nothing like it did in 1894.
I. Just. Cannot. Do. This.
My solution, as of now, is to rigorously protect all original material remaining in the kitchen (floor, plaster walls, wainscot, doors, windows, and trim), recreate what can be confirmed as lost/damaged (the dumbwaiter and laundry chute), install gas/electric lighting, recreate the scientifically confirmed original colors, but otherwise insert an obviously new gigantic island and appliances. The room will read, authentically, as 1894, while the island/appliances will read as new, and thus the historical narrative will be protected. There will be no question as to what is original and what is not. Oh, and this plan will be way cool!
By way of contrast, if I created an all new kitchen but in a rigorous, say, 1920s style, I will have screwed with the historical narrative. For, most people would assume the kitchen was original. And this freaks me out.
In the butler’s pantry I removed one built-in cabinet to create much better access (modern access) and will relocate the cabinet to the servant’s hall (breakfast room). It could, later, be put back. I will then have two tall, skinny cabinets custom-made to infill the now exposed ends of the remaining cabinets. These new cabinets will meticulously match the originals and when I am done nobody will ever think that the pantry has ever been altered. It will be a glowing magical wooden jewel box.
By doing the above however I will be screwing with the historical narrative! I know! Spank me! For, the new cabinets will read as original. This would be fine with me if they were recreating a lost feature, and if I had confirmation as to what the feature looked like. The new cabinets though will just be, well, new.
And I will be quite wicked in doing so. Wicked!
Again, my approach is not absolutist.
The floors have proved agonizing.
In 1894 the house had wall-to-wall carpeting. In 1929 and 1950, I believe, very boring oak floors were laid down.
I loathe them.
The floor plane was originally intended as a dramatic visual contributor to the overall aesthetic and helped to anchor the rooms with their elaborate mantels and trim and doors and colorful stained-glass.
The later oak floors SO did not do this. They are lifeless and visually anonymous.
What to do? What to do?
Because I have numerous small furry creatures there is no way that I would ever install wall-to-wall carpeting in an 1890s style. Nor could I possibly afford to install period-correct parquet floors with intricate inlay borders.
What to do? What to do?
What if I faked it? What if I stenciled the floors to kinda sorta look like parquet with inlay borders?
I can’t. Because this would confuse the historical narrative and most visitors would go: “Oh! I love the original floors.”
Instead, I did something SO not period-correct: wide stripes.
Yep. Wide strips. LOCK THIS GUY UP! IS HE CRAZY?
Amazingly, many readers love this solution (oh, and I love you!). But…but…many other readers are belatedly letting me that they hate this solution!
What though IS the perfect solution? Can a perfect solution even exist?
My respect for the historical narrative is something learned over the decades. When I was in my twenties I was nothing like this and today cringe at the horrors I inflicted upon places I once lived. I am hoping to find the time to detail these youthful atrocities.
While this approach is learned, the Cross House has hugely amplified it. The house is so remarkably original that I feel compelled to protect what remains. Also, being deeply, wildly in love amplifies it even further as I feel incredibly protective. I will protect you, sweet baby, I will.
On TV, I see shows about so-called restorations and recoil, as if attacked. I also, monthly, recoil from work in glossy magazines. Time after time I see no awareness of historical narrative. None. The results, to me, diminish old houses.
I repeat: The results, to me, diminish old houses.
For example, I often see people installing crown molding rather than picture rail. The latter is very period-specific and gives old houses their, well, oldness. But when was the last time you saw anybody put back lost picture rail on TV?
Over the past decades I have seen countless new bathrooms done to look like an old timey bathroom with hardly a thought, or no thought, as to what the original bathrooms might have actually looked like. Scandalously, I have even seen countless original bathrooms torn out to “update” them. The new bathrooms are often in a “period-correct” style while being 100% nothing of the sort.
To me, paying attention to the historical narrative of a house will result in a more interesting home. A way cooler home. A unique home rich with ingrained character. (Did you note how I changed from house to home?)
In my experience, the more the historical narrative, unique to each house, is ignored the less interesting, and real, the finished project will be. Over the decades fabulous old houses are eroded bit by bit as each owner makes changes to suit their needs and tastes. I understand this; indeed, I will leave my mark on the Cross House. But, very few owners ever think about the historical narrative of their house and this is, to me, unfortunate. I think our architectural heritage is important and in America we have been way too casual about it. This has pained me my whole life.
I also, as stated, enjoy learning about my home. In addition, I love thinking about such stuff. I love developing solutions while respecting the historical narrative. I love it when solutions are enhanced by respecting the historical narrative.
To me, respecting the historical narrative is like playing chess: a fascinating, enjoyable adventure which stimulates the mind.
All of the above is what works for me. In your old home you may have a different approach. I respect this.