The Cross House

Respecting the Historical Narrative

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!

 

THE LIGHTING

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 BATH

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.

 

THE KITCHEN

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.

 

OUTING MYSELF

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

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?

 

WHY BOTHER?

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.

 

CONCLUSION

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.

 

NOTE

All of the above is what works for me. In your old home you may have a different approach. I respect this.

 

 

 

28 Responses to Respecting the Historical Narrative

  1. (Sorry for the length of this!)
    I believe I get it and appreciate your position and the decisions you are struggling with. That said, my home, whose history began in 1781 and morphed into a labyrinth of rooms and wings, with additions in 1811, mid- nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries would to my mind look like a multilingual mess if I could even attempt to speak to so many eras!

    Decoratively I remain quite traditional, particularly in the earliest parts, but I’m not about to rip out the electricity nor the cast iron baseboard radiators in those rooms!

    And I had no qualms gutting a 1960s master bedroom wing and expanding the tiny vintage purple tile/toiletshower bathroom, and in its place installing beadboard wainscott, hex tile in a pattern I copied from a Paris hotel bathroom floor, euro shower, etc.

    We raised the 8ft ceilings in the entire wing and in the whole, this space just seems more fitting to the overall “flavor” of our home. For penance, I would not let myself destroy another 1960s baby blue tile (guest) bath upstairs that was added over the mid-nineteenth century kitchen. I replumbed and regrouped and it looks great!

    I can only hope the next “keeper” of this crazy house feels the same. I imagine my approach might make you nuts!

    • I love long comments!

      Mary, I think we are are dealing with apples and oranges.

      The Cross House is a remarkably intact 1894 apple.

      You have, well, an orange/banana/kumquat/peach!

      If I had a crazy-quilt house like you I would not be concerned with any historical narrative! How could one?

      My current house began as one room likely late 19th-century. Then another room was added. Then another room was moved from somewhere else and grafted on. Then another room was added, another moved and grafted on, and on and on. Today the house has nine rooms, each added one at a time!

      And I have not once thought about the historical narrative!

      My thoughts in this post are more about intact or mostly intact houses. We have all seen fabulous near original old homes just brutalized by a new owner with nary a thought to the historical narrative.

      • Totally hear ya. I think I’ve struggled for twenty-three years with restorative decisions and have lain awake far too many nights worrying whether I’m doing right by this place I love so. LIke you, I talk to my home (yes, more than a house)! Your thoughts and opinion make me feel much better!!

  2. Thank you to Travis for spawning this post! Having spent the entirety of my youth in the neighborhood of The Cross House, I appreciate every glimpse into Ross’ thoughts as he brings this amazing house back to life and makes it his home!!

    • Travis is way cool/interesting. He lives in a fabulous circa-1930 house in St. Louis and he collects and restores vintage appliances and TVs and radios.

    • It took me a moment to figure out what you meant!

      After I move into the Cross House, I will then focus on finishing my current house, then listing it for sale.

      And, you bet, I will blog about it!

      I am also hoping that Kelly will post it on Old House Dreams.

      The house was VERY nothing when I purchased it. But after twenty years of work it is now pretty cool! Locally, the house is known as the Dr. Seuss House because of the wild trim I installed all over the exterior. It’s is like Victorian-style trim…but on LSD.

  3. Beautifully written and explained, and bottom line is, it’s your house to do with as you see right and fit. Keep it up!

  4. Ross,

    You’re doing a wonderful job. I am not sure where you’re finding the energy to do all that climbing around.

    I am routinely criticized by my parents and friends for obsessing over the details. You, my friend go beyond where I would.

    I like your striped floors much more in the last picture you posted. I also failed to think about rugs and furnishings breaking up the space.

    I love all your windows and can’t wait to see the porch rail installed. Just be happy and comfortable in your beautiful home. That’s what really matters.

  5. Ross, going along with the idea of not screwing with the historic narrative, what are your thoughts on landscaping? I know this is a thought for the future since the house isn’t even done yet, but from what I’ve learned and have seen, the Victorians didn’t have much landscaping, for example in the black and white picture of the cross house when first built, it had no landscaping just a couple trees and that’s about it. So to sum it up, would you want to be historically accurate and not mess with the historic narrative or the latter?

    • Funny you should ask, David! As I am currently drawing the landscaping plan.

      The Victorians usually had a contained area with flowers. At the Cross House, this would have perhaps been on the south lot, in front of the carriage house. There may have been a tall multi-tiered fountain in the middle.

  6. Ross,

    I think your approach perfectly suits the Cross House. Given the fact that so much remains original to the house (that AMAZES me), your approach seems to be the ideal route. Often throughout the years, original features were thrown out as tastes change and what is left becomes an amalgam of different styles, tastes etc. From what you’ve written on the blog so far, you have a keen eye for detail, and a visceral love for your house (soon to be HOME) and I therefore know that when it is finished it will look as good as it did when built, but where appropriate it’ll reflect some change.

    I’m looking forward to seeing all your hard work in 2017 and to sharing it through this blog.

    Oh, and finally, I’m with Carole and am fascinated to see your current home as that sounds like a great place with an interesting history.

  7. You are very lucky to have at least a portion of the historical narrative on your house; our house was “remuddled” twice, once in the late 30s and again in the late 70s. Most original wall coverings were stripped down to the ship-lap and then sheetrocked. Thank heaven that they did at least keep much of the trim, and reinstalled it after coating it with white paint. The original bath was moved to another floor, and the kitchen…well, everything there is from the 70s, including the “Avocado Oak” green paneling that was later papered over with country roses. As for landscaping, I look forward to seeing what you have planned. While I am trying to make up for lost time on my restoration, I do want to always stay at least a few months behind you so I can get ideas and inspiration from your results 🙂

  8. Random question, but in keeping with this post’s theme of the so called “historical narrative”, what type of light switches do you plan on installing to compliment your gas/electric fixtures? Rotary, push button, or modern toggle switches, perhaps? I’ve been curious, as lighting is one of my hobbies as well. Little details like the switches make all the difference!

  9. Great post! This really sums up what I have come to think as well. I really enjoy reading through your thought processes.

  10. Reading your comments on “period correct” baths, I am reminded of my father, a ceramic tile and marble installer. In the 1960s, he had one customer that wanted an “Early American” ceramic-tiled bath. Every suggestion he made was rejected as not being Early American enough. Finally, he told her: “Okay, I’ll show up tomorrow with a shovel and dig you a two-hole outhouse in your back yard.” Needless to say, he didn’t get the tile job.

      • I think all great craftsmen have a bit of the prima donna in them: a great pride in their work, a refusal to work with sub-standard materials, and a willingness to walk away from a project run by an a**hole.

  11. I think that your idea for the Kitchen is a great idea. And for the door that was removed in the North West Bedroom how about a Jack and Jill bathroom?

  12. ” 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.”

    This is the reason why I love this blog so much and have been faithfully reading it for almost three years! I feel the same way about our architectural heritage and it is so refreshing to follow the journey of someone who is meticulous about restoring the hard work of American craftsmen. It’s such a breath of fresh air in this architectural culture of box houses. 🙂

  13. You are clearly a purist. I know that if you heard about an 1893 or 4 or 5 toilet for sale somewhere, you would move heaven and earth to get it for the Cross House, rearranging your plans. Or suppose someone had some of the original light fixtures? You know you’d try. Evil Ross may even come out to play!

  14. I am totally in the same boat as you Ross. Although my fiance and I love mission style furniture, and so have mostly filled our 1928 house with it (scandal!). We have the good fortune of historic interior photographs and so can use them to carefully make decisions on restoration and rehabilitation choices. Such as my recent delve in to learning about appropriate light-bulb shapes and confirming these shapes by squinting at the historic photographs.

    We have also carefully developed a plan to enhance our rare original kitchen…a blog post that I have been working on off and on over the last several months to fully explain.

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