Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Old Houses

The Libby House, Angelino Heights, Los Angeles

As a second grader, in St. Charles, Illinois, I walked to school through an older residential neighborhood. There was one old wooden house that was tall and had a funny sloping roof, spiky iron railings and lots of carved wooden decoration. It looked like cartoons in a book my parents had.

Charles Addams cartoon from "Monster Rally"

When we moved to Batavia, Illinois a year later, I was allowed to go to the Public Library after school. It was an old limestone house, two-storied with porches and gables and a big wooden staircase. It was wonderful to sit at the small tables in the bay windows of the old house and read.

One of the books I read was Jane Langton's "The Diamond in the Window", where Edward and Eleanor Hall's old Victorian family home is threatened by local busybodies, who view its architecture an eyesore in the historic town of Concord, Massachusetts. "A monstrosity of course," says one. "Those dreadful towers, those turrets." But Edward and Eleanor contemplate their house:
All the other houses on the street were neat white buildings with dark shutters and simple pitched roofs. Out from among them mushroomed the Hall's house like an exotic tropical plant in a field of New England daisies. It was a great wooden Gothico-Byzantine structure, truly in need of painting. Big as it was, it looked airy and light, as thought the wind might pick it up and carry it away. Screened porches ballooned and billowed out of it all around, and domes and towers puffed up at the top as thought they were filled with air.
I read "The Secret Garden" about Mary Lennox exploring the many closed-up rooms in Misselthwaite Manor. I read about the crumbling old lakeside homes in Elizabeth Enright's "Gone-Away Lake." Nancy Drew was always exploring old houses like Blackwood Hall and Heath Castle, solving mysteries, and it thrilled me.

In my small Illinois town, and later in Cincinnati, there were many neighborhoods where old houses remained. I always liked to look at them - usually from the car window as we drove on errands. I wished I could live in one, instead of in the brand new, boring ranch house I lived in.
Photo of house in Deal, N.J. from Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey

We next moved to New Jersey. Great sprawling shingled estates sat behind overgrown hedges in Rumson and Atlantic Highlands. Huge rambling seaside cottages lined the highway running through the beach towns of Deal, Monmouth Beach and Long Branch, set among the run-down carnival games and band pavilions.

Victorian Village house, Columbus, Ohio - photo from Webshots

I went to college in Columbus, Ohio. After the dorm, I rented a house south of campus with some other girls. It was a neighborhood of fantastic turreted houses, red brick with ornate decor - slate roofs and carved brickwork, in the style called Richardsonian Romanesque. My boyfriend had a studio apartment fashioned from the ground floor parlor of such a house - there was a built-in room divider with balls threaded onto wooden dowels. I remember that woodwork more clearly than I remember our relationship.

Every time we moved, my parents never bought an old house. It was always a new house - in fact, in most cases it was a newly built house. I always wondered why.

By the 1920s, the architecture of the turn of the century was out of fashion. The elaborate decor of the Queen Annes had given way to the spare simplicity of the arts-and-crafts bungalow.

Photo of house on Bunker Hill, L.A. from Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey

It was almost as if people were embarrassed by Victorian houses. Many were torn down in the 1920s as cities expanded and older residential areas became commercial zones and low-income neighborhoods. Those that survived became rooming houses, or were divided into apartments. They lost their fanciful wooden trim which was expensive to maintain. Owners repainted them in plain colors, covering up the bright multiple color schemes. Billowing porches were walled in to create more rooms - or torn off the houses altogether.

Edward Hopper loved painting Victorian houses. His 1925 "House by the Railroad," shows such a house, isolated by the changing urban landscape. His biographer Sheena Wagstaff describes his fascination with:
our native architecture with its hideous beauty, its fantastic roofs, pseudo-gothic, French Mansard, Colonial, mongrel or what not, with eye-searing color or delicate harmonies of faded paint, shouldering one another along interminable streets that taper off into swamps or dump heaps.
The negative image of Victorian architecture was reinforced - whether on purpose or not - by Hollywood. During the 1940s and 1950s, Bunker Hill with its crumbling tenements and decaying Victorian mansions, made a perfect location for movies about crime, poverty, and squalor.

From LACMA Collections online

Artists and writers lived on Bunker Hill because rents were cheap. Millard Sheets captured Bunker Hill in this 1931 painting titled "Angels Flight." It shows the back-alley clotheslines, the jumble of buildings, and dizzying height of the hill rising above Broadway. You can imagine Arturo Bandini, the hero of John Fante's "Ask the Dust" climbing out the windows of the rooming house below.

When I first started looking to buy a home, I searched the older neighborhoods of Seattle, which were the ones I could afford and also the ones I was drawn to because of the older housing stock. Although I dreamed of finding a beautiful old treasure I could restore, the reality was more modest. I could afford an old house, but I wasn't skilled enough to do the work myself. And I couldn't afford to pay someone. So we bought a little cottage, old but stripped of its charm by a 1950s remodel. Then we sold it for a good price, and bought a larger old house, remodeled by a speculator. Our house was a 1911 four-square, with beautiful lines and spacious rooms, but its new sheet-rock and modern kitchen lacked the mystery and sense of history I longed for.

Among my family's keepsakes is this photo of a house. I think it is the home built by my great grandfather on Swiss Avenue in Dallas, Texas. He was a prominent leader of the Methodist Church, and in 1896, when he moved his family to Dallas, Swiss Avenue was one of the best neighborhoods in town. The house is as fine an example of Victorian architecture as anything in a museum or historic preservation district.

My father was raised in this house. The Old Sourpuss died in 1915, and my great-grandmother died in 1929. The 1930 census shows my father living there with his parents, his two unmarried aunts Snow and Hattie, and a lodger. At some point, my father's parents divorced. In 1934 Aunt Louie Boyd, a widow now, came back to Dallas from Abilene. In 1933 the house was remodeled into separate apartments. My father was raised in a crumbling Victorian house with his mother and three unmarried aunts.

It was the Depression, and times were hard. A comparison between the 1920 and 1930 census shows how the neighborhood declined. In 1920, single families headed by teachers, contractors, managers, publishers, shopkeepers lived on this block. By 1930, there were waitresses, clerks, mechanics, seamstresses and salesladies - many living as roomers and lodgers.

It must have been hard to be a teenage boy living with a bunch of middle-aged ladies. They were strong-minded ladies, too - especially Hattie, who possessed a missionary's zeal.

Perhaps when my father started his own family, he didn't want to be reminded of living in a shabby old Victorian rooming house. He wanted smooth drywall, fresh paint, modern bathrooms. He wanted firm concrete patios instead of shaky Victorian balconies with dry-rot and broken balusters. A built-in garage for a modern car, not a shed for a Model A Ford. He wanted a house that broke ground in new land, where no house had been built before.

As a child, I never saw a photograph of the house my father grew up in - I saw it for the first time last fall. It's exactly like the house I've always longed to own.

7 comments:

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

wonderful post and photos. I've also always had a fascination and love for Victorian houses with all their architectural delights and whimseys.

I've lived in two - and they were both such fun to live in and with.

Kate said...

G;

You are so cool.

I love this post and your musings about living in an old, old home. History, mystery, magic. Lovely. You write so beautifully and I feel your enthusiasm shining through.
My husband and I once lived in an older house, in Houston, built in 1911 (old by Houston standards). I loved that house even though it was updated and modernized a fair amount. The hardwood floor were original and very ornate. Loved it.

Great post!

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Woman in a Window said...

I love those old homes. I don't understand why everyone doesn't. I don't know where my appreciation comes from. Romanticism, I suppose, but we don't even have old architecture like that around where I grew up. It comes from somewhere beyond me.

kcinnova said...

I've always loved those big old houses. My stepfather owned one (not that fancy, but built in 1908) that had been made into a duplex, then made back into a single family home. It was rather stripped of character, with the old 2nd floor porch walled in (and slanting so badly that it scared me to walk in there).
When we were house-hunting 2 years ago, I begged my husband and the Realtor to check out a 100-year-old house. The woodwork was fantastic inside, esp. the living room and the main stairway. The upstairs porch had been closed in with windows. The den/spare bedroom had such a wonky floor that I couldn't tell which way a marble would roll if I set it down. It wasn't a smart buy for us, though -- not with a big family, and not with what my husband pointed out was a 100-year-old heating system.

kaymck89 said...

I loved reading this post and also your victorian Los Angels series. I especially enjoy the victorian or queen ann look, but have rarely had a chance to be in such houses. And I always wished for a house that I would never finish exporing; one that seamed bigger inside than out.