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the perfect house…

July 25, 2011

When I was seven my family moved into a streamlined Art Deco house that was built in 1939. It had tubular metal railings on the exterior, a circular dining room bay window flanked by insets of glass brick, and a corner window. The mantel over the fireplace was molded in such a way that it extended all the way to the corner of the living room and across the next wall. But to a child of seven, it was simply a house, containing four walls and a roof, a kitchen, bathrooms, living room and stairs, just like our previous house did (Craftsman style). My father, however, was aware of the difference in style and as we drove around the city he would point out different houses and explain how they were different from our own. I became interested in architecture as a result.

In high school during the 1970s, a friend lived in a huge Queen Anne house with turrets and a wrap-around verandah with intricate spindling on both the porch and the gable ends. It was painted an impressive shade of deep red and stood out from all the other old homes on its block. I loved that house, with its colored leaded-glass window inserts, the oak window seat, the endless staircases and the tight symmetry of the narrow clapboards that diminished in perspective to the roofline high above. When I grew up, I promised myself, I’d live in a Queen Anne and would write in a room at the top of the turret. That was the same decade (the 1970s) in which San Francisco’s “painted ladies” were popular and several books were published that highlighted their complex trim and paint colors. These houses had been built seventy years previously and were only at that point reentering the public’s affection, after decades of scorn. My own  house was interesting, certainly, but Art Deco was so rare that there were no architectural picture books devoted to the style, as with Queen Annes.

Time has passed since then. Within the past decade or two, the public has rediscovered the once-humble bungalow and countless books and magazines have been devoted to the styles of the 1920s. Like the renewed affection for the Queen Annes during the 1970s, the revival of the bungalow also happened approximately seventy years after the style was prevalent. And in the past few years the magazine “Atomic Ranch” has begun highlighting the mid-century modern ranch home, which has been considered unattractive and un-hip for approximately sixty years. The ranch home revival has not yet peaked, but if the Queen Anne and bungalow revivals are any indication, it hasn’t even begun to reach its zenith, which should happen in the next few years.

I still love the idea of a Queen Anne, but the practicalities of dealing with constant repainting and repairing the shingles, gingerbread trim and clapboards no longer appeal. An acquaintance who owns a Queen Anne told me she pays $10,000 every decade to have it repainted, and the repairs are never-ending. I like bungalows because of their big deep porches and the built-in interior pillars that typically divide the front room from the dining room. However, they are small and intensely dark because of the porches, and I require a well-lit space in order to feel cheerful. So I have begun to reassess the house in which I currently live: a 1958 ranch built as a spec home, using a floor plan that was endlessly copied across the city.

Although it has a basement, all necessary living functions could be carried out on a single floor, which means it’s excellent in terms of universal accessibility. We could retrofit the bathroom and convert a closet to a compact laundry, and it would then be quite easy for us to stay in this house until we die. (Any old person who owns a Queen Anne would at some point become unable to climb the stairs to the bedrooms, and would be constantly plagued by the cost of upkeep.) It’s very convenient to be able to bring groceries directly into the house with only two steps at the threshold instead of a whole flight of stairs up, as with bungalows and Queen Annes, which typically have raised front and back porches. Because there’s no front porch, the midday sun streams in, brightening the living spaces and minimizing the need for artificial lighting during the day. We have retrofitted it to enhance the energy efficiency until it is now the equal of a typical EnergyStar new home. It’s not old enough that things are constantly wearing out, and it was well-built to begin with (no fabric-covered antique wiring lurks inside the walls). In fact, it’s better-built than subsequent homes in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s not a beauty, as some of the Atomic Ranches in California are, but it’s actually a splendid house to inhabit, and there are oak floors throughout the main level. We painted the exterior a cheerful aqua-green a few years ago, which much improved the looks.

I now realize that I am already living in my own “dream home,” and I’m very glad that it didn’t take seventy years for this to sink in.


From → Houses

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