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A taste for architecture

April 6, 2013

For ten years I’ve written the “Homes” section for the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Times newspaper. Houses of all styles and varieties have always interested me deeply. Recently I asked myself just how far back my enjoyment of architecture actually went.

The house of my earliest childhood was a two-story Craftsman, circa 1910, with an enormous number of porches, wood floors, and a leaded glass window above the stairwell with the image of a green tree. The fireplace had a built-in hook that a cauldron could be suspended from, and the bathroom floor was covered with small black and white hexagonal tiles. When I was seven my family moved to a new city and bought a Streamline Deco house built in 1939, a solid white mass with tubular metal railings, a porthole window in the powder room, and front and back porches that looked vaguely boat-like. In short, it was a very different style of house.

Standing with my father in the front yard of the Deco house, late 1960s.

Standing with my father in the front yard of the Deco house, late 1960s.

A child of seven sees little difference between one house and another. To me, the new house was essentially the same as the old one, and the same furniture surrounded us. Both houses had bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a basement. It was my father, a commercial artist, who pointed out the differences to me. The new house had metal casement windows instead of wood sashes. The new house was built from massive concrete blocks instead of wood, and the curving dining room bay had a big window with flanking panels of glass bricks. The fireplace had a minimalist mantel that traveled from the fireplace along the entire end of the living room until it turned the corner and continued onward until it reached the back door. This long mantel was topped by a huge frameless mirror that reflected the room and made everything seem brighter and larger.

The back yard after snowfall. A screened porch was at lower left; the dining bay was to the right.

The back yard after snowfall. A screened porch was at lower left; the dining bay was to the right.

My father would take my brother and me for weekend drives around our new city, exploring the new neighborhoods. He would point out other houses and would explain in what ways they were different from — or the same as — our own new house, and slowly my brother and I acquired an architectural awareness. Houses were not only to keep a person warm and sheltered; they were also expressions of individuality. They had infinite variation in finishes and treatments, and all of them could bloom like a flower — or be nipped in the bud — depending on whether their owners treated them kindly or not. Imagination and affection can do much to enhance the potential of a house.

And that’s what I look for in a good “Homes” topic: a house that has individuality. Even identical tract homes are different when you step inside. It doesn’t matter how expensive a house is, or how much money you invest in decorating; I’ve seen wonderful homes that were shotguns, cottages, or battered old bungalows. Along with the existence of walls, roof and a floor, what a house needs most is heart — and that’s what turns an ordinary house into a warm and welcoming home.


From → Houses

  1. I remember that house well… I’m sure it has been pointed out already, but just in case: There seems to be a spacing problem in your web page layout, I’m missing some words.

  2. investorspropertyservices permalink

    Thanks for sharing your story. I love the pics of you and your dad and the Deco house.

    We represent the historic landmarked Skykomish Hotel in WA state, a fine example of commercial vernacular architecture built in 1904. This beauty may well be lost without some assistance. We sure would appreciate if you would view our campaign (with a short 3 minute video) to raise funds, http(colon)//alturl(dot)com/wv3zu, contribute and help spread the word.

    Thank you.

    • Thanks for writing, I made a small donation to help the cause. I read the Skykomish News coverage of the situation, which made me uncomfortable because I used to sit on my own city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which was charged with telling homeowners what kinds of roofs, siding and windows they could or could not install. But still, it seems that the hotel situation was handled badly and I feel for the frustrated owners. Best of luck!

  3. investorspropertyservices permalink

    We are very grateful for your support. As you can see from the video, the owners have been outgunned and have had to use every strategy in their attempt to save this historic beauty. As they say, the pen is mightier than the sword. And while they have been able to hold their for a very long time, assistance is needed.

    Any efforts to spread the word along with the link to the campaign will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks again!

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