Historic houses and modern houses are easy to distinguish from each other, right? For the sake of this argument, historic means the typical 50+ years-old home. I tend to scoff at modern homes, particularly brand new construction because generally it seems like it is only enormous, ostentatious, energy sucking McMansions being built or condos in terrible locations. And I’m spoiled where I live now, because my running routes and the places I tend to walk are all historic and beautiful. Lucky for me, I don’t have to worry about coming across new development with its huge front lawns, double car garages, vinyl siding, out of proportioned architectural features, etc. While this is a generalization, it tends to be quite common in housing developments.
Knowing this, imagine my shock when, on a few occasions, I have found myself running past a house, thinking oh I like that… but the gable looks too big and those windows are odd and that brick looks too perfect… and oh my goodness, that is NEW construction!! I feel like I’m cheating on the historic houses. How could I actually like a house that is only a few years old? As a preservationist, I never intend to own a house of non-historic construction and I like to believe that people who live in historic houses enjoy them more than new houses. Call me naive, but let me live in this personal bubble for just a bit longer.* This psychosis of not being able to look at modern houses or feeling guilty when doing so is probably mentally connected to other crazy things of mine like an addiction to running, and the need to drink a lot of coffee.
But, let’s get back to the houses. Because of this preservation induced psychosis (however misguided), I have been considering “historic” 1950s suburban development, and even all houses when they were new. At some point in time, these houses all looked similar, like cookie cutter houses. As obvious as this is, one of the reasons that these houses and yards are now distinguishable from their neighbors is because decades of owners have added their own personal touches: renovations, paint colors, landscaping, porches, windows, shutters, whatever the case may be. The houses have weathered and been lived in; trees have grown and shade the yards, and the neighborhood has come to belong to itself. It no longer looks like it was just stuck on top of the earth. And those neighborhoods are now acceptable, in my mind.
Thus, I have reminded myself that my generalization of new development is entirely too narrow. It is not all evil, obviously. It can’t be; people need places to live and not all construction is made to last forever. Hence, new housing is necessary. And when new housing is sensitive to its surrounding structures and landscape, then it can blend in just as well and fool even those of us who scowl at it. Does this mean new development is acceptable because one day it will no longer be “new”? No. All development should be sensitive to the exiting surroundings and the scale should be within reason. But, when development is done correctly, it is okay to like it. I want to like it. You can’t build something old, so it should at least be respectful of the context and design. Hopefully architects, developers, and preservationists are reaching a common ground where they communicate needs, wants, and can create functional, appealing houses. I think we’re on the right track.
Maybe next time I pass a new house that I accidentally like, I’ll look at it a second time and silently thank the architect and construction company rather than be horrified with myself. Anyone want to go for a house gazing run? Or perhaps someone would like to confess their own preservation induced psychosis…
*Disclaimer: I do not believe that all preservationists should feel how I feel. This is part of the personal standard that I set for myself, which may vary from the general preservation tenets. This can be turned off and replaced with rational, trained thought about preservation, rather than the amateurish views.