Running in the Evening Light

In the wintertime I wrote about running in the cold, dark evenings: quiet, solitary spans of time that allowed me to catch glimpses of the interiors of the beloved historic houses. The yellow glow of lights provided that cozy feeling; each house seemed loved. It is a good reason for loving dark winter nights.

But the cold eventually grows tiresome and I have been more than happy to welcome the fair spring weather. Evenings are still a good time for neighborhood explorations as the sun is not in my eyes and the sidewalk traffic is less. Yesterday while running I realized just how much of the built environment details I have been missing in the winter months. For those months my eyes watched the ground ahead carefully for roots, ice and frost heaves. My eyes were drawn to the parts of buildings that I could see; hence, the interiors and fenestration. But now with all of this daylight and the dry roads and sidewalks my eyes can finally wander again. I can mix up my routes, whereas I had been running on trusted routes – where I knew what was beneath my feet.

I noticed patterned slate roofs, including one I had never before seen. I noticed a beautiful Queen Anne house painted in all brown, desperate for some color. Fences have been painted, trees have been trimmed. Wood storm windows are still in place on many houses, probably until Memorial Day. Tulips are blooming. People are outside enjoying their yards, tending gardens and tackling the ever existing tasks of home ownership.

Thank goodness for the season changes. Every time a new one turns, a different facet of the built environment is highlighted and provides new adventures, stories and thoughts.

Why Preservationists Should Love Winter

I love the winter season and the cold, and not just for the holiday season. I don’t know how to ski, snowboard, or do any other type of winter sport (ok, I can ice skate), but I still love to be outside in winter. Call me crazy, but six years in the hot weather of Virginia and North Carolina was enough for me (it was hardly ever cold or snowing). Now, a day above 80 degrees is getting to be too warm for me. What’s that? How am I connecting my love for winter to historic preservation? Like so:

As a preservationist, one of my favorite things to do is sight-seeing, whether by car or by foot. But when the trees and flowers are in full bloom, they obscure so many houses and views. Frequently, while driving in winter, I’ll notice a beautiful new view on the road. This might be across the lake, between two houses, down a hill, or from my living room window. Winter gives us a chance for entirely new visual experiences. And, of course, a pretty white snowfall makes everything look magical. Best of all, those bare trees of winter no longer hide the abandoned, neglected houses that intrigue me so much: two of which are on my usual route to work.

As far as being outside and not in my car, I love to run at night. Fewer people are out and about, which gives me greater reign of the sidewalks. People are home and cozy, and the glow of the lights makes each house seem happy. And, not to sound like a stalker, but I love that architectural details and built-ins really pop in the house glow. Don’t you like to know what the insides of houses look like? Yes. Running on a winter night is quiet and peaceful. Views from the higher points in city show the shining lights of the neighborhood and the sky is generally clear. It’s nice one-on-one time with the streets of the city.

See? Winter is a wonderful season to be a preservationist.

Dream Home or Perfect Location?

Who gets Preservation magazine and immediately flips to the Historic Houses for Sale section? Admit it, some of you do it. It’s not that the magazine isn’t fantastic; it’s just the draw of beautiful houses available to buy (you know, theoretically). It’s a similar thrill when perusing the Preservation North Carolina website, where all of the houses you could get for a song, as long as you rehabilitate or restore the building. Just imagine owning a beautiful house with so much potential hidden, waiting to be uncovered and cared for and loved. Or how about one of the immaculate properties featured in the magazine? We all love to imagine our dream home, right? Of course.

As I drive through Vermont and browse real estate listings for the fun of it, it leads me to ask myself: would I prefer the perfect house or the perfect location? What goes in your perfect location category? What about under the dream home category? Big house, small house, two stories, porches, floor to ceiling windows, acres and acres of property, mountain views, walking distance to the center of town, on the water, historic windows, fixer-upper, move-right-in, built in bookshelves, claw foot tub… and so on. What will you compromise on? What must be in any house you buy? For me, my house must have a front porch, lots of light, and a bathroom with a window. The perfect house: craftsman or Tudor style. The perfect location: walking distance to a small, active, viable downtown. Ah, we can dream.

So, please, write about your dream house and location!!

Happy Halloween

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A beautiful historic house in the Four Corners Historic District of Charlotte, VT, all ready for Halloween.

Fall in Vermont is breathtaking. This evening is a perfect Halloween evening, too, with the wind blowing the leaves in whirls across the lawn, streets covered in orange and yellow leaves, a surprisingly warm temperature (66 degress F), and just enough clouds to add mystery to the air.  Darkness is approaching and in my neighborhood the houses are awaiting trick-or-treaters.  Doesn’t it seem that all peak seasonal moments and holidays make our houses and neighborhoods all the more important and picturesque?

Collecting Buildings

In one of my classes we spent some time talking about the history of historic preservation and the ways which it has evolved over centuries, internationally and nationally. Part of preservation’s history, particularly in the United States, lies in a phase of collection. People interested in the past collected items and sometimes began their own miniature museums. If you have been to Monticello, think of the walls in Thomas Jefferson’s house- my what conversation that must have sparked among guests. Yes, people have always collected objects.

Think ahead to those people and places that have collected buildings in one way or another – Henry Ford (Greenfield Village, MI), Electra Havermeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, VT), Historic Deerfield, Storrowton Village, Old Sturbridge Village, and even Colonial Williamsburg.

Collecting and moving historic buildings can be a controversial topic. On one hand, the buildings will be “saved” when moved and shared with the public, but on the other hand, once a building is moved from its setting, its historic integrity is lost. It is like finding an arrowhead in a plowed field – without the stratigraphy, it means nothing because there is no context to tell the story.

However, it is important to understand that not every “old” building has historic integrity. How do you judge historic integrity? As always, refer to the National Register of Historic Places criteria. There are four basic criteria, but there are also considerations for exceptions. Basically, the property is significant if it can be argued (on the nomination form) that it has been associated with a signficant event in history, is associated with a significant historical figure, it embodies characteristics of a certain period or a high style or work of a master, or it yields or could yield important information about the past. (But read the link above for the exact wording.)

I started thinking about building integrity when I was reading an article in the New York Times titled “The House Collectors” (September 16, 2009 by Sarah Maslin Nir). A couple who lives on a large piece of property (10,000 acres)  in Texas fills their time by buying “wooden country houses” (as the article calls them). They move the houses to their property, fix them up, and decorate them in period style. Most of the houses they buy are in delapidated condition and falling down in pastures, hidden by brush. On the property, the Elicks have three ranches where guests come to stay for a weekend or so. They stay in one of the houses, for a fee of course, and can participate in the working farm activties. The Elicks rent out the ranches for special events, corporate events, for film locations, and to everyday people just wanting to spend some time in the Texas countryside.

Back to the houses… they are moved and restored to a certain time period (the article did not explain how Mrs. Elick decides on the period). The houses, when purchased, are in terrible condition and are just sitting out on the prairie. Did they have no use on their past property? What is their history? How much is lost by moving them? How much is gained? These houses are not for museums, but for a business.

How do you feel about this? Not every old house should be a museum and not every house has historic integrity. However, every house has history and a setting. When is it okay to move a building? It’s a difficult question to answer.

My (Misguided) Preservation Induced Psychosis

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.

In the Company of Houses

 My corner of town is rather quiet, save for the freight train that passes through about four times per day, the flock of birds that hovers every afternoon and makes me feel like I’m in a Hitchcock movie, the occasional drag racers up and down the street, the neighbors who are generally working on car repairs, or the faint sound of the U.S. Army artillery rounds. Okay, that doesn’t sound very quiet. But when you account for the fact that you can’t hear the highway from my house and it’s a small town, it really is much quieter than some of the places I have lived (not counting that year I lived down a dirt road in the woods).

When I look out my window I am reminded of the quietness. Near my house are three empty houses: one for rent, one that looks like it’s in the midst of repairs, and one with boarded up windows. It makes the block particularly dark at night. The odd thing is that I never really consider my block to be lonely. The houses keep my house company; I’d feel lonelier in the woods.

Truth be told, most people might be alarmed by their neighbors being only empty houses. After all, what does that say about the neighborhood?  As for me?  I like these houses.  Maybe it’s because I am a preservationist, but I get the feeling that the houses watch over me without being nosy neighbors. I like to glance out my window and see the colonial revival house. And the little vernacular one-story house next to it must have some secrets behind its boarded up windows.  The other house I cannot see unless I’m out for a walk, but it, too, is just waiting for some inhabitants. Stories are waiting to be discovered by the next owners.

I’m sure there are some interesting details to the stories – maybe unique woodwork, names scratched into floorboards, an old newspaper article, layers of paint, evidence of additions, etc. They look old enough to be considered historic, but the interior would answer lingering questions.

Somehow, I have so far resisted the urge to peek in the windows.  For now, I’m content to have the houses greet me when I come home from work, after a run, when I’m daydreaming, or sitting on the porch. These houses can be as mysterious as they like and I’ll admire from across the street. I don’t want to be the nosy neighbor.