One Man’s Remuddling
I’ve always been one of those preservationists who first turn to the back page of a certain magazine to see how some schmuck has butchered an undeserving old house. Then I smirk with self-righteousness and reflect on how that person has ruined a streetscape and should be drawn and quartered with a Sawzall.
But then, several events occurred recently that made me rethink this position. First, friends of mine purchased a 19th-century house in a neighborhood that was fairly intact from an architectural point of view. The house was nice enough but certainly not an outstanding example of Victorian design; it could be deemed infill housing.
They’ve got grand plans for it; they’re making it a zero-energy building and completely transforming the exterior, including exterior materials, roofline and such. At first I thought, “Geez, what did that house ever do to you?” Then, the second event occurred. I was assigned to write a story for another publication about another late Victorian house in a nearby town. Prominently located on the town green, this place has all the bells and whistles: turrets, decorative exterior paneling, shingle courses and fancy porches. I was thrilled to be able to get inside of it.
I’d stared at the place for years; it was on my commute, and there was always something a little bit funny about the central roofline and the overall massing of the front elevation. While the ornamentation said “Queen Anne,” I had wondered if there was an older house underneath all of that trim. When I met the owner for the interview, that was my first question to her, and, indeed, I was correct. It was a standard-issue 1810 Federal that had been completely Victorian-ized in 1883.
I was led throughout her home and was floored by the caliber of interior work. No traces of 1810 remained. The central hallway had been opened up to the rafters, and a black walnut, barrel-vaulted tongue-and-groove ceiling with stained glass lay-light had been installed. The newels and balusters were exceptional, and every mantel, including tiles, brass surround and fire-back, had been built with top-of-the-line Aesthetic Movement decoration according to the height of fashion in 1883. Did I mention that the walls and ceilings still had their original polychromed Lincrusta on them, in excellent condition?
This being one of my favorite architectural eras, I was completely smitten.
But on the way home, I thought, “I wonder what the good town-folk said in 1883 when this powerful family trashed a perfectly good Federal?” Was this remodeling acceptable solely because I like the 1880s?
Wander around the streets of Cambridge, MA – not the fancy addresses but the once humble triple-decker neighborhoods far away from Harvard Square, where young architects from the GSAD have had their way with a fair share of late 19th- and early 20th-century housing. Many were transformed in the nascent years of the preservation movement. These houses weren’t considered important then, and now their 1970s and later alterations have become less harsh in appearance due to nostalgia.
They’ve become specimens of their time.
Does time heal all remuddling?