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One Man’s Remuddling

October 6th, 2009

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?

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  1. Deb Martin
    November 24th, 2009 at 16:38 | #1

    I’ve given that point a little bit of thought over the years, and have decided that it depends on the quality of the remuddling. I have yet to see the same quality of materials and workmanship and attention to interesting detail go into remodeling of recent decades, so I can’t even say that it lasts, never mind that it looks acceptable of is representative of any style that does not have “affordability” at it’s base. If your friends are scrapping interesting, viable, intact and non-toxic material in their quest for “zero energy” then they are not really achieving it. I think that we also have to spend alot of energy looking for the truth in energy efficiency (ha ha) these days. There’s just too much baloney being produced to sell products and services. I knew a guy who tightened up his building envelope so much that he actually produced “rain” in his attic! Tell your friends that a little fresh air is a good thing.

  2. John Mattson
    November 24th, 2009 at 17:10 | #2

    Time heals SOME remuddling.
    My personal first rule is: if it is a landmark, or among landmarks, keep it historical. But what if it is just a plain middle class Victorian or whatever? Has some previous remodels? etc?
    My 1903 Queen Anne cottage (or folk Vic) in San Pedro had a bedroom added about 1908, parlor and dining room Craftsmanized in 1917, and interior trim painted in the 70’s. It was always a middle class home, and rather plain. So we fixed the bones of the house, new foundation, plumbing, electrical and roof. Kept the exterior historical. Removed all the paint from the interior trim, but kept the craftsman changes, they are now historic themselves. And we remuddled a bit ourselves. Old cramped bath off the kitchen is now the pantry, back porch is now the master bath; attic re-inforced and finished. Its a house a series of families have lived in, and all have left some mark, for better or worse. I only hope that someday another generation will see the beauty in it that we do.

  3. Carl
    November 24th, 2009 at 18:18 | #3

    so very interesting. i sometimes think we are just being too nice. though in the situation he discovered where one period home turned into another i sorta understand the muddling.. there was a defined goal. that is the issue with muddling… a defined goal. people muddle because they want to be creative. they want to make a house their own. they dont have enough money or time or energy to do what “should” be done and they end up with a bastardized result. a shell of what once was. it seems by that story, it always has been done. people want what they want and always have. we talk about our house and our last house in that matter when people say “oh is that victorian?” or some other comment. i say, yes, it was done in the period that is defined as victorian etc.. yet it may or may not be . it may be transitional as we are always in transition. and people wanted what they want. then and now. and the periods were deemed such AFTER the period, so that said.. people built houses and then they got defined. one good thing is having the ability to live in a designated historic district with rules on what you can do to old homes. we of course in atlanta have nothing much older than 1850 and the majority pre 1900 are gone. though as anywhere it can happen.. even in the largest historic district in atlanta, muddling will occur and will always. though, i do not think time heals all remuddling.. it simply moves us to the next step i how to avoid it in the future.

  4. November 25th, 2009 at 03:23 | #4

    I don’t know if it can be called remuddling, but changes to any building become a part of its history. We often have to “preserve”, (as history) the changes of “historic” buildings, rather than “restore” or re-create to original details. Sometimes it stands as horrific examples of what can happen when research and planning are not done and ill-informed handy-people simply head out to a big box store and bring back stock materials and start nailing things over historic fabric. Sometimes however, important milestones are recorded in a building’s history (The Washington Monument’s distinctive change in stone color; The original Oliver Evan’s era of Peirce Mill followed by a 1935 replacement, 1960’s restoration and now a return to some of the original features in a 21st Century restoration; Solar panels installed on rooftops.) Here in DC we have too many “Facadamies”, the retention of just the front outer shell of a building. Everything else is gutted and removed, a ten story excavation (for parking) is made, and a ten story building rises behind and over the historic facade. Is this all bad? Hard to say. Is Times Square better today? Can a Cambridge triple decker really be made more homely by aluminum siding? (I know, only the triples in Sommerville are homely, the ones in Cambridge are “quaint”. Cambridge has NECCO and Somerville has Fluff?) I believe that a building grows through the centuries by the people who live through them. Hopefully they will be cared for in the future by people with vision.

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