Photo courtesy Flickr
I hear the neighborhood is a good one, the location convenient, and the schools so-so. The following comments honor a modest school of architecture that designed full-scale versions of the Monopoly house and does wonders for home economy. World War Two housing projects, both on and off military bases, have the same qualities in multi-family units. The essences of the design are a square, low-ceilinged interior that saves heat and spaces that are oriented toward manual skill.
Albert Balch developed the early postwar suburbs of Seattle. One of his first neighborhoods was Wedgwood in Northeast Seattle. The houses resemble the efficient Cape Cod design that Mr. Levitt’s crews cranked out by the thousand on Long Island. I believe this design was the winner of a national architectural competition for veteran’s housing.
Over the years, I have visited quite a few Balch constructions, both the early model and later versions that solve the same basic problem of housing a family efficiently. It’s fascinating to compare individual responses to the same design. Suburban monoculture was still controversial when I was a child. Levittown stunned the critics. The evolution of the neighborhoods has been instructive.
An informed carpenter can retrofit the moldings in one of these places and make it look like a million. An informed architect can make one look like anything she pleases. The modest scale makes it economical to replace old windows with efficient ones, and the original design supports easy maintenance and moderate heat bills. Small rooms and low ceilings were an eighteenth-century response to keeping warm. The ceiling itself was a luxury.
Modest late pre-war and early post-war family housing is the most efficient I know, frankly designed for a literate, middle-class housekeeper who stayed at home with her children, the ideal strategy of the time. Until World War Two, a buyer had to raise a fifty percent down payment, so service areas were designed to please a woman who knew something about the finer things in life and was unwilling to work herself to death. She would have been well-trained in the domestic arts for social reasons and because the first wave of women’s liberation had concentrated on scientific home management. Housekeeping was her occupation, her labor respected, and she would have called the shots at home, since she was traditionally responsible for the moral atmosphere under the roof. She might have been the first woman in her line to keep house without having someone in service.
The great gains in labor-saving appliances were all in place by the Thirties. Electricity had displaced hauling solid fuel to cook and to heat water, and it eliminated the heavy labor of washing clothes. Susan Strasser’s Never Done lays out the details of this evolution. Interestingly, President Dwight Eisenhower’s childhood home has been preserved as the textbook example of electrified housekeeping.
The small houses of this period function like free-standing condominiums. When they were built, timber was abundant, and consequently, one can count on finding irreplaceable straight-grain Doug fir framing under the fireproof lath and plaster walls. Some structures built during and just after the war had inferior wiring because of a copper shortage, but it is likely that any house from this period has had that problem corrected as well as toxic plumbing replaced.
It is also likely that any house from this period looks less beautiful than it was meant to, because the original cedar shake roof has been replaced by flat synthetics. It would be a small matter to make the next roof of fake shingles to restore the original charming texture of the roofline. A freestanding house on its own piece of land was intended to produce its own food. In the eighteenth century it was traditional to plant “marriage trees”, a pair of apples, on either side of the front door. The white picket cliche' is designed to keep horses out of the garden.
The original Cape Cod cottage was designed by shipwrights to hold together on the shifting sands of the cape itself, to be hauled to another site should need be, and to resist strong winds. The cottage is all of a piece, like a mobile home. This is earthquake country, and a small, square house built of fine timber is a good bet to survive, particularly one that is sited in the lee of prevailing winds. Global warming has multiplied natural disasters six-fold over the last fifty years, and a roofline that sheds wind is a wise, though perhaps unfashionable, asset.
In Seattle, Balch homes are found on choice sites, because they were developed so early and the city is itself so young. The attics have good headroom, and the basements can be amazing, with high ceilings, clean cement, and straightforward laundry and shop space. Dryers were unknown when the house was new, and laundry dried on lines indoors in the winter. This single practice extends the usable life of clothing many times over, maintains healthy humidity levels in the interior, slashes power bills, relieves textiles’ heavy load on the environment, and simplifies wardrobe management by keeping key items in the rotation.
In my county, a house is taxed on its habitable space, so an unfinished attic and basement are productive, usable, and very convenient assets. Home tasks and production are not taxed, so every dollar saved is worth the additional percentage of the yearly federal rate and the cost of earning it. There’s an opportunity cost to home labor-the time it takes can be spent earning money in the larger economy-but many hands-on chores are more convenient than their market equivalent, so there’s always the opportunity to finesse a benefit.
I don’t know of another house design that supports self-reliance, family life, and energy conservation (both personal and artificial) as well as a Cape Cod cottage. These places were rendered obsolete by bulky Art Deco appliances and electronics that were proportioned wrong for traditional architecture. Furnish with miniaturized electronics and the small-space seating that is now easy to find, though, and they’re better than new. It is easy to find traditional used furnishings for traditional architecture, and the eighteenth century designed the best small space furniture I know. Norma Skurka's New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration begins with a concise visual history of furniture.
Only a fool would follow my advice about the current real estate market, but I have read that it’s not realistic to count on home ownership to be a pot of gold. The wisest comment I know came in the late Seventies from Sylvia Porter, the money guru of her day, who pointed out that assessing the value of a house starts with measuring the dollar value of living there each month. Porter has interesting comparisons on owning versus renting. Unquestionably, all things connected with houses have been inflated, from size to furniture to expectations to risk, while the quality of construction has declined.
I once lived for several months in a thirty-dollar plastic, wire hanger, and 1x1 geodesic dome on big waterfront acreage. From that summer, I took away an appreciation for land over facilities. The current trend in housing, at least here in my home town, has been to build fence-line to fence-line. Though the new trend must have its virtues, the old way is more agreeable to me. Northeast Seattle was zoned for small urban lots. Many of the cottages in that area have been owned by wealthy families who also own places in the country. Houses lashed to additions break apart in an earthquake.
Were I to raise children in a cottage, I’d consider a putting a greenhouse on the back of the lot to provide playspace, produce, and a retreat. Here in town, I live as close to the outdoors as I can manage. A rustic shed, covered sitting area by a fireplace, and lattice-screened and glassed-in porches provide a spectrum of shelter that offers comfort and fresh air no matter what the weather, so the taxable luxury of habitable space can be minimal. The neighborhood would determine the level of security I’d design into the fence. If my fence were more secure, I’d sleep outside even within walking distance of downtown highrises, because the soundscape is so pleasing.
Vita Sackville-West’s classic Garden Book celebrates the cottage garden as a model of efficiency and a reservoir of heirloom plants. Restoring a period garden would frame a house to best advantage. It wouldn’t be a huge chore: a landscape architect could design edible ornament, and many of the period post-war plants, like the Peace rose, still survive. Old copies of glossy shelter magazines are good sources of period design.
Balch houses sometimes came with a solid double garage on a separate foundation. One would makes a good guest house or lofty party space, even unfinished. Current surveillance technology will reduce the risk of having children active under a separate roof. My bias is to make the most of an existing facility rather than dink around with remodeling. A local graphic designer was one of the first contemporaries I knew to buy a house, in 1973. He and his wife valued their Thirties Tudor because it had never been remodeled, and I’ve had a weak spot for original integrity ever since. A few hours’ reading and surfing will reveal the history of a building.
Flickr’s on line photo site is a gold mine of images for restoration, that can often be accomplished with bargains. Vintage domestic technology frequently saves energy and uses the space for which it was designed to best advantage. It’s worth the trouble to research period housekeeping when living in a period house, to avoid arrogantly dismissing an original amenity as obsolete. Original designs often save energy.
Historic preservation can be a canny strategy for boosting property values. Ravenna, a small neighborhood in northeast Seattle, is internationally famous for its reservoir of Arts and Crafts bungalows, and the prices are, or at least were recently, astronomical. Coulee Dam’s architecturally consistent neighborhood of management housing on one of if not the most important and critical public works projects of the richest and most powerful country of the twentieth century, which is to say in the history of the world, has historic value. It would be fascinating to play up the history of the site and keep on hand a copy of the PBS documentary about constructing the dam.
The reader in Coulee Dam, I am told, grew up on a ranch in Montana and is wondering about the kind of family home for her future. I have the sense that she is unfamiliar with suburbs. So am I, and if I were to start cold in family housing, I’d do a little reading in urban design rather than make expensive decisions based on media comments. There are national security implications to the network of highways, but I don’t understand them. We bought this place in lieu of warehouse shop space. My dearest mentor-in-housing was a Seven Sisters graduate who could have lived anywhere but chose a workingman’s cottage walking distance from Union Square in San Francisco. Culture is good caulking for status leaks.
I doubt that I would have made the same decisions had my mother been alive when I was house-hunting. I once teased a colleague about her kitchen layout, asking Jane what her mother would think about her choices, and Jane snapped back, “My mother doesn’t have my problems.” The original suburbs were pre-war zones of privilege for families who could afford the time and expense of a commute and of maintaining a large lot, not the dense postwar developments that resembled factory farms and depended on cheap oil. In either case, behind a suburb often lay a family of privilege forced to sell its estate because of progresssive taxation.
A wise matron wondered about my decision to buy close to downtown when the area was, to put it mildly, out of fashion. I said we had decided to pay private school tuition instead of putting money into a gas tank, and she relaxed, commenting that early education is the most important. This is now the most popular area in town for young adults, though older bigots retain obsolete preconceptions of the Hill.
Diana Phipps’ Affordable Splendor is a guide to improvising elegant, comfortable quarters in affordable neighborhoods. I know a surprising number of art names who live in areas that are usually mentioned with hesitation. Eleanor Roosevelt advised choosing to live in any neighborhood that does not actively damage one’s reputation. She also quoted her mother-in-law as saying furniture that is good enough to buy in the first place is good enough to keep.
When I’m in a design quandary now, I ask what the carbon load of a decision is likely to be. CO2 awareness was nascent in the late Sixties as I was beginning to consider housing, and I chose a dense urban area because I didn’t need a car to get around. When the oil crisis hit after Saigon fell, there were fist fights in gas station lines.
-30- More after the jump.