Thursday, December 9, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Last week-end I had the privilege of staying two nights in a masterpiece of Queen Anne architecture. I’m not unfamiliar with Victoriana, but six thousand square feet of continuously maintained lumber cut from virgin timber made an impression. It’s not surprising that the place was the cover shot for American Heritage magazine’s 1976 bicentennial issue. The building’s in beautiful shape and has not been hacked up by expedient remodeling.

The upstairs hall was lined with a display of “whites”, the meticulously sewn and embellished lightweight cotton dresses that women wore for special occasions. Oddly enough, white fabric is the easiest to maintain, since it can be bleached. My grandmother’s high school graduation dress was a white, and once in a while a cousin gets married in it.

I’ve had ample opportunity to examine and experience wearing that dress; to drink from, wash, and occasionally break the cut crystal that set the table from which the wearer dined; and to lay, clear, wash, and iron the embroidered cloths that pulled meal together. Living in a 1910 environment is an exercise in fine motor skills.

I read recently that the late nineteenth century was the pinnacle of craft in the West. The finesse and discrimination that fine hand production fosters and demands is characteristic of the period: the better a piece, the more hand labor there was to it, the more expressive the ornament, and the better realized the designer’s vision. “Dainty” was a big deal in period advertising, but there’s more to it than that: it’s about dignity and self-respect. There’s no arguing that conspicuous consumption was a factor, but behind it lay self-determination.

Much of what we think of as Victorian is sadly compromised machine production from the big mail-order operation. This stuff has its charms, but the forms can be mean-spirited and superficial. The best of the period requires conscious attention: the dress to comportment, the crystal to careful handling, the linen to dignified table manners. Interestingly, this house and others I saw last week-end included a ballroom. I suspect that having room to dance privately is a good way to train the family in the give and take between fine and gross motor skills that is at the heart of being human.

I have also read that eye-hand management takes up about niney-seven percent of brain capacity. From that perspective, the twentieth century was a long exercise in de-skilling, ceding manual gifts to machines until labor was debased to a toddler’s exercise in sorting, be it burger to customer or pre-fabricated construction modules to a foundation.

The arts and crafts community bewailed this decline of skills, but I think they are back with a vengeance, fostered by computer games and the affordable musical instruments that have once again made live performance more the rule than the exception. Coupled with the behavioral changes necessary to survive AIDS and reinforced by on-line reputation systems, guitars and state of the art phones have restored the social matrix of the nineteenth-century, fostering the customs that are the whole point of the buildings and artifacts.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thirty-three for Dinner

Photo courtesy Flickr

Photo courtesy Flickr

Over a B and B table this week-end, I met a couple who were celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Sarah looked around the main floor of the elaborately decorated six thousand square foot 1889 monument that had sheltered us for the night and said, “Maybe we should buy this. It’s big enough for Christmas dinner.” Frank remarked what a shame it would be to move away from extended family, and we started discussing how valuable and rare it is to live close enough to family to be able to rummage freely in the refrigerator when visiting.

Their four children had had children of their own, and the clan has grown to the point at which Sarah was distressed not be able to squeeze a sit-down dinner into her house. I mentioned that East-siders here in Seattle throw big parties in their garages-food for thought, but apparently the garage is spoken for.

I made noises about the history of English domestic architecture and how knowing the evolution of household practice frees one to innovate on a conservative base. The fixed-function room is a recent development, and one that squanders capital.

Frank and Sarah have a barn, but it has a whale in it (I am not making this up), so the barn was out as well. It turns out that their property is the one the family likes to play on: for holiday meals the guys build a fire outdoors, smoke cigars, practice their marksmanship, and horse around on four-wheelers. Sarah said there are big, comfortable houses in the family, but parties at their place are apparently more popular. We also agreed that having the place the kids like to visit after school is a very good thing indeed.

Their back yard is miles of forest that end up at one of the local mountains. At one point in the discussion, Frank said something about the carport, and it took seconds for us to lay out plans for propane heaters and weatherproof curtains (possibly the white poly tarps that transmit beautiful light). Problem solved.

The formal table we all enjoy is a survival of everyday life in the Middle Ages. In the hall house, often as small as ten by twenty feet, behavior under the roof was ritualized, a sensible way to keep people out of each other’s hair in crowded quarters. Some of these rituals survive in the public ceremonies of the British royal family, and others survive at grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving.

It may be that the formal table is the backbone of society, the training ground for the decent socialization of children. The table itself was originally a board and trestle, which is to say planks and sawhorses, covered by a long cloth that was also used as a napkin. It isn’t much of a leap from board and trestle to folding office tables or a ping-pong setup and a high thread-count cotton drop cloth from the Square Deal hardware chain. The table was set up and knocked down for each meal, to free the hall for other activities. The dormant, or fixed, table developed after there was a shortage of “house carls” (domestic roadies) to make the arrangements. People sat on portable thrones, aka director’s chairs, or stools, and children stood, which is very sensible.

I find it pleasant and comfortable to drape the dining table with a plain floor-length cloth and top it with an heirloom cloth or something easy to wash. Between the two I place a waterproof layer to protect the major cloth from stains. The long cloth acts as a stadium blanket, keeping diners warm and allowing me to conserve heat. If I had a dog or two under the table, it would be more medieval, but allergies in the house have forced me to experiment with electric heated plant seedling mats, heated reptile basking stones from the pet store, and finally, a three by five foot under-carpet heat mat, which is heaven to the toes.

Dining in a carport in a Northwest December will be a challenge to the toes, but a good excuse for the women to wear long skirts. It was central heating that gave rise to short skirts and shirt sleeves in the 1920s. There is ample precedent for covering the floor with straw, and if fire is not much of a concern, that might be a hoot. Generous strings of Christmas lights would set just the right level of illumination and would look wonderful from the outside. Seattle’s local Highlander hardware chain carries white plastic tarps. Lighting experts say that a white plastic shade transmits just the right light from an incandescent bulb. It might be worthwhile to light the carport from outside as well. A back-lighted translucent wall provides a very pleasant experience of space.

Substituting a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of lights and tarps for a million dollar building makes sense for a need that comes up just two or three times a year.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Mother Lode

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday I toured four huge Victorian houses in Port Townsend, Washington. The places on display offered the full spectrum of restoration: two showpieces, one stripped and brought back to clean plaster and bare wood, and one so early in the curve that it made me miss the good old days of improvising around faded wallpaper and the water stains that marred a few areas in my otherwise gently maintained 1890 house.

I am seeing dismal differently this morning: as gravity rather than privation, as driftwood rather than decay. The house that is just beginning to be restored was until recently full of junk. The third-story ballroom, a common feature, was stuffed with bags of old clothes. Now it's a clear collection of sound dormers lined with fir wainscoting. The best kind of restoration is a simple housekeeping exercise that merely uncovers what is in place. The space has no electricity and was lighted for the tour with several kerosene lamps and a collection of candle lanterns.

In fire light, old fir glows amber. The varied texture and color of aged grain jump to life as wicks flicker, and the whole room becomes a display screen. When the house was built, the wood was harvested from virgin rain forest, timber that had never been logged, and every stick is a section of a forest giant hundreds of years old. The voice of the wood is as loud as anything can be, and I can’t imagine the room ever looking better than it did last night.

-30- More after the jump.