Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Revisiting A Comfortable Old House

I spent my high school years in a classic Dutch colonial house. That particular architecture replaced Victorian in high fashion after industry offered more appealing employment to the service staff and electricity automated much of the heavy work of life support. My house was a little jewel. It had been built as a honeymoon cottage for a child of the wealthy family that lived across the paved alley. The scale was about three quarters of other similar houses I have seen. The cabinet work was excellent, and there were many built-in storage areas in corners of the structure that would otherwise have gone to waste.

In Home: A Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybcznski outlines the origins of the Dutch colonial design. Unlike England's stately homes and elaborate staff structures, a Dutch household was limited to a staff of three. That's three service people plus the family in an environment where maintenance has to be perfect or the house will literally sink, because the land is below sea level. It useful to contemplate this concept when I am feeling slothful. The rigor of the circumstances dictates efficiency in the design of the structure.

Few neighborhoods are more demanding about housing than Capitol Hill is at the moment. Nearby pods house single adults in eighty square feet. In 1973, the legal minimum per person in this neighborhood was five hundred square feet. Five years ago, the rent for a view pod exceeded the mortgage payment for a brand new suburban house with three bedrooms and a master suite. In an idle moment recently, I revisited my memories of the Dutch bijou in which I learned to manage a domicile. The outstanding quality of the house was comfort, in the root sense of the word meaning that which gives courage. Casual reading in the history of domestic architecture opened my eyes to the ways in which the living space had been arranged to the best advantage of the family. I realized that restoring centuries-old functions to the mid-Twenties structure would add two extra sleeping rooms and a full story of living space with no additional construction or tax assessment.

A Dutch house had a sleeping cupboard in a corner of the principal room. The northwest house had an alcove off the living room that could easily have been adapted as a sleeping space. Each end of the living room had an arch that most likely was intended originally to have been curtained with heavy velvet hangings. Curtains are very effective for controlling heat flow and for audio privacy. I'm partial to dining at a fireside. Were I to live in that house again, I'd place a generous table by the hearth to support meals and work at home endeavors. All the rooms in the house were beautifully daylighted with small traditional windows.

The dining area off the living room would set up comfortably with a sofa and leisure seating for socializing and reading. It's divine to lounge and offer helpful suggestions to a cook bustling around in the next room. Since guests congregate near the kitchen, switching living and dining functions enables casual use without structural changes.

Upstairs, the house had a cramped sewing room built in under the eaves. It would be trivial to adapt that space as a child's bedroom. The basement was first-rate for a northwest structure. It seems to have been designed for the convenience of the laundress, who may have been, for the first time, the mistress of the house. The head room was high and the deep concrete foundation in perfect condition. There was a separate room that could have been restored to its original function as a drying space or that may have been a maid's room. The stairs to the basement landed in a small hall that opened into the actual laundry area. It had been neglected for decades after an automatic machine was installed near the kitchen, but a few days work with paint would refresh the tiny shower/bath area and surprisingly charming work room. The basement door to the garden was glazed, and there was a generous window over the double sink that certainly had supported a wringer washer back in the day. A comfortable corner in this space could could easily support a daybed, and there was plenty of room for a small table.

When my present nest was full, I experimented with using the attic as a combination drying space and family closet. It saved massive amounts of time and aggravation simply to store damp garments on a plastic hanger on a very long pole that ran the length of the space. I could take inventory in seconds. Black nylon hanging shoe bags accommodated other storage needs. I ran the notion of a family locker/mud/laundry room past an aunt with twelve grandchildren, and she like the idea very much indeed. The immaculate basement room in the Dutch colonial would serve beautifully with drying racks improvised from powder-coated high tech industrial wire shelving, always on wheels. The deep cupboard built in along one wall could continue to house luggage and bulky items. A common dressing area would free the closets in the formal bedrooms to store other personal gear. Doing so greatly expands usable space and simplifies housekeeping. 


That Twenties house had old-fashioned features that are as useful today as they were when it was built. Each room and storage space could be locked. When interior spaces are arranged to best advantage, a vintage structure lives as openly and eficientlyas a contemporary one -30-

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