Archive for October, 2011

Happy Halloween readers! What is it about this holiday that makes us think of haunted mansions and abandoned homes looming on darkened television screens in commercials for Halloween stores and in made for TV movies? Is it the fact that we LIKE to be scared? After all fear releases endorphins… Or is it that as Preservationists, we love how these big “creepy” mansions  are celebrated, if sometimes for their run-down appearance, because we always see the potential and history in these homes?

It is practically a fact that haunted houses must be Second Empire in style. If you want proof, look no further than the home of the Addams family, this inflatable haunted house for your front lawn, or one of my personal favorites (and way high up there in nostalgia and cheese factor) the house from the 1980s Disney TV movie, Mr. Boogedy, or for even more of a treat, check out the “Haunted Dollhouse” that the ever amusing Bloggess has been cooking up.    By the way, the Addams family photos came from a great little site called Hooked on Houses, which you should definitely check out.

Now, this isn’t to say every haunted, or creepy house has to be  Second Empire. Take the eclectic mix of Octagon, Gothic Revival and Second Empire that makes up the Munster’s abode , or the Institutional Gothic pile from American Horror Story.  (Is anyone else obsessed with that show like me?… I love it so much, but it’s so messed up that I feel I may have been born in the wrong era… if I lived back when Queen Victoria reigned I’d probably have taken photos of all my dead relatives and made their hair into wreaths, lockets and pins.) Photos below from tvclassichits.com and iamnostalker.com

So, aside from Hollywood’s choices for iconic ‘haunted’ houses, why is it that these (to use the real estate parlance) “Victorian” homes are what we think of when we think of the macabre, ghoulish and downright creepy, and not, say, a nice mid-century ranch or cape? Death can happen in a new house just as easily as an old one. Is it the scale and massing of these houses, making the visitor feel like a doll in some giant’s dollhouse? The possibility for secret passages and rooms behind book cases, where unspeakable horrors can hide? Is it the fact that they have seen more life and seem to hold onto memories of past occupants? If you want my opinion, I think that it is all of those things, plus the fact that grand old houses with spacious drawing rooms, upper stories that go on forever and vast basements make perfect funeral homes, and that whenever you see one of these funeral homes (and you know just by looking at one that it is a funeral home) the seed of fear of death and dying way down deep in your subconscious nags at you.  Just like holding your breath when you drive by a cemetery or being afraid that if you die in your dream, then you will die soon in real life.

So whatever your plans tonight, whether they involve a ghost hunt at a haunted mansion, or staying home to dole out candy to the little goblins at the door, if you have a fright-flick marathon (like the American Horror Story marathon on FX staring at 10), make sure to really examine those big, creepy old houses, because under the chipped paint and “beware” sign there is very often an architectural gem… and maybe a ghost or two as well.

Happy Halloween!


Read Full Post »

Happy Friday everyone! Today’s post is from the Philadelphia leg of the recent trip Ash and I took.   While we were there, we visited West Fairmount Park, and Shofuso specifically.  Shofuso, which translates to “pine breeze villa”, is a 17th century style traditional shoin-zukuri home commissioned in 1953 for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, designed by the Japanese Modern architect (yes big M in Modern folks, as it was the style he worked in) Yoshimura Junzo (I put his name in Japanese order because I felt it was only right). The house design was based on two Buddhist guest houses in Kyoto.   The frame of the house was assembled in Nagoya in 1953, and was then disassembled and shipped to NYC, where it was reassembled in the courtyard at the MoMA.  The home was on display from 1954-1956 and was placed in storage in New Jersey until a permanent home could be found for it.  The house ended up in West Fairmount Park in 1958, on a site with connections to Japan stretching back to 1876, when there was a “Japanese bazaar” and gardens installed for the US centennial celebration.

Following a period of budget troubles for the City when the house was closed to the public, it was rehabilitated for the 1976 bicentennial and opened to the public once more. In 1982, the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden was founded to manage and maintain the site.  It is a non-profit group, set-up with a public/private funding structure between the city of Philadelphia and donations from the public dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the house and grounds.

The house itself is constructed in a traditional manner, built with a frame entirely made from wood with mortise and tenon joinery held together by bamboo pegs. It is built out of Japanese cypress, called Hinoki . Hinoki is a protected species of tree which makes up somewhere around 90-95% of the lumber within the house, including the verandas, support beams, and most interior ceilings. About 1 ton of hinoki bark makes up the roof, held together with bamboo pins and layered up to the terra nigra ridge tiles on top of queenpost-supported roof frame. This style of construction allows the roofs to act as an air-foil, reflecting the wind rather than providing resistance, which allows the house to weather storms better than most Western architecture. Interestingly, only about 100 craftsmen are alive in the world today who have learned how to build a layered hinoki bark roof, and many of them learned the skill while replacing roofs at buildings associated with temples in Japan. The photo below is a profile view of the finished roof, which  gives you an idea of exactly how thick it is.

Below is a photo of a boss that covers one of the bamboo pegs used in construction. Each peg set into a joint along the length of the wrap-around veranda is covered with a boss.  Normally this boss would have depicted the family crest of the family who lived in the home, or a flower with eight petals at a Buddhist temple.  Since this home wasn’t built for a family or a Buddhist temple, it is a flower blossom with six petals instead.

The floors in the house are covered with traditional tatami mats, woven of rush over a core of rice straw.  These mats are twice as long as they are wide, and each mat was traditionally considered to be the minimum space required for one person to live.

This guest room has a lot of interesting features. Notice the shoji screens that act as walls. Shoji screens are often thought to be made of rice paper, but that is in fact a common misconception. They are actually made of mulberry paper, and the term ‘rice paper’ in English either came from the fact that the paper was used to make containers to carry rice, or from its pale white color.  Shoji screens function much like pocket doors and act as both the interior and exterior walls of the house.  They are used to admit light and airflow without sacrificing privacy.  Sliding hinoki shutters can be closed in front of the shoji screens on the outside of the house, and these afford the house more protection from the elements. The low shelf boasting the flowers is actually one of the most important features of the room. It is a writing desk called a Shoin which is built into the wall. This desk is a very important status symbol for the owner of a house like this, as it serves as proof that the family are members of the educated elite.  It is so important that it actually lends its name to the room (shoin no ma) and the style of architecture (shoin-zukuri) of the house.

Another interesting feature of the rooms in Shofuso are the Fusuma, which are interior screens seen here. they too are made out of  the same mulberry paper as the shoji, only with many more layers, all layered over a central wooden frame. The layering allows the screen some moisture control, absorbing and releasing moisture depending on ambient humidity. These particular fusuma are not original to the house but instead date to Senju Hiroshi’s (again, named in traditional order) visit to the house in 1999. Senju is a famous contemporary artist, who came to the house looking for ideas for his next series of paintings.  His original thought was that his painting would be of trees in nature, but he came to feel that they were too static, instead taking inspiration from Shofuso’s waterfalls (seen below).  He painted 20 fusuma screens between 1999 and 2006 using acrylic paints.  The brown background color was made specifically for Shofuso, and the white was done on an incline to achieve the natural flowing effect of the waterfalls.  The screens were installed in 2007.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this insight into Japanese architecture and can visit Shofuso for yourself when it opens again in April. It truly is one of the most beautiful, tranquil places I have had the pleasure of visiting. A HUGE thanks is owed to our friends CJ and Brian. CJ for suggesting the visit and letting us use her camera and Brian for his invaluable knowledge on the house and Japanese culture, and for the great tour he gave us, as well as the vocabulary tutorial and timeline he provided me with. Any mistakes that appear are of my own lack of understanding and not his fault, as his knowledge of Japanese studies is staggering and has been an amazing asset. Also, thanks to Derek, Shofuso’s site and program manager for being so welcoming!

Make sure you come back next week for our special Halloween post! Have a great weekend!


Read Full Post »

It is an unfortunate fact that Eminent Domain can be abused by towns and cities (and even federally) to ruin historic preservation efforts by tearing down whole blocks of historic buildings in the name of “progress” and “the greater good”.  For anyone who might not know what Eminent Domain is, here is a handy definition for you from expertlaw.com: “Eminent domain refers to the power possessed by the state over all property within the state, specifically its power to appropriate property for a public use. In some jurisdictions, the state delegates eminent domain power to certain public and private companies, typically utilities, such that they can bring eminent domain actions to run telephone, power, water, or gas lines. In most countries, including the United States under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the owner of any appropriated land is entitled to reasonable compensation, usually defined as the fair market value of the property. Proceedings to take land under eminent domain are typically referred to as “condemnation” proceedings.”

Historically, terms like “blighted” and “run-down” and “worthless” have been applied to historic buildings in order to devalue them and turn public opinion toward favoring their demolition.  From the 1950s through 1980s, eminent domain went hand in hand with urban renewal and other public programs to “improve” our cities and towns by demolishing older building stock to make way for highways, parks, utility corridors and other public projects.  But today, eminent domain has been redirected towards demolishing entire neighborhoods or rows of homes on a street, in order to turn the vacant land over to developers who will build businesses that will generate more tax revenue than the ‘dilapidated’ and ‘worthless’ residences that used to take up the space.  An instance of this can be seen in New London, Connecticut, where a neighborhood was taken by eminent domain for an office park that was never built, leaving behind a huge swath of vacant land that generates a fraction of the tax revenue formerly earned.

Now, to the story at hand. A while ago, a reader named Jerome asked me to write a blog post about his hometown of East Wheeling, West Virginia, and the struggle several residents were having. The town wanted to demolish homes in order to build a sports complex, but these homes were historic, listed in the National Register as part of a historic district, and some are even in the town’s walking tour. At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not I should get into a local issue that was a bit far from me, geographically, but when I though about it I figured that as a professional Preservationist, if I could help in any way, I had better do it…. think of it as the Hippocratic oath for buildings…. the “histocratic” oath if you will. “I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all buildings”.

So, after I decided to tackle this, Jerome and I emailed back and forth and I got a bit of history from him.  Here it is in his own words. “The story regarding these tactics to take property is frightening. An unnamed not-for-profit tried to buy buildings in the neighborhood in 2009 and 2010. When no owners expressed interest, the City began “threatening” owners with Eminent Domain. Those owners that caved, their property was taken by a third party. Those who did not settle, were filed upon with legal Eminent Domain which my neighbors and I are fighting. The rumor is the nearby Catholic High School wants to build a practice football field where the homes are.”

Now, I’ve posted some photos of the homes included in the town walking tour below (which look like they could have been taken by one of the users on the forum mentioned later), and admittedly, some could use a little TLC.  There is a lot of talk around about how the homes aren’t worth saving because of their condition, but it seems to me that if these people are willing to fight to keep their homes, then they are worth saving. Not to mention that I see “good bones” in these photos and they just need a little elbow grease before they can shine again.  For anyone out there who thinks that these building should be torn down because they’re in need of some work, (like one comment I found on a forum that states: “I’d rather see these buildings knocked down rather than let them continue to fall apart because lets face it, given the economics of the area, the odds of someone/ something buying these structures and breathing new life into them are next to nothing.”), I have but one thing to say. Shame on you!  No, there might not be much money in the community, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! There are all kinds of options to pursue, like establishing a revolving fund to buy vacant houses, fix them up and then sell them to low-income families at an affordable price, or historic rehabilitation tax credits or CDBG (Community Development Block Grant for those not in on the lingo) funds. Just because a goal looks like will be an uphill battle doesn’t mean the view from the top wasn’t worth the climb!

Okay so… what is the point of sharing this with you fine readers? Simple: to get the word out. Maybe you can help Jerome and the other residents of 15th Street fighting for their homes, or maybe you have a similar situation in your town. The important thing is that Preservation exists because people care about their communities, places where they live and work, where they grew up and made memories and a large part of those memories is the environment that they took place in. All it takes to save these places are a few people who care standing up and make themselves heard!  So here’s to Jerome and East Wheeling’s fight to save these buildings.  Maybe if enough people stand up to show how much they care for their homes and towns, and refuse to accept eminent domain as a viable solution, everyone can sit down together and talk, to create a plan that will meet everyone’s needs!

EDIT: I have come to find out that the photos were taken by Jonathon Denson and that he has them on his blog which you can find here.

Read Full Post »

 Hello Everyone. I just wanted to share this great photo with you. This is from Ash’s and my trip to Monticello. This is a view from an ox eye window in the Dome Room, which is now open to the public for the first time, as they instituted the behind the scenes tour of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. If you are in the area I recommend that you get ticks and check  it out.

Read Full Post »

Happy Friday, Readers. As some of you may know, Ash and I went on a small vacation recently. First, we drove down to Philly to visit my best friend, and then continued on to the Shenandoah River Valley in Virgina.  There we did a mini Presidential tour of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of James Monroe. Both of these properties (and the house we visited in Philly, but more on that next week) provided me with a lot of great photos and information for you.  However, as some long time readers may recall, I already covered Monticello here, so today, I present to you Ash Lawn-Highland.

Highland, the home of President James Monroe, was built in 1793. He called it his “Castle Cottage”, and while the original 1790s section of the house is very small compared to the grander Presidential homes located nearby, namely Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier, the house has all the charm you could ever want. Today it exists with a c. 1870 addition on the front of the “Castle Cottage” but this addition is very easy to differentiate from the older part of the home, due to its striking yellow clapboards and burgundy trim, as well as subtle Victorian details.

Monroe chose this particular site for his plantation at the encouragement of his friend Thomas Jefferson so that they could be neighbors, and indeed, you can actually see Monticello from Highland when the trees are bare.  The Monroe family took up residence in 1799 and stayed until 1825, when Monroe was forced to sell the property to pay off substantial debts incurred during his Presidency (including the costs associated with furnishing the White House after its reconstruction after the War of 1812).  The property came to be known as Ash Lawn during the late 19th century, when the Massey family planted ash trees along the long, winding driveway and around the grounds, many of which remain today.
Below are some photos that Ash took while we visited. The site is absolutely beautiful and if you are in the area you should definitely visit!
Below is the back of the original house.
The next shot is of the new front entry created when the 1870’s addition was put on.
This is a view of the side of the addition. Look at those decorative vents, so cool!
This is a view of the slave quarters. It is now set up as three different interpretative spaces, one as guest quarters, one as slave quarters and one as a kitchen.
Below is a picture of the well house. Jefferson suggested that Monroe dig a 60 foot well.
Finally here is a shot of the alley of Ash trees planted after the Monroe’s left, which is what lead to the Ashlawn moniker.
Hope you enjoyed Ashlawn Highland. Have a great weekend!

Read Full Post »

Hey readers, I’m back!  Did you miss me?  Sorry about being MIA for a while, but Ash and I were on a much-needed vacation, which I will be writing about later this week.  I wanted to pop on and post a quick follow-up to a post I wrote in mid-September.  You can read it here.

If you recall, the federal Transpiration Enhancement program was in danger of being cut, but it was saved by the House… Now, it is in danger in the Senate, and Preservationists need to act swiftly to save one of our biggest sources of funding and YOU can help!

Just take a moment to click this link, read the Preservation Nation article and click their link so that you can contact your Senator and tell him or her to save the Transportation Enhancement Act and ditch the bad language.

Don’t forget to come back on Friday for our Fantasy.

Thanks for doing your part for Preservation, and have a great day!


Read Full Post »

Happy Friday everyone!

Today’s Friday Fantasy will be in celebration of Columbus Day. Granted, the average citizen knows a lot more about Christopher Columbus than they did even fifteen years ago, and quite frankly, we know he wasn’t such an outstanding guy.  Add to that the fact that we don’t really have a lot of fantasy architecture from his time and you might be wondering how I’m going to make this happen….  Quite simple! I’m going to stretch it. So, without further ado, I give you the Kelton House in COLUMBUS, Ohio.

The Kelton House is a brick Italianate style mansion with ties to the Underground Railroad (and they’re even real ties, not the imagined ties that anyone with a Georgian sporting a tiny closet likes to boast about at cocktail parties). Built in 1852 by prominent dry goods wholesaler, Fernando Cortez Kelton. Kelton and his wife were both dedicated abolitionists, and aided slaves fleeing the south by hiding them in the barn, cistern or the servants quarters in the house, giving them a place to rest in safety before continuing on along the road to Canada. In fact, they even welcomed an escaped slave from Virginia into their family. Martha and Pearl Hartway were found hiding in the shrubbery near the Keltons’ home by Fernando’s wife, Sophia.  She quickly took them in, and when it was found that Martha was too ill to continue north to Canada, she remained at the house and was educated by the Keltons.  In recognition of Kelton’s work for the cause of abolition, he was actually chosen as a pallbearer for President Lincoln during his final journey westward through Ohio to his resting place in Illinois.

The House and its story was passed down through the family until 1975, when Grade Kelton, the last family member to own the property, left it to the Columbus Foundation with the stipulation that it be used for education. Today, it operates as a house museum and runs programs with docents in costume who teach about the Underground Railroad.

A photo of the primary facade. (Photo from wikipedia)

An historic photo of Kelton House (Photos from the Ohio Counsel of Arts)

I hope you enjoyed this small detour to Ohio. Have a great weekend


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »