Monday, September 26, 2011


When it comes to identifying home styles, most people know generic terms such as Victorian, Bungalow, and Spanish.  Really pegging the thing is a little tougher, though.  Although more precise terms like Tudor, Mission, and Craftsman are often casually thrown about--especially by real estate agents, who ought to know better--they’re used wrongly more often than not.  Herewith are some of the most common points of confusion.   

For starters, calling a house “Victorian” is like calling a car “postwar”--it  only describes what era the thing was built in.  Luckily, the four major styles of Victorians are easy to tell apart:  If the house has horizontal siding, false cornerstones, and windows with segmental arches, it’s an Italianate.  If it looks like an Italianate but also has a steep mansard roof, it’s a Mansard.  If it has a square bay window, skinny proportions, and a porch with lots of linear wooden gingerbread, it’s a Stick (also called Eastlake).  If it has windows with colored glass borders, a few curved walls or a turret, and a porch with lots of decorative spindles, you can bet it’s a Queen Anne.  Next category, please.

Bungalow is ageneric term describing any home that’s built close to the ground and has a low-pitched roof.  More precisely, if a bungalow has wood siding or shingle (often with stone or clinker brick trim), it’s a Craftsman Bungalow.   If it has stucco on the outside, it’s a California Bungalow.

The gaggle of labels hung on Spanish-style homes--Mission, Spanish Colonial, Churrigueresque, Moorish, Mediterranean--are another endless source of confusion.  Strictly speaking, Mission refers only to architecture modeled on the West’s Spanish Colonial missions, and would suggest a rather plain house with thick stucco walls, an Alamo-like scrolled gable, and a few decorative barrel tiles, if not a whole roof full of them (for practical purposes, the term Spanish Colonial is essentially synonymous with Mission).  

On the other hand, tile-roofed houses with more ornate features such as spiral columns and elaborate door and window surrounds are called Churriguersque, after the 17th-century Spanish Renaissance architect Jose Churriguera.  Pointed or parabolic arches, ceramic tile accents, and perhaps castle-like crennelation would be clues that you were looking at a Moorish-style home.  Of course, when in doubt, you’re always safe using the term Mediterranean, which has come to include pretty much anything with red tile on the roof.  

The terms Tudor, Elizabethan, or Half-Timbered are often used interchangeably to describe English-inspired homes, but these terms don’t mean the same thing.  A Tudor-style house usually has brickwork combined with restrained half-timbering, steep gables, a massive and prominent chimney, and relatively small windows sometimes topped by a pointed Tudor arch.  By contrast, an Elizabethan-style home would have large areas of leaded windows divided into grids or into the familiar “Olde English” diamond pattern, along with lots of florid half-timbering in repeating motifs. 

While both of the above examples might also be called “Half-Timbered”, that term more properly refers to a building technique and not a style.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned any postwar home styles, it’s because it takes quite a bit of time for style names to stabilize.  Case in point:  During the Sixties, California Ranchers and split levels were routinely called “Contemporaries”, as if they were going to stay in fashion forever.  Today that term is all but forgotten.  

Likewise, today’s gewgaw-laden tract houses are often referred to as “neo-traditionals”, but that term is so vague that it’s unlikely to survive.  Hence, it’ll be a while before we know what posterity deems to call them. 

Monday, September 19, 2011


Most architectural writing deals with what you might call “legitimate” styles: mass-produced, popular and relatively buttoned-down stuff.  But some of the most fascinating architecture of the twentieth century came neither from architects nor builders, and can’t be fit any stylistic cubbyhole. 

Such works, sometimes classed as “naive” or “visionary” design, are the product of singular personalities refreshingly free of academic influences.  Here are a sampling: 

•    In 1921 Simon Rodia, an uneducated Italian immigrant laborer, began building the first of a group of towers around his house in Los Angeles’ Watts district.  Fashioned out of cement-covered steel bars and encrusted with fantastic arrays of shells, bottles, and bits of tile and glass, the tallest of the structures eventually soared nearly a hundred feet.  After laboring on the towers for thirty-three years Rodia, then 79, laid down his tools, deeded the property to his neighbor for nothing, and disappeared.  Of the now-famous Watts Towers he said simply,  “I had in mind to do something big and I did.”

•   In the mid-50s, “Grandma” Tressa Prisbrey found that her collection of 2000 pencils had outgrown her house trailer in Santa Susana, California.  So she began building a small structure to display them, using a material that was cheap and plentiful--discarded bottles.  Over the next twenty years, this humble beginning evolved into the Bottle Village, a 40-by-300 foot compound of 13 buildings and nine other structures, all built out of some one million bottles laid up in cement.  

Prisbrey, who liked to sport a floppy sun hat ringed with old television vacuum tubes, also made daily trips to the dump, where she collected bits of broken tile, old headlights, and a cavalcade of other discards.  These she lovingly inlaid into every square inch of paving between the structures, as well as into numerous free-form planters which she built on the site.  Prisbrey filled these planters with cactus, explaining:

“I don’t care much for cactus myself, but I don’t have a green thumb and if I forget to water the cactus they just grow anyhow. . .they remind me of myself.  They are independent, prickly, and ask nothing from anybody.”

•  And of course, no account of wacky architecture would be complete without mention of Sara Winchester, diminutive heiress to the Winchester arms fortune. Supposedly plagued by the spirits of the untold men who had died at the business end of Winchester rifles, Sara consulted a fortune teller and learned that as long as she kept adding onto her modest San Jose farmhouse, she would not only escape their wrath, but would never die to boot.  

Psychics having a good deal more credibility in the late-19th century, she immediately embarked on the remodel to end all remodels--a project that would last several decades and ultimately yield a spectacularly rambling Victorian/Edwardian house with 160 rooms. Among its idiosyncrasies:  A seance room, a bell tower for summoning the spirits, and the repeated use of design motifs with 13 elements.  Tourguide puffery aside, the Winchester House remains a fine place to view the transition of architectural style from the late-nineteenth to the twentieth century-- a wacky enough subject in itself.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


The other day I was driving down a local street lined with carefully inoffensive white, beige, or tan bungalows when something remarkable caught my peripheral vision: Jumping out from among the oatmealy shades was an electric blue cottage with lavender trim. While no doubt a few of the neighbors were dismayed by this violation of Waspish color preferences, the effect was both unexpected and charming. 

Colors are a mysterious thing. We all see them a little differently, and when you get right down to it, they exist as much in the mind as in the objects we perceive. Few reasonable people would argue that one color is better than another. Still, there are always folks out there who think they know best which colors are “tasteful” and which aren’t, and are anxious to let people know about it.  

In fact, color preferences are an intensely individual choice that varies from person to person and from culture to culture. Consequently, it’s nobody’s business but our own to decide which colors we like best.

A glance at the previous century’s changing color fashions shows both the human craving for variation and the relentlessly cyclical nature of taste, which has swung from reticent colors to vibrant ones and back again.  

In the United States, the opening of the twentieth century gave rise to the Craftsman era, a reaction to the kaleidoscopic palette of Victorian architecture.  Artifice was out, and natural simplicity was in. In keeping with these naturalistic aspirations, pristine whites once again returned to architecture, set off by deep, muted browns, greens, and golds.  

By the late 1920s, however, the arrival of Art Deco, with its electrifying jags-and-curves motifs, brought with it an equally dramatic shift in color tastes. Art Deco designers daringly allied black with celadon greens, icy blues, and a whole range of red and yellow ochres--a trend that lasted until the eve of World War II.  

The drab, camoflauge-like colors of the early postwar era--gray-greens, gray-blues, or ruddy browns--were surely inspired by the inescapable military imagery of the war years. A rebuke to this trend arrived in the 1950s, when light, airy pastels in pink, blue, yellow and turquoise dominated residential design. This gradual return to strong, clear colors lasted well into the 60s, culminating in the vivid psychedelic palette of the late decade.  

The pendulum of taste began its reversal during the Seventies, when the ecology movement helped foster a trend toward “earth tones”--a muted, naturalistic palette of beiges, tans, and browns. Despite a brief Postmodernist digression into happy neopolitan ice cream shades in the early 80s, the trend away from strong colors continued, culminating in the late-century fixation on whites, grays, and gunmetal blues. 

When the history of the new millenium’s first decade is written, poisonous greens, bilious yellows, and muddy browns will likely come to represent its taste in architectural colors--no doubt a sort of rebellion against the resolutely bland palette of the 80s and 90s. Personally, colors with such insistently unpleasant associations aren’t my cup of tea. But would I dream of telling my neighbors that their color choices weren’t “tasteful”--whatever that means?

If the guy in the electric blue house can’t make me do it, neither can they.