Monday, February 25, 2019


Victorian-era water closet: Eventually, it was
allowed into the room with the bathtub.
(Image courtesy of Plumbing Geek)
Like me, you probably don’t think twice about being able to switch on a light, draw a hot bath, turn up the heat, or call a friend on your land line. Yet just 140 years ago—a mere blip in the long history of domestic architecture—none of these things was possible.  Technologically, housing was still mired in the Middle Ages.

While it’s remarkable enough that these conveniences have only been with us for the last hundred forty years, it's even more amazing that all of them harken from the last three decades of the Victorian era, between 1870 and the end of the nineteenth century.  It was a time of explosive technical progress in domestic technology—the equivalent of our own end-of-the-century digital revolution.

A host of innovations, including piped-in hot and cold water, indoor bathrooms, central heating, electricity, and telephone all entered the modern home during this brief span of decades.

Central heating was a huge step forward, freeing floor plans
from their age-old tether to the fireplace chimney. Since
these furnaces worked by gravity alone, they had to be
located beneath the living area in a basement.
Gas lighting, known in Europe as early as the 1830s, was widely introduced in the U.S. just after the Civil War. Although it was sooty, noxious, and produced a feeble, unsteady light, it proved a harbinger of great progress during the remainder of the century.

The introduction of pressurized water systems by about 1870 set the stage for running hot and cold water and the advent of indoor plumbing. By 1880, most homes had an indoor toilet, although at first the Victorians, who were obsessed by fears of “deadly sewer gas”, confined it to its own little room—hence the term “water closet”. Later, however, the water closet was annexed to the room containing the bathtub—eventually yielding the now-familiar "bathroom".

By the end of the nineteenth century, light came at the mere
push of a button—a big improvement over lighting
a gas mantel, let alone a candle.
Although central heating was known as early as the 1820s, most middle-class homeowners couldn’t afford it, and instead relied on coal-burning fireplace grates for heat. This meant that every heated room had to adjoin a chimney, dictating compact, boxy floor plans clustered around one chimney for economy. By 1880, though, coal-fired central heating systems were becoming more commonplace. Aside from the obvious improvement in comfort and convenience over the fireplace, central heating freed room arrangements from their historical tether to the central chimney, encouraging the rambling, asymmetrical floor plans of late Victorian home styles such as Queen Anne.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell spoke the famous words, “Watson, come here; I want you,” through his experimental transceiver and, for better or worse, unleashed the telephone on society. By 1900, it was already quite commonplace in homes across America. 

Early electric lighting fixture intentionally flaunted
naked bulbs fo that they couldn't possibly be mistaken
for old-school gaslights.
Gas lighting made a big leap forward with the1887 introduction of the Welsbach gas mantel, which produced a brighter, soot-free flame. But by that time the fate of gas lighting was already sealed: Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, had seen to that when he invented the incandescent lamp in lamp in 1879. By the mid-1890s, the electrification of the United States was already well underway. Electric lighting was such a powerful symbol of progress that early lighting fixtures proudly flaunted bare bulbs, so that no one could mistake them for gas lamps.  It wouldn’t be long before each room in the house had an incandescent ceiling fixture and—wonder of wonders—a single electrical outlet.

Think about that the next time you plug in your computer, monitor, backup drive, printer, phone charger, desk lamp, and shredder.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


The Mansard roof has become synonymous
with the streetscapes of Paris.
If you want proof that architectural styles are cyclical, just look at houses with mansard roofs.  They’re easy to pick out, because their curious roofs have two pitches—a steeply-sloped lower one and an upper one that’s nearly flat. Unlike many residential styles we've looked at in these little essays, Mansard-roofed houses aren’t confined to a single era; in fact, they’ve recurred many times over the centuries, often with little more than their eye-catching roofs to relate them.

The mansard roof first appeared in France early in the 16th century, when Parisian flats were taxed on the number of stories they contained. Legend has it that the steep front slope was used to hide an additional story, thereby duping the taxman. However humble its origin, the mansard soon appeared uptown as well, where it graced such Gallic landmarks as the Palace of the Louvre.

Beginning in the 1620s, the French architect Francois Mansart (1598-1666) made such prolific use of this roof style that posterity eventually linked it with a corrupted form of his name: mansard. The charismatic shape remained a staple of French architecture throughout the Renaissance, when it was used in ever more elaborate forms.

The mansard very quickly moved upscale, as can be seen
at the Palace of the Louvre (designed by a whole series
of architects over the centuries, though culminating
 in I.M. Pei's very un-Mansartian glass pyramid).
The mansard roof returned again in the 1860s, this time as the latest craze in the succession of revivalist styles we call Victorian. Architects and builders of this era were no less creative with the mansard than their predecessors. The profile of the steep portion might be flat, concave or convex; some even boasted an exuberant S-curve.  The roof’s surfaces were often adorned with various combinations of “fishscale” and other shingle patterns; some even sported polychrome decoration. Cresting—lacy iron fencing defining the roof’s perimeter—formed the icing on this mansard confection. Alas, most Victorian houses lost their original cresting to World War II scrap metal drives. 

During the Modernist era, a mansard roof
signified a style that was fusty, outdated,
and, well, a little creepy—such as
Norman Bates's house in "Psycho".
 After a hundred years of slumber, mansard roofs returned for yet another encore in the mid-1960s, eventually flowering into one of the biggest architectural fads of 1970s. As such, mansards adorned a vast array of new homes and apartment buildings, not to mention donut shops, gas stations, and hamburger joints. The mansard roof was an easy way to make any building—old or new—look different.  Architects grafted them onto all kind of existing buildings as well. One manufacturer even offered a prefabricated mansard that could be literally bolted onto an existing two-story building, thus miraculously updating its look. And alas, many folks took him up on it.

Got a 60s or 70’s-era mansard on your house?  If so, you should feel privileged— you’ve got an architectural feature that traces its lineage all the way back to the Louvre.

The mansard roof made yet another comeback, peaking
as the red-hot style of the 1970s. Some examples worked,
some didn't.
Of course, mansards do have drawbacks.  Functionally, they combine the worst of both worlds: they have both a steep, hard-to-reroof portion, as well as a flat, leak-prone portion. The high visibility of the steep part makes it especially crucial to choose a decent roof material—composition shingle just won’t stand up to this kind of in-your-face scrutiny. On the other hand, many mansards aren’t sturdy enough to support heavyweight roof materials such as slate or concrete tile.  Now you know why McDonald’s used to put sheet metal shingles on their mansards.

Incidentally, a few highfalutin’ academics like to use the term “Second Empire” for Victorian homes with mansard roofs—a reference to the roughly-commensurate reign of Napoleon III.
Don’t be fooled.  It’s the same old roof with a fancier name.

Monday, February 11, 2019


"Pa, that new sliding window sure looks good."
Apologies to Grant Wood.
In the field of art restoration, there’s a thing called “the priniciple of reversibility”. It decrees that a restorer should never make any alteration to a work of art—regardless of how well-meaning—that can’t be undone again at some later date.   

The world of architecture would be better off if so-called “modernizations” followed this rule too, and for many of the same reasons. In architecture, as in art, aging is a natural process to be prized, not something to be frantically concealed.  Just as the aged and crackled surface of a Rembrandt doesn’t detract from its beauty, we should regard the effects of time on a building as part of its charisma.  But, please, somebody pinch me—I’m dreaming. 

Once upon a time, someone thought
acoustic ceiling tile was a great idea.
If only they hadn't glued it on. . .
Alas, the reality is that most homeowners eventually become bored with their homes, no matter how wonderful they are, and develop an itch for something new, different, and more fashionable. Conceding that people will always yearn for such “modernizations”, the least I can do is to invoke the principle of reversibility:  Always be able to undo what you’ve done in the name of fashion.  

Here are a few guidelines:

•  Be wary of adding  “quick spruce-up” materials such as acoustic ceiling tile, flimsy paneling, and the like unless you’re absolutely sure you can remove them later without damaging the original stuff underneath. Enthusiasm for such materials usually has a notoriously short lifespan, but the installations themselves often don’t. Case in point: the living room of my brother’s Colonial cottage, which was cursed with walls of ghastly 70-era diagonal cedar planks for twenty years after they’d gone out of fashion, all because the installer had affixed them with a permanent mastic that removed the plaster along with the planking.
Well, it seemed like a good idea in 1978.

•  Don’t paint over surfaces that weren’t painted to begin with. Every few decades, decorating fads swing back toward their cyclical infatuation with paint; it wasn’t so long ago that owners were busily painting over the gleaming hardwood interiors of their Victorians in an effort to make them more “modern”.  Those who resisted the incessant pull of faddism were ultimately rewarded with beautiful (and original) showplace interiors; those who didn’t became very intimate with paint remover.  That, by the way, is not what I mean by reversible.  

Recycled lumber is all the rage right now. It's great to be
green, but maybe not this green.
The make-it-reversible-or-leave-it-alone policy goes not just for wood, but for brick, tile, metal, glass, and concrete, not to mention truly irretrievable finishes such as lincrusta (a type of linoleum wainscot that was originally stained and varnished to resemble tooled leather) and—for Pete’s sake—stone and stone veneer. 

For those unswayed by aesthetic arguments, here’s a cold, hard factoid: A house with its original interior finishes intact generally commands a higher price at resale. Not a bad return, considering there’s less effort involved.

•  Lastly, try to get to know your home. Find out when it was built, and check into a few architecture books to learn about the ancestry of its style. Knowing why your house looks the way it does, and appreciating it on its own merits, will go a long way toward relieving the incessant longing for change and “modernity”— whatever that is. 

Monday, February 4, 2019


Rome's Temple of Venus and Roma as it looks today:
The statues did, in fact, get up and walk away.
In the year 121, that fun-loving Roman emperor Hadrian began building himself a grandiose temple to Venus and Roma based on his own design. When it was finished, he proudly sent the plans to the renowned architect Apollodoros, ostensibly to obtain a critique. Actually, Hadrian’s motive was to show the architect (who had once insulted him) that great buildings could be designed without his help. Apollodoros duly responded that the temple should have been built on higher ground, to make it more visible from the Sacred Way. He also made a snarky comment regarding the excessive size of the seated statues, saying they would surely bash their heads on the ceiling if they stood up from their seats.

Hadrian, who reigned over
Rome from 117 to 138:
Now I'm really mad. . .
To Hadrian’s chagrin, he realized that the architect was right on both counts and that, worse yet, it was too late to rectify the blunder. His solution? Simple—he had Apollodoros killed.

It might have turned out better for everyone if Hadrian had consulted a good architect before his mistakes were, as it were, carved in stone. That lesson is just as valid today: Even if you don’t want to hire an architect to draw your plans—and there’s no law that says you must—at least consider hiring one for a few hours to critique your work. Yes, it will cost you a few hundred dollars, but you may well save thousands—even tens of thousands—in return. Here are some of the ways:

Mid-century bathroom: Should you take a
sledgehammer to it, or save some money
and sell it like it is?
•  An architect may be able to save you money using “design by subtraction”.  Surprisingly often, eliminating parts of a project will actually improve it. For example, I recently did some consulting for the rehab of a lovely but poorly-maintained home from the 1950s. Among other things, the owner was planning to rip out an entire bathroom, complete with its original fixtures and tile work, because he
felt its shabby appearance would be a hindrance to resale. In fact, the bathroom just needed some diligent stripping and cleaning to regain its appeal. Moreover, to a buyer interested in a home of that vintage, having the original plumbing and lighting fixtures in place would prove far more attractive than any modern replacement. Net savings: a cool twenty thousand dollars.

•  A good architect—and I stress the word good—can guide you toward a truly timeless solution. Of-the-moment designs, such as those espoused by many designer magazines, quickly grow stale and result in a loss of resale value over time. A skillful architect can distinguish between the timeless and the trite, and can steer you away from gimmicks that’ll be an embarrassment in a year or two. 
No, this is not a black-and-white photo. Consulting
with an architect might dissuade you from using
faddish color schemes such as this one.
•  An architect’s experience  can often turn design mountains into molehills. While you may already have already spent weeks wrestling with a design problem that seems insoluble—say, an awkward kitchen arrangement—chances are your architect has already dealt with that same problem a hundred times over. He or she may well be able to suggest a solution right on the spot. In particular, you might wish to seek advice before choosing paint colors. Color fads are notoriously short-lived—as the scads of moldering, gray-on-gray-on-gray paint jobs from the Aughts will demonstrate.

•  Lastly, remember that what you build will be standing for a long, long time;  in retrospect,  springing for a few hours of advice will seem like a bargain compared to living with a spate of permanent errors. Just ask Emperor Hadrian.