No time today — Honey is working from home, and that always adds to the busy — but a project I’m trying to finish took me to a long-forgotten pleasure:  residential architecture.  I have house hunger in a big hormonal way, but that’s a separate problem.  It’s true that any single family dwelling (or single extended family / clan / friend/ group / cooperative living compound) will trigger my nesting reflex.  If there is not something to love, there is something to fix and then love.  It’s also true that I crave a house, in part, to exercise my dog-given right to paint walls or knock them down.

But I’m no architect.  All I can do is look at houses and yearn.  And while most houses have something to thrill or delight me, there are two styles that do it for me beyond the norm: shingle style and craftsman.  And the two houses that make my blood sing are the Isaac Bell House (shingle style) and the Gamble House (arts and crafts.)

http://www.gamblehouse.org/ — this Arts & Crafts (Craftsman) bungalow home was by Greene & Greene for the “Gamble” in “Proctor & Gamble.”   It’s huge, and served an extended family, with open-air upper-level porches used as sleeping porches for the grandkids, among other things.  It was beautifully made, in the California way — a very Japanese, esthetic, with great attention to materials and detail and (sorry) craftsmanship — but completely functional, durable, and livable.  This is California at her best, to me:  joyous, mindful, and beautiful in a way that is in harmony with nature and improves the surroundings.  People care for their buildings, here.  They age gloriously.  I hope they last forever.

http://www.greatbuildings.com/cgi-bin/gbi.cgi/Isaac_Bell_House.html/cid_1114304777_Isaac_Bell_house_03.jpg — this shingle-style home was by McKim, Mead, and White.  Another huge house, and beautiful, and very Gilded Age.  To me, this is a perfect East Coast country/beach home.  It’s lovely, clean, comfortable, ornamented without being ostentatious, and tightly made — with features on a scale only possible on an enormous house.  (Check out the cupola on that babe!  DAAAAMN!)

Here’s the thing (through a glass darkly, as my university days were in the previous century):  at the end of the 1800s, we had a lot of Victorian architecture around.  Queen Anne, Eastlake, and frou-frou as hell.  A vertical emphasis.  No straight sticks if they could be garnished with gingerbread or lathed into curlicues.  But what is charming in the bordellos of mining towns and expected in the townhouses of wealthy urbanites is unsuitable for the country and the beach.  Children running in and out need a mudroom.  Hot weather calls for a wide, covered porch and deep eaves over the windows.  Vacation entertaining requires lots of guest rooms, extra storage, and comfortable gathering places.   These informal activities call for simple digs.   Sand dunes and meadows have clean lines, and buildings must suit them.  This was a radical reversion to the Colonial days:  clean lines, no materials wasted, with Classic proportions — think Parthenon, not sports.   This is part of the Gilded Age that I love.

This emphasis on simplicity was a precursor to the Craftsman movement, which was clean, graceful, and free of ruffles.  But it returned ornament to the home in materials and construction and integrated design, with furniture and fixtures created to go with the house.  A perfect brass lamp with a simple bracket that doesn’t demand attention, but is impressive on inspection.  Built-in stained glass elements with grape vines and dragonflies and the Tree of Life, latticed so the light would fall just so in the room.  Wide wooden casements, arches, and lintels, framing every shot like a movie.  Unpainted, unpapered, showing only the true colors of the Japanese maple and Port Orford cedar.   Benches, couches, and comfortable furniture, not elaborately carved to mirror corseted waists, not extravagantly upholstered to complement silk gowns, but designed to harmonize with the horizontals and allow comfortable seating.  Form follows function, and must be pleasing to the eye.   Like a tea house on a grand scale:  only the truth, and remembering that truth is beauty.

When I was a kid, the grand-scale accomplishments of man blew me away.  I was proud to be a human.  We built a wall that can be seen from space!  We built pyramids up to heaven!  — And then I learned that those things were designed by the unnamed and uncredited, and built by slaves, not by volunteers eager to leave their mark on the world, and I thought I’d rather not have them, and it made me sad.  Then I learned about the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority:  they gave work to the poor, and no individual could have done any of those things on his own.  They are also guarded by the souls of those who died to make them, but safety measures were taken, and the cause was in the benefit of all, not for the vanity of a king.   No one person owns them.

Which brings me to enormous single-family dwellings, built by the wealthy, and not as a sole residence, either.  I don’t like the way the obscenely wealthy make their money, by and large — not true in all cases, but generally so.  And it’s a sad old modern day when the greedyguts of yore seem like patriots for the sheer act of spending their wealth on things they don’t need…when those things gave work to artists and artisans, put the money back into the economy through paid labor, and kept the money in circulation — which, as any surviving Depression-era relative will tell you, is important to keep the economy moving.  I love these extravagant works of art.  I love that people lived in them, played and loved and slept and fought in them, and were paid well to make them.  Houses these days cost far more, even in adjusted dollars, and nothing I see looks half so good.  All the filthy rich people in this country, and look at the crap they build.  Mais où sont les maisons d’antan?

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