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Spec houses from 1940s

Kim was looking to buy her first house in Seattle.  She found the houses in 1940-era suburbs, still close to downtown, much more affordable than those in the older streetcar suburbs.  Neighborhoods like Queen Anne and Ravenna Park featured the more coveted Craftsman and period-revival houses built between 1910 and 1930.  

The problem with the 1940s houses was that most of them were built on speculation, and looked it.  Exteriors were an odd mix of traditional and modern details, yet the houses were still well made.  Another benefit was that they were built on larger lots than in earlier or later suburbs. Today, Seattle's 1940s neighborhoods with mature trees and landscaping are comfortable and desirable places to live.  

When these areas were developed after World War II the housing market was still uncertain. In design, Modern-lite was seen as expressing optimism while period-revival designs homey comfort. Developers hedged their bets by offering designs that were both. Realtors told clients looking for a traditional cottage, "See—classic (sic) Cape Cod (sic)."  For buyers attracted to Modernism, they could point out the streamlined wrap-around corner windows, modern kitchen, bath, and attached garage.  

Buyers of spec houses tried to improve their appearance. Many were susceptible to the bad advice of remuddlers who offered easy fixes.  In the 1950s, some houses were covered with a veneer advertised as "Rocky Mountain Stone."  In the 1970s, diagonal wood siding was popular, and flimsy wood-grained vinyl came later. 

When Kim bought her house, it was sealed in blue vinyl siding, most windows had been swollen shut for years, and the front door was placed annoyingly just off-center.  Otherwise, the house seemed to have good bones and was worth buying.  Kim commissioned us to create a master plan for its renovation.

For her, finding an affordable house in a quiet close-in neighborhood was a big plus. Other buyers viewed these houses as a starter home. They planned to live there long enough for inflation to create equity, and then do a fluff and turn.  

Some buyers were surprised to discover that once they settled in they enjoyed living there. The good news for them is their ugly duckling can be seen anew!  The key to improvement is to find within the design a plausible historic tradition, and then develop it. Create a vision for the house, and make every change consistent with the vision. Whatever is taken away or added should improve its overall character.

Kim wanted a Cape Cod house.  That is how Seattle realtors pitch houses like hers although, technically, a Cape with front-facing gable is considered Greek Revival.  In preparing our renovation master plan we looked to other designs from the 1920s and 1930s when period revivals were at their peak.  Popular and architectural magazines featured many Cape Cod revivals. 

Disputed territories of historic preservation

This is where our project entered the disputed territories of historic preservation. Orthodox preservationists insist this is wrong. Thou shalt not dip into an earlier period of design and create "a false sense of historical development."  

This view emerged from the National Park Service "Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation" (1977) for designated structures. That is, for landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.

We agree designated landmarks should be protected intact for future generations to experience them in close to their original condition. The problem came when the Federal guidelines were adopted by local agencies and architectural review boards to justify their authority and show legal precedentas in: "If the Feds can do this, so can we."  As adopted, the guidelines were not limited to designated landmarks. In many jurisdictions, they became the authority on the treatment of all buildings over fifty years of age, regardless of their quality or historic significance. 

Buildings with little significant character that do not meet landmark criteria should not be held to landmark standards. Preserving them as historic artifacts meant they could not evolve, adapt or improve, and their weaknesses became permanent.  Adaptation informed by experience is fundamental to all life, and it is silly to deny it.

The Secretary's guidelines informed designers that "new work shall be differentiated from the old, and shall be compatible." This innocuous statement was interpreted by official review boards and agencies to mean new work must not replicate existing features and details. For example, a new window cannot simply match existing ones-- even the trim must be different, but compatible.  This bizarre obsession with differentiating new from existing features supposedly protected the public from architectural deceptions and creating a false sense of historical development.

Additions to historic buildings and districts have been the worst consequence.  Developers were encouraged to contrast the historic context with new buildings designed in the current fashions.  Review boards said additions must be contemporary and "of our time," and preferably with a little link to visually separate the new from old.  Were we supposed to be grateful the historic portion was saved, and ignore the modern intrusion?  Like most forced marriages, the unwilling partners would have been better off alone. 

When arrogant architects claim to “reference” or “pay tribute” to a historical setting with their modern designs they are patronizing us. Who gave them authority over the historic context and architectural precedent?   When they look at generations of development and see a “historic jumble of buildings” it only means they can't read the city, or understand how pre-modern ones evolved.  

The Secretary of the Interior Standards were adopted in the 1970s at a time when few architects designed competently within historic building traditions, because that generation was trained only in Modernism. Traditional styles were derided as retrograde and inappropriate for the times.  Modernists presented their work as a heroic conquest of "eclectic and derivative styles" that were holding back progress. Today, without this pumped-up drama, many architects work within historic building traditions, and extend traditional design in new work. A much more nuanced approach to differentiated-yet-compatible is surely possible. 

Architectural historians were the primary advocates of the current policy against seamless additions, since they saw their job as defining historic periods, dating buildings and distinguishing original construction from later additions. However, almost everyone else prefers well-integrated buildings and coherent places. Wherever design remains unregulated, most people opt for integration of old and new-- continuity, not contrast-- and view this as common sense.

An insidious effect of legislating against common sense is the loss of community support. When people sense the law has been manipulated to serve special interests they withdraw their support. Creating historic districts, once favored by the local residents, is now widely resisted. 

Fortunately for us Kim's project was not subject to design review!  Kim attended college in New England, and its historic small towns and houses continued to resonate with her. Even though her architect recommended color-coding exterior materials to emphasize detail, she insisted the house be painted all white with Essex green windows. That was her vision of New England, and what she intended to have.

The Secretary's position also implies architectural history is a simple progression of styles, one after another, with buildings taking their place along a time line. If we insist on a broader view of architectural history, one that includes evolution and continuities across time, well, things are not so tidy. Classical traditions in architecture run deep, and these understandings are recalled after periods of drift. Revivals and implied narratives can surface when prompted by social conditions.

Period revivals

The timing of popular revivals is always revealing. They signal changes in a society's basic perceptions, attitudes and alliances. Consider the late 1940s.  After World War II the U.S. emerged from fifteen years of trauma, and was the last industrial nation standing.  Renewed optimism and confidence led to a baby boom, which in turn led to more demand in housing.  Developers found that the least expensive land to acquire and develop were marginal farms close to town.  The Detroit automakers had greatly expanded capacity for the war effort, and now intended to consolidate their gains by shifting production to private automobiles. Gasoline was cheap.  New FHA mortgage requirements favored suburban over urban development.  It was not difficult to see why automobile suburbs flourished and traditional cities contracted.  

The most popular suburban starter home, built either custom or in a tract, was the iconic Cape Cod cottage. It began as a plain rectangle with a side-facing gable roof.  Front door faced the street with sash windows on either side, and a brick chimney poked through the roof.  Generations of Americans were imprinted with this image of home. For developers, it was probably the least expensive house to build.  Each Cape stood in a small fenced yard, and was connected to everything else by the family car. 

One of the most popular architects of the period was Boston's Royal Barry Wills.  An astute promoter, his Cape Cod revival houses were
seen in newspaper Sunday supplements and popular magazines like Life. His firm claimed responsibility for over one thousand houses. Even though he was one of the best-known architects of the period Wills received little recognition from modern critics.  His preference for traditional over modern design revealed an unforgivable weakness, middlebrow taste 

Sadly, it was true. Wills loved American Colonial houses, and furnished his own with colonial antiques.  He was known to attend local auctions and bid on historic house parts, maybe salvaged columns or a ship's lantern that could be incorporated into one of his designs. 

The traditional houses Wills designed were not reproductions, but recreations of historic types adapted for the times. Few people confused his designs with historic buildings. They were much too fresh and crisp. Composed of simple and balanced geometric forms they were, well, almost modern.  Wills included the latest features in kitchens and baths, central heating and attached garages, but also comforting historical references. He insisted, for example, on building a huge brick chimney to project through the roof so his Cape would look convincing.  Entries were given special attention. Even a modest house might include a pair of slender fluted pilasters to frame a six-panel door with delicate leaded transom above.

Historian Lewis Mumford wrote, "every culture lives within its dream."  In the 1940s Americans were more than ready to leave the Depression and war years behind. That generation could easily imagine pulling into the driveway of a Royal Barry Wills house to set up a new life. Implicit in the postwar recovery was shoring-up a suitable cultural narrative. New Englanders continued to value the Yankee myth of independence, self-reliance and practical thrift-- all qualities implicit in the design of a modern Cape.  The popular colonial revival supported a narrative of resourceful pioneers who survived years of deprivation to prosper and flourish.  It was a self-perception this generation shared.

Wills and other colonial revival architects embraced the useful myth and gave it fresh expression. Americans could sense something timely and reassuring in the work. They were not persuaded by critics who dismissed it as nostalgia and misguided escapism. Critics could not see the colonial revivalists were building a bridge to the18th century. In connecting to the Founders' building traditions revivalists imagined Americans would find within these precedents ideals worth preserving. 

Tim Andersen

My view of historic preservation law was tempered by being on both sides of the issue. As an architect who specialized in renovating and restoring historic buildings our projects were subjected to the arbitrary judgment of authorities. I also served five years on the Pasadena (CA) Cultural Heritage Commission, a citizen commission whose members were appointed by City Directors to advocate for preservation of historic buildings.  The Commission had little real authority over demolitions, which was the primary reason for their loss. As developers submitted new projects for review our task was to persuade them to preserve historic resources, and include them in their plans. The efforts were too little and too late, but maintained an appearance of civic concern. 

Kim's Cape in Disputed Territories
Historic preservation and period revivals
Architect Royal Barry Wills
Kim's Cape before renovation

Kim's Cape, Seattle, WA
Kim's Cape prior to renovation
American Gas Association  ad, c.1948
Home from the office, a print ad for American Gas Association, 1948. 
Kim's Cape after renovation
5 January 2018
2,000 words
Our new colonial revival portico
Crisp new Cape Cod revival with attached breezeway and garage, Royal Barry Wills, c.1940
The Duxbury, 1950. Cape Cod house with suggested color scheme. Siding, sash and picket fence are white with green shutters. Cedar shingle roof has been stained red.
Promotional photograph for Rainier Vista, a typical 1940s subdivision in Seattle, WA
Same view after renovaton
Royal Barry Wills study in his home, Winchester, MA