Monday, February 25, 2008

Then, Now, Then Again

My family has cabin fever. If it was summertime we could go for a walk somewhere, and I'd waste all my time taking pictures, and the kids would run like colts, and my wife would herd us all. It's just cold and dreary here and we rattle around in our house. I can paw through old artifacts of trips outside, if nothing else.

I've walked down Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island many times since just after the first picture, from the Library of Congress, was taken in 1963. My brother lived on various addresses on Benefit Street while going to RISD in the late sixties. It was ill-advised to help a college student move back then. All they owned was books and vinyl records, and they kept them all on shelves made from concrete blocks and planks. And they never lived on the first floor.

Benefit Street was a dump back then, and is very much not a dump now. I took the second picture on a walkabout a couple of summers ago. It's gratifying to see old things that made it. We routinely lose structures like that to the wrecking ball or in a pillar of smoke from a renter's candle.

This one is called the Harris House. 1767, or so it appears from various deed records. There was an assortment of houses built on the property, and references to this property might be talking about structures long gone. The 1960s picture shows a sort of vestibule that was is out of place on the house, a testament to the the occupants freezing in the uninsulated house in the winter and making concessions to practicality. It's removed now.

It straddles the timeline seam between Georgian and Adam colonial architecture. The doorway is the most common Georgian door I could name. The small entablature over the windows is more common on Adam style. It hasn't lost much, but it could use the shutters back. It's got storm windows instead. Real shutters are fabulously expensive to buy and maintain now. People are used to not seeing them on houses like the Harris house, but I find it mildly jarring, like a woman that has shaved off her eyebrows. Shutters add an enormous amount of depth, shadow, and rhythm to a facade, and are an opportunity to add a dashing dash of color that the lonesome door must shoulder alone now.

Regular people used to design and build their own houses with little more than a few pattern books and some common sense. Postmodernism killed any sort of discriminating eye for architecture the general public might have had. Pastiche supplanted a set of rules, and we lost both the original knack for vernacular building along with the frame of reference that would warn the potential builder: this looks goofy. How many houses in suburbia will make any visual sense to someone 250 years hence? Not many. People like Stephen and Abigail Harris used to achieve it almost without thinking. I'm not sure we can do it any more, even if we tried.

We don't really try. I'd pay real money to live in the Harris House, lead paint, sketchy wiring, intermittent plumbing and all. You couldn't give me a snout house on a typical suburban lot, no matter how much plastic you bang onto it. A house is more than a box to live in.

Or, it used to be, anyway.


Larry said...

What do you call the thing that protected the front stoop and its inhabitants from the weather (and I assume kept the rain from running under the door)?

Like the missing shutters, it doens't look quite right.

thud said...

I am looking for a project house in california...showing pictures like this does me no good! I'm addicted to working on houses like this aarrgh!

SippicanCottage said...

Larry- Officially, that's a vestibule. All the old Yankees around heah used to refer to the thing as a "weather door," but I can't find any reference to that nickname anywhere. They called the actual door to the outside the "storm door."

Thud- Hand me those plaster buttons, would you?

Larry said...

I've lived in a couple of houses where the front door opened directly into the living room, back when we, I, or we couldn't afford a house with an "entry", but I've never lived in a house with no cover over the front stoop.

Doesn't seem right somehow.

Vestibule? OK. Used to ride trains that had those--where you had to go if you smoked, even long ago. Or where the soldiers stood that couldn't afford a ticket that entitled them to a seat. We always had to stand up so a soldier could have our seat.