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Funeral for a Home

I’ll be honest. In my field, I rarely get to use the phrase “really cool” and the topic of reference actually is really cool. Artists Jacob Hellman and Billy and Steven Dufala at Temple’s Tyler School of Art are pushing preservationists with their upcoming “Funeral for a Home.” Philadelphia admittedly has a vacancy problem, with 40,000-50,000 houses standing silent waiting for their eventual demolition. (If you want to know more about this, Abandoned Philadelphia is a great website) To solve the problem, Philadelphia is developing a land bank to manage the buying and selling of these properties, ideally turning blight into opportunity.

The stories inside those houses will never be told. Enter Hellman, Dufala, and Dufala. They’re working with historians and preservationists to tell the stories of families and houses one building at a time in neighborhoods with some of the worst vacancy problems. It’s certainly a creative twist on the more traditional historic structures report that preservationists are normally writing.

While the story of one house will surely be interesting, the effort will also hopefully remind audiences that, though blighted and abandoned, the houses, the neighborhoods, the city encompassing them, were previously places of vibrant, active communities. This couldn’t be more relevant, as Pew recently released a report saying the city’s Millennial have an abysmal view of the city’s family-friendliness. Can you raise a family here? Will the schools be safe for kids? “Funeral for a Home” presents an opportunity to remind anybody who will pay attention that Philadelphia did provide that, does provide that, and will continue to provide it.

Politics and preservation aside, this exhibit is just one more demonstration that talking about alteration—really, the ways families change their homes over time—is valuable and constructive to a wide audience. Not just historians and preservationists, but neighbors and communities who live in and around the stories of the past every day. I can’t wait to see the project when they finally get it rolled out.

Punch, 1892

Punch, 1892

In the 1880s and 1890s there was quite a bit of questionable building going on, sometimes called Jerry-building by contemporaries. Enabled by a mix of  new building technologies and materials, buildings were going up at a rapid pace by unskilled hands.  Complaints about “jerry-building” sometimes rang with hints of nativisim; the unskilled hands were often portrayed as immigrant workers.  The complaints also reflected the class conflict that peppered the building industry at this time;  according to some, the sloppy work was the result of poorly trained and unorganized laborers, who worked cheaply for greedy capitalists. These tensions applied to new construction and alterations.

In London, facing some rapid development, somebody took a more poetically-inspired approach to their complaints in the October 1892 issue of Punch.  The author’s concern about building up the previously green parts of town with a focus on profits, not on pubic interest, alludes to the underlying class criticism evoked by the Jerry-building phrase. And of course, the Jabberwock is in reference to the same-named character in “Jabberwocky,” a poem from Carroll’s 1872, Through the Looking Glass. Borrowing heavily from the original piece, it uses the same iambic tetrameter style and four-line stanza format.  But, for complaining about problems with city planning, even Jane Jacobs had nothing on this!  Below, the full poem, titled “The Jerry-Building Jabberwock.”
Maybe this is a sign for a spin-off blog on architecture and literature…

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”—
Ah, Carroll! it is not in fun
Your song’s light lilt we snatch.

Our Jabberwock’s a real brute,
With mighty maw, and ruthless hand,
Who ravage makes beyond compute
In Civic Blunderland.

Look at the ogre’s hideous mouth!
His tiger-teeth, his dragon-tail!
O’er Town, East, West, and North and South,
He leaves his slimy trail.

And where he comes all Beauty dies,
And where he halts all Greenery fades.
Pleasantness flies where’er he plies
His gruesomest of trades.

He blights the field, he blasts the wood,
With breath as fierce as prairie flame;
And where sweet works of Nature stood,
He leaves us—alums of shame.

The locust and the canker-worm
Are not more ruinous than he.
“I’ll take this Eden—for a term!”
He cries, and howls with glee.

“Beauty? Mere bosh! Charm? Utter rot!
What boots your ‘Earthly Paradise,’
Until ‘tis made ‘A Building Plot’?
Then it indeed looks nice!

“O Jerry Street! O Jerry Park!
O Jerry Gardens, Jerry Square!—
You won’t discover—what a lark!—
One ‘touch of Nature’ there!

“This handsome Villa Residence’ [walks:
Means mud-built walls and clay-clogged
And drains offensive to the sense,
And swamps whence fever stalks.

Bricks and Poetry

ImageDuring a research “trip” to the Internet Archive, I stumbled upon a fascinating brick catalog from 1899 titled, The Story of the House. Part of the Building Technology Heritage Library, the possibilities of this collection continue to amaze me (see my comments on this collection, along with others, on my resources page).  The title was undoubtedly inspired by Viollet-Le-Duc’s 1874  The Story of a House, but the content is a unique mix of poetry and illustrations combinedwith information about the bricks the O. W. Ketcham company made. It is interspersed with quotes from works by Ruskin, Walt Whitman (see below), Thoreau, Longfellow, and Wordsworth, to name a few, and was compiled and illustrated by Henry Loomis Curtis, an architect.

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Curtis was clearly pulling from the Arts and Crafts movement for the layout and illustration in the catalog.  The colors, typeset and spacers are very similar to those used in early Roycroft catalogs and other pieces that came from their presses, such as the Philistine. Curtis also adapted (borrowed?) architectural elements from well-known Arts & Crafts houses. A favorite of mine is the mantel on page 7 inscribed with “East West Hame’s Best.” (below)

mantel Though not exact in design, the mantel closely mirrors the similarly inscribed  piece designed by Richard Norman Shaw in the 1863 Cragside Manor (below), later embellished with Morris stained glass.

mantel-cragside

Cragside Dining Room from Brian D. Coleman, Historic Arts and Crafts Homes of Great Britain, 48

Trade catalog publishers experimented with content and advertising, particularly at this time, as they began to respond to homeowners as buyers.  Between the 1870s and 1900, we can see a shift in trade catalog content moving from very simple price lists to elaborately illustrated catalogs with detailed descriptions. We also see a shift in the tone of the language, as the imagined audience of the trade catalog users widened from builders and architects to everyday homeowners. The mix of poetry and brick on display here, with little actual technical information, is a clear example of manufacturers and publishers responding to a nonprofessional audience. However, this model of advertising was certainly an experiment that perhaps netted little profits, or was a show piece.  This format certainly didn’t take off, excepting sparse inclusions of poetry meant to soften and “domesticate” an otherwise industrial publication.

For those homeowners who wished to save money by doing work themselves, it was not simple. Take for instance the quick refinishing of a plaster wall. Nineteenth-century Americans lacked the convenient products of premixed tubs of joint compound or ready-to-mix plaster. Instead, they needed access to lime, plaster, and the tools to mix the material before applying it to the wall. Ideally, they would use a hawk and trowel. [see image of plaster tools, below] Without a hawk, the amateur plasterer would lug around the heavy container of plaster or walk back and forth between wall and source—an option that seemed unpractical with the rapid twenty minute drying time of plaster.

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Cameron’s Plasterer’s Manual, front material.

Once at the wall, with trowel ready, the untrained hand would need to deftly and quickly apply the plaster while maneuvering over and around obstacles, bumps, holes, and other odd impediments. On a first try, and perhaps even second or third, there was no hope of achieving a smooth surface. If the amateur was normally free from manual labor—perhaps working or even only standing all day in factory, or holding a managerial position, the job would be tedious and exhausting. To apply the plaster, the unskilled hands and untrained body needed to ascend ladders and crouch to apply the plaster in arm-wide strips, gripping the heavy hawk with one hand and pressing the trowel with the other, needing the pressure of fingers and the flick of wrists. A person with some skill would be able to finish a moderately sized bedroom in a day. After several hours, biceps would ache, writs would sting, and fingers would be so tense that unfolding them from the curl of the handles would be difficult.

Knowing how to apply the plaster was another problem. Manuals for plaster work are few, and the information in them provides little actual guidance on the process. 1880s Cameron’s Plasterer’s Manual only advises readers that the skim coat goes on in two “very thin coats,” with no direction on how to accomplish that. It was likely that the author assumed readers had some familiarity with the process, but Cameron’s book represents the limited guidance available to the amateur plaster at this time. DIYers would have to wait for the twentieth century for better directions from a book. It is no wonder that, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, those without the time and skill came to increasingly embrace wallpaper as a convenient alternative to wall finishing. When plaster became dinged or stained, it was certainly easier to apply wallpaper than acquire the materials and tools for plaster and endure the ordeal of its application. Paint, too, provided easy solution, though it couldn’t hide as much.

In places like the Tenement Museum in New York City, layers of wallpaper (in one parlor, 21 were counted) display people’s strategic efforts to fix their spaces while saving their bodies, time, and money. [see image of wallpaper, below] After a long day, it was perhaps easier and cheaper to cover up blemishes or former tenants dirt with a new layer. A paint analysis produced by the Tenement Museum documents wallpaper and paint around 97 Orchard Street, 300 samples in all. View the report here.

Wallpaper in situ, Tenement Museum, via Tenement Museum Flickr account.

Wallpaper in situ, Tenement Museum, via Tenement Museum Flickr account.

Rarely do we think about the body in choices about building, particularly finishing work. What a normal person’s hands, knees, and back could physically endure had as much to do with determining how successful ready-made materials were when they entered the market as was their user-friendliness. Put another way, “ease” was not just about simple application and quick accessibility, it was also less physically demanding. Consumer demand for things that were cheaper and easier went hand-in-hand with the materials and tools they didn’t need and the skill they didn’t have. Though wallpaper and paint certainly had their challenges, they could be applied to a room in a matter of hours, not a day. Manuals for wallpapering and painting were much more prevalent, though applying those finishes was also intuitive and user friendly.

After a long day of work, with wrists and fingers sore, a husband and wife plopping down a few dollars for wallpaper that they could apply themselves surely seemed a friendlier alternative—even if it only hid the mistakes of a wall instead of repairing them.

Does anyone have any good studies that discuss the physical demand of historic processes?  Perhaps content informed by “experiential” research?

Another shameless plug, this time for a segment on Philadelphia row houses I appeared in for NewsWorks Tonight over at WHYY. Take a listen.

Excuse the shameless self promotion, but my piece on row houses is now up on the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. It’s timely considering the unfortunate gas explosion that leveled three row houses yesterday.

I’ve been spending a large part of the summer doing field work thanks to the Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DelPHI). One fascinating case study is a house currently under renovation. In the coming weeks I’ll be checking back in with notes from the field. So far, the crew has turned up some interesting evidence of what the house used to look like when it was originally built in 1916, as well as the ways that later families altered the home. With no permits on record and no insurance surveys, it’s cases like this that illustrate why evidence from the field is so important.

Constructed in 1916, the brick rowhouse was originally two stories high and two rooms deep with a central stairs. Each room had access to a chimney that likely vented stoves rather than fireplaces. It likely had a simple frame kitchen. Trim in the house was modest; on the original plaster walls the crew is turning up simple stenciling that served as decoration for the first occupants in the lower floor.

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Along with the green stenciling was green and beige linoleum (yes, linseed), glued down under a layer of pink mid-century carpet.

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The family that purchased the house in the 1950s made extensive changes. Besides the usual wallpaper and carpet, they changed the stairs, shifting it from the center to the side. They opened up the first floor, added a cinder block kitchen, updated the bathroom, and eventually added a third bedroom on top of the kitchen. Layers over layers.

One aspect of the site’s historic material that has already been invaluable to my study is the confusing but likely common way that the owners reused material that they no longer needed for new projects. When changing the stairs, the second owners took the trim from the old stairs, flipped it over, and reused the flat side for a more streamlined look that appealed to the family. Other trim was nailed into the ceiling and used to attach lath (see below)

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More to come, including revelations about historic alteration gleaned from the present day crew. Here’s a hint: it’s easier to layer than remove and haul away!

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