Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fake History

Seventeen years ago, when we were looking for a house of our own to buy, we were attracted to this town and this neighborhood by the fact that ordinances prevented buyers from tearing down little old bungalows to build big, new, characterless monstrosities. Both house-hunters and builders had recently discovered east Dallas, and prices had begun to rise precipitously just when we were entering the market. So our cute little neighborhood in “Lakewood Borders” as I called it (officially “Lakewood Heights,” on the fringes of the posh and pricey neighborhood surrounding White Rock Lake) was almost immediately out of our range—and almost as quickly began to change character in the absence of any kind of historic designation. When The Beloved Spouse decided one day to drive up to McKinney and look around, he found The House almost at once, and within months it was ours.

It wasn’t perfect, with its AstroTurf on the front porch and gold shag carpet in most of the living areas, but the “bones” were most certainly solid, especially for a house built only a year after my father was born (1922). The neighborhood itself was a mixed bag of little scruffy bungalows (like ours) and large elaborate Tudor and Georgian revivals, along with Texas Victorians both large and small. The wooden bits of our house had been clad with white aluminum siding that hid some of its Craftsman details, which probably contributed to its affordability, and it would be years before we accumulated the wherewithal to begin to restore it. 

In the meantime, we stripped the floors of the carpet and managed to get up most of the goop that had held it down, and over the next ten years we refinished bits and painted other bits. The lovely quarter-sawn planks that had been hidden under the gold shag have been stripped but are still unfinished; we’ll get it done eventually. Most of our effort has been spent tearing down badly thrown-up sheetrock and ancient stained and worn wallpaper to expose the ship-lap underneath. Before it was trendy to do so, we removed sagging beaverboard ceilings and left the wood open to god and everybody, and later painted some of the walls and stained and sealed others.  What we have not done is to “update” the kitchen and downstairs bath, opting instead to keep as much of them intact as possible, even if they’re not quite period-correct. We’ve bucked the trend to enlarge the kitchen, replace the tile, put in stainless steel and granite and replace cupboards, even though the kitchen’s rather tiny and the bathroom is neither appropriate to the ’twenties nor particularly stylish.  Nonetheless, visitors seem to like the place, proclaiming it comfortable and homey. It seems to remind folks of their grandparents’ houses.

When we finally mustered the funds to get the siding removed, we painstakingly researched historically appropriate colors to paint the new hardie board sections (sturdier and less expensive than wood, and much more authentic-looking than the aluminum stuff). We chose four: a barn red for the major fields, "Dard Hunter Green" for the larger segments of trim, "Roycroft Adobe" and "Roycroft Rose" for smaller bits of accent. These all came from the Sherman Williams Craftsman palette, and were chosen to match the multiple shades of red and green on the brick. The comments were immediately favorable, with neighbors stopping buy to tell us how good they thought it all looked.

Unlike many bungalow-owners, we gave no desire to turn our home into a museum of the Craftsman style, in part because we could never afford to. Most of what our place is furnished with is old and well loved, but not period specific. So while I admire and respect the aesthetic sensibilities of Morris and his heirs, what decorates our home is useful and beautiful to us, but is unlikely to fit the criteria of the more religious of the American Bungalow faithful.

I’m not quite sure why it is that so many people rely so heavily on shelter magazines and home improvement/house-hunting television shows to determine how their interiors should look.  It’s as if they need permission to do something adventurous or out-of-the-ordinary, and so wait until they see someone do it in a magazine before they take a chance. And as much as I love my house porn, by far my most beloved of magazines is the British edition of Country Living. I no longer get it in print because I haven’t the room to hoard any more back issues, but the many I already have stashed (and my more recent digital subscription) reflect something intriguing. Even though I have issues dating back to the ‘80s, none of them seem out of date today. Open any issue and the rooms seem just as fresh and current as they did then.  Perhaps this stems from the fact that Brits don’t seem to need anyone’s permission to relish their history and traditional country life. But in the US, our history is so recent and such a hodgepodge of influences that we have very little in the way of deeply held aesthetic traditions. Some pockets of “native” design exist (the Southwestern adobe houses in Arizona and New Mexico, the Spanish Mission influence in California, for example), but these reflect the traditions and tastes of early inhabitants or conquerors rather than anything deeply American (whatever that would look like).

The recent housing boom has hit this town like a tornado, however, and the small bungalow interiors that make houses like ours so cozy will be disappearing even more quickly than they already had been. Buyers can’t do much to the exteriors because restrictions regarding architectural style are in place for older houses (sound structures can’t be torn down, but can be added to—considerably—and must retain one of the approved vernacular vocabularies), but they can gut interiors to match the modern, "open plan," country-ish interior they saw on Houzz. In addition, our city council seems to be rather lenient with new homes on vacant lots. The preferred new construction these days is a sort of Faux Texas Farmhouse Modern Rustic, clearly inspired by what’s been going on down in Waco for the past three years or so. I’m not quite sure what to think of all this, because it’s not true to the spirit of the town’s traditional structures, but it’s a damned sight better than the Middle American Texas Tudor Ranch Baroque crap that’s always being built on the other side of McKinney, outside of the historic district.

Anyone who spends as much time as I do fantasizing about land and old houses on Zillow will notice  the decline of the genuine old house interior. Even when people buy one of the standard two- or three-bedroom bungalows built in the twenties and thirties, and even though they can’t really change the exterior of the house significantly (except to put up fake shutters, usually in totally inappropriate sizes), they immediately start knocking down interior walls to “open up the space,” covering all horizontal surfaces in kitchens and baths with granite or marble, and jamming in the largest stainless steel fridge and range that will fit. They also tear out perfectly good tile and cover the vertical surfaces with too-narrow “subway” tile or some other hot choice-of-the-moment. Then they paint the walls and woodwork white.  And although a few on-the-market houses have adopted the  “Fixer-Upper” nouveau-rustic aesthetic so popular on HGTV now have chucked the sheetrock and tile for ship-lap and bead boarding—they then paint that white.

Since I’ve gotten a bit cute with my bathroom (topping the four-inch yellow tile with a frieze of varied hand-painted Mexican tile framed with some of the ship-lap salvaged from a beyond-rescue ceiling), I can’t comfortably wear the mantle of true historicity. But at least what we’ve done is to jazz up the old, staid, American Standard bathroom without tearing the whole thing down or enlarging it to hold a Roman bath complex. I’d be practically ecstatic if that’s what more people decided to do around here: look to their southwestern neighbors for inspiration that doesn’t come from a single source, or, better yet, delve into their own families’ backgrounds for ideas that evoke history and memory.

But the demand for houses in this area is exploding, and the asking prices are rising astronomically, and people seem to be “investing” now in “updated” kitchens and baths so they can get top dollar when they sell out. Which is what they’re really doing—although one can hardly blame them, since already ridiculous property taxes will only rise in respond to the boom. 

Oddly enough, this new fever has dampened our own ardor a little, and we're feeling less inclined to move away. We had already begun to seriously consider sheltering in place, rather than selling out and running west to the high desert. And now, with houses like ours being marketed with asking prices nearly twice what they should be, our anti-exploitative convictions are taking over and we’re much more reluctant to go through the angst of sorting through books and the clearing out that it would take to be able to move. It’s probably more evidence of nostalgia on our part, but we’d feel as if we’d abandoned this well-loved house if we sold it just to make a buck. Or several hundred thousand bucks.

We came here because this is one of several towns in Texas that has maintained ties with its history. Many north Texas towns like McKinney and Waxahachie have taken steps to preserve older neighborhoods, and even Dallas has tried to stem the growth of McMansions and the destruction of its older bits by using historical designations as a means of turning back the tides of rampant “progress.” But if the nod to history is only superficial, we’re really not going to be much better than the old western facade movie sets. The small rooms that made bungalows cozy are giving way to “open plan” entertainment spaces that reflect lives at odds with what old-fashioned family values seem to require: intimate dining spaces, rooms for quiet reading, conversations around the hearth. Our house suits us much better than a much bigger one would—but then we’re empty-nesters on the verge of full retirement, without grandchildren or all that much family nearby.

I guess I just wish that before folks start telling their builders to tear down walls and put in the trendiest new accoutrements (and don't get me started on "distressed" furniture and phony "aged" paint jobs), perhaps they could spend a little time looking through an issue of American Bungalow or the British edition of Country Living for ideas about how to mesh the new with the old, in order not to remove the patina of history from houses that still have stories to tell.  Instead of watching "Fixer Upper," check out "Rehab Addict" for ideas about how to do less damage to a house’s original character. And if they want a new house, build a new house. Don’t try to turn an old, weathered, seasoned dowager into something that will never quite fit comfortably into heavy makeup and trendy fashions.