I grew up in suburban houses of no particular pedigree—housing, really, not architecture, certainly not art. My parents were buying a roof and just enough room, “a decent yard.” Maybe they would spring for new carpeting, or wallpaper for the dining room. Then, we lived there, with no further thought to interior design or collections.
My first encounter with the old-house mystique was when, in first grade in New Jersey, I met Barbara and started going over to her house.
It was a colonial-era Dutch house; Barbara’s grandmother, the town librarian, proudly told me it dated to 1693. (The center room did, the one that was always cold. Most of the house was ca. 1710, the kitchen wing built perhaps a hundred years later.) For me, it was love at first sight. The staircase was dark and medieval, with troughs worn in its tread nosings; I was quite sure ghosts were watching. Barbara’s bed tucked into a steep eave under the roof. The yard was large by local standards, with hidden caves in vast rhododendrons.
That wonderful house was, nevertheless, a vernacular residence—different, interesting, old enough to be respected, but simple and pragmatic. I discovered home as an art form in my 20s, in a black-and-white monograph by Randell Makinson, then Director of the Gamble House. Imagine a time when very few people even had heard of Greene & Greene. My jaw dropped as I browsed the pages. I swear I felt pinprick tears come to my eyes. It was…so utterly fantastic. What was this?
At that moment, the country was in long-gas-lines, reduce-reuse-recycle mode. Preservationists were scrambling to explain the concept of embodied energy: all that old-growth wood and those bricks hold the energy consumed by all the processes—mining, felling, milling, transportation, and construction labor—used to build them.
Yes, old houses are embodied energy. But some houses are embodied soul.
10 Harbor Rd., Gloucester, MA 01930