On my way to a photo-shoot in New Jersey, I found myself on Route 17, the spine that led to my childhood hometown, where I grew up in a 1951 “colonial ranch.” I took the exit down memory lane. Standing in front of where the house should be, I was momentarily confused, because a two-storey neo-Victorian had swallowed it. Overall, it wasn’t terrible; still, the horizontal ranch was ghosted beneath the new facade. “Well, that’s poetic justice,” I thought, as I had sung the praises of Victorian houses during my tenure at Old-House Journal during the 1980s and ’90s.
My neighborhood in Gloucester has several neo-Victorians, ranging from a mirror-image duplex that literally came off a truck to a multi-million-dollar neo-Queen Anne tower house on prime Atlantic Ocean real estate. Porches wear spindly “millwork”; a faux roof truss is glued directly to vinyl shingles in a gable. Even the high-end version features oversize, single-light windows with insufficient trim, giving the house a blank stare.
For a decade or more, Arts & Crafts style has crept into whole-house remodelings, additions, and new construction. Design/build firms give models names like Suburban Prairie, Country Craftsman, Eclectic Arts & Crafts, Lake Bungalow, and English Cottage. Georgia Pacific (vinyl siding!) lists the most popular styles for residential construction.: #1 is Craftsman, #2 Prairie.
Not all of it is good, but not much of it is offensive, either. Architecture buffs might wonder why a late 19th-century farmhouse now has battered columns on stone piers; but the piers and the stone are friendly. A house along bungalow lines, newly built, can offer 7,000 square feet yet avoid the McMansion label. In general, Arts & Crafts imitation has not produced the freak show symbolism of, say, narrow vinyl shutters and broken-pediment hoods pasted atop front doors.
I suggest there are three reasons Arts & Crafts is harder to botch: (1) The forms are inherently simple and pleasing. (2) Part of the “style” is a reliance on natural, neutral materials. (3) Ornament is scarce and the idea does not lend itself to ostentation. A lifetime of shuddering at the sight of phony-Coloneys and Victorian pastiche left me thinking I abhor revivals, which always seem to play into lowest common taste. But there will always be a darling of the moment, and I’m glad today’s favorite is Arts & Crafts.
10 Harbor Rd., Gloucester, MA 01930