America’s Worst Remodeling Disaster?

beforeafter

The September 1955 issue of Sunset Magazine documents what may be one of the most misguided remodeling projects since the Puritans took hammers to the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. The article reports on the transformation of an ornate Craftsman house in Pasadena, California designed by Greene and Greene into what looks like a sprawling mid-century Japanese restaurant.

Famed architects Charles and Henry Greene, along with a team of some of the finest carpenters in the U.S., designed and built houses for wealthy clients in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They’ve been called the “ultimate” practitioners of the Mission bungalow style and are probably best known for the Gamble House, a masterpiece of Asian-influenced Craftsman architecture. In 1903 they built a large, two story residence for James A. Culberton that overlooks an arroyo in Pasadena. The house was bought in the 1950s by the Dunn family. Sunset, breathlessly and uncritically describes what happened next,

Half a century later, the site in old Pasadena was still distinguished, the garden was fully grown, and the house had mellowed. But it was out-of-date. The owners asked themselves, “How can we remodel without losing any of the old charm. Here, in photographs, is the answer.

Indeed. Here is what the house looked like in 1903:

74865cb09b9a4dccba058ec21fbbcdb4 copy

And a post-remodeling shot:

IMG_2849

The Brady family is ready to move in!

Sunset Magazine continues,

The house, for all its seasoning, presented serious problems: too much space for present needs (and too much space to take care of), and a kitchen that was small and dark and out-of-date.

Architects Whitney Smith, Wayne Williams and William L. Rudolph recommended a bold step: Completely remove the top floor, which was no longer needed. Double the size of the kitchen, and modernize it. Rearrange the floor plan.

But, as the photographs show, the treatment was respectful, and the finished product is something the famous team of Greene and Greene themselves might have done if they had been designing for present-day living patterns.

Respectful? An article in the trade magazine House & Home also covered the project,

And the story shows something else, too: it shows the direction in which domestic architecture on the West Coast has been going since the Greenes, and one or two others gave it a big send-off. For the differences between the old house and the new revisions and additions are as interesting as the similarities: the change from a tall two-story structure of 1897 to a long, low-slung house today–a house designed to extend everywhere into its surrounding gardens; the change from leaded window panes to large, continuous walls of glass; and the change from elaborate, art nouveau decorations to plainer surfaces and simpler patterns.

Lest we forget that architects are only as good as their clients, we should not place too much of the blame on Smith and Williams. The Western Builder article notes that the architects convinced the clients not to completely tear down the house and they did manage to preserve a few details such as the front door and an arbor in the garden.

It was, of course, too little to save the essence of the original house. I think there are a number of lessons that can be learned from this appalling “remodeling.”

  • Architectural trends fall out of fashion quickly. The Mission style fell out of favor right after WWI. Right now mid-century modernism is hip again and 1980s/90s post-modernism is out. Architecture takes a long time to prove itself.
  • The craftsmanship of the trades fell precipitously in the mid-twentieth century. Even the wealthy were happy to trade hand carved woodwork for drywall.
  • Don’t trust magazines. They, uncritically, turn press releases into stories. I’m including myself in this warning as I’ve been guilty of falling prey to hype.

I have another reason to bring up this remodeling story as I’m, unfortunately, seeing a trend in our neighborhood of house flippers and  homeowners mangling bungalows yet again. There was a brief period of admiration for Craftsman and Colonial bungalow style in the late 1990s and early aughts. Now, I’m seeing built-in cabinets and molding ripped out and replaced with granite countertops and cheap Ikea crap in a misguided attempt to turn old bungalows into Dwell Magazine party pads. At the risk of old man crankiness, if you want to live like the Brady Bunch please buy something more modern.

Frankly, I’m not seeing a lot of stuff built post-WWII that’s standing the test of time. New buildings should have to prove their worth, and that’s a high bar. But, perhaps, I’m making the same mistake. Only time will tell.

Sources
Biography of Greene and Greene, An Enlightened Client.

Post-remodeling Dunn residence photos: https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/13030/kt538nd8wj/

Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and WilliamsEdited by Jocelyn Gibbs, Debi Howell-Ardila, Anthony Denzer, Lilian Pfaff, and Alan Hess.

“This Pasadena House . . .” Sunset 115:3 (September 1955) 52-53.

“A Fine Old House . . . Remodeled With Respect,” House & Home 9:3 (March 1956) 180-184.

“The Old Living Room . . . Now a Bedroom Suite,” Sunset 116:1 (January 1956); 40.

“Entry Way to Charm,” Western Building (May 1957); 14-15.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Natural Cooling: The Fresh Air Bed

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 8.04.38 AMTechnology, such as air conditioning, has a way of flattening the ups and downs of our life’s experiences. We trade seasonal heat and cold for a bland, indoor sameness. Prior to the late 1950s, when air conditioning appeared in homes and apartments, builders used to have to consider regional differences. After air conditioning you could build any house anywhere. You could replace walls with sheets of glass, overhanging roofs with modernist boxes.

Particularly in hot, humid climates houses often had a screened porch or balcony on which to sleep on a sweltering night. The early 20th century was probably the zenith of the screened sleeping porch.

Taft's sleeping porch. Photo: Library of Congress.

Taft’s sleeping porch. Photo: Library of Congress.

President Taft even installed one on the roof of the White House in 1910.

The early 20th century’s sleeping porch movement also had a bit an anti-modernity vibe. To mitigate the pollution and psychic toll caused by 19th century industrialization, sleeping porch evangelists recommended dozing outside in fresh air. Entrepreneurs marketed a number of solutions, in addition to sleeping porches, such as sheds, tents and the gadget I want to focus on in this post, the convertible indoor/outdoor bed.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 9.37.06 AMThe California Fresh Air Bed Company
A number of patents exist for space-saving built-in beds that can switch between indoors and outdoors (Charles Hailey, “From Sleeping Porch to Sleeping Machine: Inverting Traditions of Fresh Air in North America“). The California Fresh Air Bed Company of San Francisco marketed a bed that converted from an indoor sofa to an outdoor bed. A 1914 ad in the Pacific Medical Journal describes the device:

It is built half inside and half outside, forming a handsome davenport in the room, and an ornamental balcony outside. Can be used as a full size indoor bed or by a very simple operation converted into an outdoor bed. Can be aired all day and yet be concealed.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 9.37.17 AMIt’s a space saving mashup of the fold-up Murphy bed with the screened porch. It also reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s alcove bed and the built-in ironing board in our kitchen. There’s a lot to say in favor of reviving the California Fresh Air Bed Company. I can say from personal experience, living in a house built in 1920, that space is at a premium. And, particularly in the late summer and early fall here in Southern California, it would be nice to be able to get some cool, fresh air at night. The downside would be all the light pollution: the overabundance of street lights, billboards, porch lights etc.

The Baby Cage

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 9.30.13 AM

A related and, perhaps, more harebrained outdoor sleeping arrangement was the window cage for your baby.

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 9.34.10 AM

An article on Mental Floss goes into greater depth on the brief reign of the baby cage which seems to have been a thing in England. You’d think that baby would get a bit cold and wet in London, but the “experts” thought the fresh air outweighed the cold and falling risk. There’s even a newsreel on the baby cage:

These days child protective services would stop by if you stuck your kid in a cage out the window.

cathouse19

The idea lives on, but only for cats, in the form of the Cat Solarium and in many homebrew kitty window solutions.

But enough about cats, what we really need is to bring back the California Fresh Air Bed Company’s clever indoor/outdoor bed. As many consider downsizing to smaller houses, space and energy saving furniture such as this make more sense than the oversized sofa sectionals that plague our modern mega-houses.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

#StopFakeBrickRed

fakebrickred

How long, fake red brick color will you continue to abuse our patience?

Go ahead and call me a color snob, but we just have to retire this ugly red tinted concrete color from our landscapes. I don’t think this color has a name so let’s just roll with the hip kids and give it a hashtag: #FakeBrickRed. While we’re at it let’s go ahead and start the movement to #StopFakeBrickRed.

#FakeBrickRed has its ancestry in the unholy family of fake masonry products, chunks of concrete that try to masquerade as something they are not. Real bricks are made by firing a combination of sand, clay, lime, iron oxide and magnesia. The iron oxide and lime give bricks their distinctive red hues. Fake bricks are simply molded concrete with a bit of tint added in to hide the gray. Fake bricks are related to their ugly cousins, the cinder block or concrete masonry unit, ironically the construction material of choice for the big box stores that peddle #FakeBrickRed. #FakeBrickRed was probably arrived at by some unholy combination of market research and raw materials accounting back during the lowest point in architectural history, the 1950s and 60s.

IMG_2259Unfortunately for us all, #FakeBrickRed has metastasized from the masonry department and spread throughout the Big Box Store. Why were these wood products #FakeBrickRed?

Image source: Wikipedia.

Image source: Wikipedia.

And why, for the love of Zeus, does mulch end up this color?

Yes, there may be more urgent hashtags to agitate about such as #envelopegate and #FewerFeatures. But things that try to look like other things always end up looking like, well, things that try to look like other things. #StopFakeBrickRed!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Adventures in Extreme Making: The White Rose

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 8.12.16 AM

For reasons I can’t fully articulate, I often think about an obscure film by the artist Bruce Conner called “The White Rose.” Conner’s film documents the moving of a huge and mysterious painting by the artist Jay DeFeo. The painting is so large that the moving company had to cut a hole in the wall of DeFeo’s second second floor apartment to get it out.

Perhaps the appeal of this film is the problem solving or the obsessiveness of DeFeo. Or maybe it’s the shots of the much more gritty San Francisco streets I remember from childhood visits to see my grandfather.

The painting now lives at the Whitney in New York. Here’ how the Whitney tells the story of the painting:

Jay DeFeo began this monumental work simply as an “idea that had a center to it.” Initially, the painting measured approximately 9 x 7 feet and was called Deathrose, but in 1959, the artist transferred the work onto a larger canvas with the help of friends. She continued to work on The Rose for the next seven years, applying thick paint, then chiseling it away, inserting wooden dowels to help support the heavier areas of impasto. Now nearly eleven feet tall and weighing almost a ton, the work’s dense, multi-layered surface became, in DeFeo’s words, “a marriage between painting and sculpture.”

First exhibited in 1969, The Rose was taken to the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was covered with plaster for support and protection, and finally stored behind the wall of a conference room. Legend grew about the painting, but it remained sealed until 1995, when Whitney curator Lisa Phillips had it excavated and restored by a team of conservators, who created a backing strong enough to support the heavy paint. DeFeo resisted offering an explanation or interpretation of the work, although she did acknowledge that despite the work’s enormous size and rough surfaces, there was a connection to “the way actual rose petals are formed and how they relate to each other in the flower.”

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 8.34.39 AM

Conner’s film documents moments familiar to any “maker” such as the “how the hell do we do this moment?”

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 8.10.02 AM

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 8.10.21 AM

And the “I can’t believe we’re doing something this crazy moment.”

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 8.36.26 AM

Lastly, Conner shows the “I’m having a hard time calling this finished” conundrum via a shot of DeFeo dangling her feet off the fire escape. She began the panting in 1957 and the move took place in 1965 when she was evicted from her Bohemian hangout at 2322 Fillmore Street. As Conner put it, she needed an “uncontrolled event to make it stop.” I think anyone who does anything creative can relate to the problem of letting go and calling something done.

DeFeo-The-Rose
Thankfully, “The White Rose” has a place of honor in a darkened room at the Whitney. You can watch Conner’s film with its haunting Miles Davis soundtrack here.

Save

The #FewerFeatures Movement

silentpartnersmall2

When the control panel on our dishwasher failed last month I found myself asking why our appliances and gadgets have so many useless features. Those features bring with them a greater chance that the device will break down and make them harder and more expensive to repair.

Take a look at our dishwasher’s control panel above. Never, in the years we’ve had this beast, have we ever used any of the wash cycle options except for “Normal.” What the hell is “Glass Xpress” or “Adaptive Wash” anyways? Via the power of Adobe Photoshop (itself a mirrored funhouse of features), I’ve redesigned the Whirlpool Quiet Partner III. Et, voila, #FewerFeatures:

silentpartner#small

Here’s our complex and Eurotrashy, combo-washer/dryer:

washersmall

For the #FewerFeatures version, I’ve simplified the wash cycles to cold, warm and hot. I took out a few of the dryer’s options too (the dryer doesn’t work well anyways and we seldom use it). And I removed what I call the “feature signaling” verbiage stenciled on the lower left and right of the control panel that reads “TrueBalance Anti-Vibration System™” and “Smart Diagnosis™” (look closely and you’ll even see a drawing of a flip phone next to a plus sign!). Why?

washer#small

Speaking of flip phones, this isn’t entirely fair, but I couldn’t resist a #FewerFeatures version of the iPhone.

iphone

No, my still functional Western Electric 500 does not play movies, music, function as a timer or keep track of my steps, but it sure is a lot more handsome and less distracting:

phone

Incidentally, rumor has it that a lot of high-powered Silicon Valley execs use flip phones, a.k.a. “dumb phones” precisely because they have #FewerFeatures.

leica_m-d-550x180
Some companies have long been hip to #FewerFeatures and actually sell less features for a premium. Take a look at the beautiful Leica M10. Leica places an emphasis on high quality optics and ease of use. The M10 will set you back $6,500.

Update: In Twitter, Adrien Berridge @berridAC points out that the ultimate #FewerFeatures Leica is the M-D-a digital camera with no screen! I updated the photo so show this remarkable and pricey camera. Thank you Adrien!

I suspect that devices with too many features come from companies where the marketing department has too much say in the design. We’re going to change this! Tell us about your #FewerFeatures journey. Bust out the Photoshop, use the hashtag in social media and let’s simplify our tools!

Save

Save