Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Big, Colonial-Revival Houses: I

Baton Rouge, Government Street, south side, just east of S. 22nd Street.  I suppose that this house dates from the 1920s, since the Drehr Place part of the Garden District lies right behind it.
Actually, the GDCA's list of houses in Drehr Place reports that this house was brought from downtown decades ago and can be dated c, 1910, and consents in calling the windows Palladian.  No wonder it is uncomfortable beside the anomalous building at 2202 Government: it would be more comfortable next to the Boehringer house at 614 Park, since each adheres purely to an early 20c revival style.

The Big, Colonial-Revival Houses in Roseland Terrace
I am learning how to make better use of the McAlesters' Field Guide.  I must give myself the same advice as I gave undergraduate students: just read every sentence, in context, too, carefully (the authors already have pared it to the bone in editing).  The date-spans that they give are important.  So, while I look in the Victorian chapter for "Queen Anne" (which they, too, p, 268, dub "rather inappropriate" as a label), I look in the chapter, Eclectic Houses, Colonial Revival, c. 1880–1955, (but mostly pre-WW II) for the houses we have here.  And there are good reasons for the difficulty of dating them, without going to the State Archives to check the contractors' records, which I shall not do.  I mean, in the first quarter of the 20c it is perfectly plain which elements are taken from "Queen Anne", in quotation marks, whatever the original appropriateness of the label may have been.
As I have said, this topic has been a new one for me, allowing me to work my way to what I had never realized before, since choosing labels for a data base is really NOT what study is all about, and I like to imagine students reading these posts not to classify the houses in a Linnaeus sort of way but to follow an old student in self-imposed exploration.  What I do know is that nothing can be assumed to be true simply because everyone knows it.  For example, every ancient Greek knew the Trojan War...
The underlying socio-economic and technical history of my entire subject is the same for the history of Sears Roebuck, et al., for factory manufacture of readymade clothing, for the rapid development of automobiles and highways, for machine printing of newspapers, including rotogravure, etc., for the integration of railway networks and postal networks, for the migration (as always) of farm workers and younger sons to the towns, making them cities where they weren't before: all these require all the others.  All was accelerated by the first world war, too, even if America was less affected by it.

Now, practically any house might be a "kit house".  Here is a 1916 page from the Sterling catalogue for a model they call the "Vernon".  It is a kit in the sense that all the materials, pre-cut and cut to exact measurement, including the hardware and most of the fixtures, as well as the plans and specifications, will be assembled and shipped to the lumberyard of your choice, in one or more box cars.  Sears, which we can thank for publishing the most and the most re-printed catalogues, baldly advertises that you don't need to hire an architect or hunt down all the fixtures needed, or get a lot of expensive (and perhaps misleading) estimates, or worry about things not fitting or not working, since Sears will do all that and more 'at no extra cost' for you.  Sears also, of course (but so have the larger mills locally and nationally), has the whole range of manufactured options, such as windows and doors and machine-carved swags and dentils and cornices and capitals, that you require to make your house your own.  The photos (in the 1926 catalogue) of their mills and warehouses and customer-service installations, with lots of phone operators, make us better understand Grand Rapids and even Dearborn.  They guarantee their shipment down to the last joint and hinge.  My own family's experience with Sears and Montgomery Ward in the 1930s, as I recall it, endorses that claim, if only in a small way.
You cannot tell a kit house, I am quite certain, from a non-kit house.  Even Sears is happy to sell you the specifications and plans and supply lists for the house of your choice for $10.  Options included.  Studying one of the simplest 'bungalows', I can see no reason why a family with several brothers and brothers in law and uncles, such as could raise a barn, could not build their own kit house, but equally I am sure that most hired local contractors.  I used to think that the Baton Rouge houses were built by local companies, but not necessarily, since Sears and several other companies supplied cypress window and door frames (for hardness and freedom from warping) and likewise all the other components in recommended woods.  In either case, windows could be bought at the mill, along with all the other sorts of millwork, and might or might not be of regional origin.
When you look through the architects' publications and through the re-prints of The Craftsman you see the minds of real architects, striving and competing to do something special, and their houses, as much as a dress by Worth or a car by Dusenberg or Bugatti, could not be machine-cut (like J. C. Penney or Marks & Spenser clothes or the body of a Ford Model A).  Now, I'm not sure, and short of proving that a house was unpublished—or, on the other hand, is in some catalogue that I haven't seen–I can only say that I have not yet found a pre-WW II house, no matter how large and expensive or small and cheap, that cannot have been built from commonly available published plans and specs.  Even as early as Wilson's 1910 catalogue, the option of pre-cut and kitted out, or in plans and specs only, was offered.
Just as the sub-Vogue gowns had to be simplified and otherwise economized to be sold by Sears and its competitors, so did the sub-McKim, sub-Craftsman, et al., to be profitable and practicable as kit houses.  And one of Chanel's little dresses and today one by Ralph Lauren are distinguishable from the fads that they inspired as surely as a real Queen Anne chair is distinguishable for a Grand Rapids knock-off made of ash, or worse.
The Baton Rougeans who owned our big houses in the Garden District may have driven Packards, of course, and the bungalow drivers (naturally) had Model A or even an inherited Model T.
It is one of the secrets of the Garden District's enduring success that they lived side by side in every block.  Post-war developers' tracts, as I think I said already, were doomed to be Watts (and in Oakland, CA, Brookfied Village, q.v).