It’s safe to say that I could live in any house I’ve ever designed. But then I constitute fifty percent of the total number of people who ever asked me to design one. Sounds like a topic for discussion with Dr Bob.
Several years ago I wrote a brief assessment of an old house in Grand Forks, one of those good addresses that had fallen on hard times. One can be hard of hearing but in this case most of its recent owners and occupants had been hard of seeing: many of its finer qualities had been overlooked or ignored and whatever had happened to it–or didn’t–had been driven by return on investment, one of the ugliest phrases in our language. Some folks see their kids the same way.
Binary thinkers among us might be tempted to say that a community’s housing stock was either architect-designed or not. But while writing the above-mentioned report, such scales were lifted from my eyes as I learned that there is, indeed, a broad range of sources for the variety of single-family housing in typical Midwestern communities like Agincourt. More than a handful of houses are designed by an architect–more than you’d think–because an architect one hundred years ago would have been far more inclined to accept modest commissions for middle- and working-class homes, as well as the eccentric conspicuous-consumptive cliff-hangers of our own day, each shouting “Look at me, Peasant! I’ve got taste or the ability to buy it.” The array of design circumstance is actually quite reassuring.
There has always been the custom-designed home, tailored to a particular client’s needs (four bedrooms), tastes (a Great Room, thank you very much) and requirements (I’m 68 years old and don’t like stairs). But the vast majority of these McMansions today are the creative product of builders and are quite often formulaic, despite their pretension. Genuine architectural individuality is harder to find, much of it coming from the four decades stradling 1900 when Robber Barons set the bar and income tax was only whispered. At the other end of the housing spectrum are humble working-class homes huddled on land that stinks or floods or worse. But between these extremes, the vast majority of our housing stock comes from diverse origins.
Prefabricated, pre-cut or “kit” homes were marketed regionally by several companies. Sears, Roebuck & Co. is the best known among them. Your home arrived on a flatbed rail car and included studs, joists, rafters, windows and doors, lath and plaster, everything but brick and cement, which could be got locally. Sears homes were available in a dizzying array of size, style and cost.
Pattern books have also been a design source since the 16th century for houses of all sizes. During the 19th century here in the U.S. they were published by both architects and builders and account for some of the deja vu we feel driving into a new town: “Didn’t we just see that one in Keokuk?” Those pattern books found their way into lumber yards and the back pockets of local builders, accounting for a substantial amount of pre-1900 homes. After 1900 it was the mass-market magazine that offered inspiration, so-called women’s journals like House Beautiful, Ladies’ Home Journal and House & Garden. Even Frank Lloyd Wright used the LHJ as a mechanism for developing a new clientele. Which brings me to the case in point: the 1908 Aidan and Cordelia Archer house on The Avenue in Agincourt.
312 East Agincourt Avenue
As a citizen of America’s “Second City,” my sympathies have always lain with the also-rans of life. History takes very good care of its winners–those who win, place and show at the finish line of life. I, on the other hand, have always had a special place in my heart for those who ran the race but crossed the finish line too late for recognition or a cash reward. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright, McKim, Mead & White and their ilk, for example, have filled libraries; one wonders what more could be said of them (quite a bit, it turns out). But the blips on my radar screen are more likely to be William Halsey Wood, M.E. Beebe, Burnham Hoyt or Josef Plecnik. So, because his work was widely treated in House Beautiful and LHJ–coverage that attracted clients from New York to South Dakota and California–it’s reasonable to imagine that Chicago architect Lawrence Buck had done a house in Agincourt. Actually, it’s more than reasonable, because he designed at least six Iowa houses, three each at Dubuque and Cedar Rapids.
Buck’s residential work is so distinctive that you can spot it at a hundred yards; I could write a book. So inventing a client for the house below–my homage to Lawrence Buck and the American Arts & Crafts–is the task at hand.
The recent hard-line plan at one-eighth scale has to be redrawn (my lettering is shitty) and the third floor is still aborning. But in the meantime, comment and criticism are always welcome.