I once had a professor of architecture who said “never be afraid to be boring.” From another source, the advice might have sounded like an excuse to be lazy, but from him, a well respected architect himself, these struck me as words to heed. This quarter’s “Best on the Market” is an exercise in not being afraid to be boring. That is not to say it’s a boring house — not even close. Instead, it’s a place where the less is more motto of a skilled architect has allowed the lives of its inhabitants to take the stage and unfold with relative ease.
As I mentioned in my first “Best on the Market,” there are two dominant types of colonial revival houses in Portland. There’s the earlier, non-academic version, that uses colonial elements to clad gigantic houses with free-flowing floor plans more in line with Queen Anne and Victorian homes. Then there’s the later, academic approach, where rooms are arranged as they would have been in the colonial period, windows have divided lights rather than plate glass, and chimneys are sparely detailed and integrated into the massing. The house in question today might qualify as an early example of a third type I’ve not yet identified, primarily because though this type is old now, it doesn’t really seem historic.
This third type is the sort where its creator has learned all the lessons careful study of colonial houses can offer; he or she has relied on the most important rules and broken some of the others to accommodate a new sort of informal domestic life. This type really came into its own in the late 1930’s and 40’s and is often identified as transitional. We can’t quite call this place transitional, because its details are overtly colonial, but its plan represents something new: a preference on the part of the urbanite for casual “country” life.
This house is reached by a long gravel drive jutting off a dead end street. It’s very near blocks and blocks of neatly arranged urban houses, but as soon as you hit the gravel, all that fades away. The two-car garage on the uphill side of the drive comes into sight first. Its pitched roof and sliding wooden doors make it feel more like the outbuilding of a small working farm than a place to park your car. The house is on the opposite side, sunken into a landscape of boxwoods, hydrangeas and gravel paths. A very low covered stoop with wooden Tuscan pilasters frames a gleaming black painted farmhouse door, with glass panes in the upper two-thirds and that classic x-bracing in the panel beneath. The door opens into a low ceilinged, nearly square entry hall with relatively narrow, off-centered passages leading to an office, living room/den and adjacent stairwell. While its spaces are more divided than the Victorian house we visited in our last publication, they are somehow more familiar.
You can see yourself as the star of a movie that plays out here. You come home from a long day at the office. The warm scent of cooking wafts down the hall as you kick off your shoes and hang your coat in the closet. Your kids are spilling out of the living room and into the hall as their Brio set chugs off toward the kitchen. You follow their tracks to a brightly lit workspace with windows all around. The kitchen is separated from the main living spaces, but it’s ample enough that homework, meal prep and final emails of the day can all be dealt with around the same island within earshot of the tv. The dining room and living room meld into one single informal space. What sets the house apart as one of an earlier era is a beautifully detailed fireplace surround flanked by bookcases built into the depth of very thick walls, dainty French doors, also set between bookcases and covered by wood framed screened doors leading to pergola-covered brick terraces. And several more perfectly detailed working fireplace with bookcases in several more charming rooms on all four levels. This is an old house, yes, but one that was built to support the same kind of living you do, rather than the sort filled with lots of servants and formalities and how-do-you-dos. Its details look like those of the others we’ve explored, but its heart lies somewhere else.
One more thing that immediately sets this house apart as more modern and more informal than the ones we’ve explored previously is that it’s what’s known as a garrison colonial. That is to say, its front facade is horizontally divided by the second level jutting visibly forward from the first; simple wood carved ornaments hang down from this protrusion at either end. This is a motif borrowed from fortified houses of the colonial era, and likely has its origin in the row house designs of Elizabethan England. To call the design modern is a laugh, but calling upon it as domestic life became more horizontal (aka as the ranch began to creep into favor) ensured that the colonial revival would carry strong to the end of the 20th century and beyond.
As an American, you will never go wrong with a colonial revival house. They are as entrenched in our psyche as the star spangled banner, which, by the way, they look great with. The benefit of this one, is it’s all set for you to go on living just as you would in house built brand new in 2018.