Sometimes we argue whether we bought the 1860s Victorian house for the bays or the balcony.
Our first house was a typical budget Vitorian, built by the dozens on the street.Across from us was the house James Agee lived in and described in his book, "Death in the Family." The neighborhood, by the time we moved there, was marginal, mostly devoted to rooming houses catering to Universtiy of Tennessee students.
We had lived on a neighboring street ourselves, when we were at the university. The house we bought had been a rooming house. Some vast number of Chinese students had roomed there and cooked exotic foods in strange corners of the house. I remember well the fat, but dead, rat that greeted us in the kitchen when we first looked at the house.
We bought the house from a friend who'd gone to school with us. His family paid his way to the university by buying the house, installing him as house manager, and renting rooms. We had been to many a wild party in the house, including the one to celebrate when one tenant painted his room alternately green and gold. I hadn't seen the Whistler Room at the Freer Gallery then, so it seemed rather shocking.
This was in 1952, in Knoxville, when all of our friends were buying (for $12,500) easy-to-heat, easy-to-keep tiny three-bedroom tract houses in the suburbs. We though we were clever to pay $7,500 and get 12 rooms and a 50-by-150-foot lot within walking distance of downtown. But that was a good 15 years before the back-to-the-city movement.
I was reminded of our house by "Gift to the Street: A Patternbook of Victorian Architecture," which has just opened at The Octagon, 1799 New York Ave. NW. The show continues through March 16. On exhibit are 95 photographs by Carol Olwell of San Francisco and wood and metal artifacts, mostly from the American Institute of Architects Foundation.
The antique Bliss doll houses, made by a Pawtucket, R.I., firm, and lent by architect Eleanor Lakin, are worth the effort to get to the show. Dover Publishers and The Margaret Woodbury Strongk Museum hve just published a book called "Bliss Toys and Dollhouses." Lakin also has lent a fine toy wrought-iron fence. Mr. and Mrs. Lucius Biddle lent a splendid Victorian house that was being used as a birdhouse when they found it out in the country. One drawing of a fine Victorian is complete with remarkable tower, not to mention three alcoves on the first floor alone. An oil painting of "Cliff House," lent by Willian and Jeanne Hodges, is especially charming.
The photographs celebrate San Francisco stained glass, towers, bays, columns, nymph faces, devil heads, newel posts, ironwork curlicues, and pediments, brackets, balustrades, and all the other marvels of Victorian architecture -- most of which came straight from patternbooks used all over the country. Most of us have forgotten that often the embellishments were stamped out by the thousands by hydraulic presses. So you'd find some of the same icing on Victorian cake houses in Georgia as well as California.
Our Knoxville house was ornamented on the porch and the upstairs balcony with the sort of work now called "carpenter gothic." It was far too cheap a house to have been embellished with the products of the Presses Wood Ornaments, advertised by one lumber company of the late 19th century as using 260 steel dies.
The bays in the living room and dining room were the chief charm of the house. The interior shutters in the living room bay were the final inducement to buy. They had never been painted, for which we were grateful.
The butler's pantry was only a vetisige -- a few shelves and a counter too narrow to hold a plate. But still it performed its function of separating the dining room from the kitchen, where presumably the cook and the scullery wench were at work (though not in may day).
The dining room also had a side door, a garden or garden entrance, left over from the days when the family would come into the house that way. It was rather anachronistic, because the next-door neighbor was only about 8 feet away. Perhaps there was room for a motorcycle path, but not a carriage. Still, the builder knew that houses had to have a side entrance.
The formal entrance was from the street, through a pleasant porch, which the fancier plans call a piazza. The porch had orginally turned the corner and gone half way down the house, so you could sit on the side porch, and chat with your neighbors. But in our day, the side porch had been enclosed -- but not very much. It was always cold and drafty in winter, and boiling in the summer. The neighbors, who were always very interested in what went on in our house (when we were on vacation they cut down the mimosa tree that shielded our big glass wall from them), they kept trying to get us to make it a porch again.
You came into the front hall from the entry porch. From there you could go into the living room through wonderful sliding pocket doors. I have never been satisified since then with doors that swing and bump you. The living room was the only one with pocket doors.
The living room had a fireplace, but like the doors, it was the only room so honored. The principal heat for the house was what was called a one-eyed (a gravity flow) furnace. It was a square grill in the middle of the front hall. All the rooms had transoms -- a louver over the door if you're too young to remember. The theroy was that hot air would rise and go into the other rooms through the transom. It didn't. We slept under many layers.
The furnace was very modern -- it had a stoker. The fuel was coal. I may have told you about the time we covered the walls with cream-colored burlap. When the furnace went on, it blew dark whiskers on all the burlap. My husband suggested shaving it.
Behind the living room was a good-sized room that was intended by the builder as the master bedroom. The bigh bath-- with a magnificent 6-foot-long tub -- had doors both to the bedroom and the kitchen on the other side. Since there were only two of us, we used the room for my husband's grand piano. We bought the piano before we bought a sofa or a car, or a house, so it seemed only right to have a whole room for it. But his pianos are another story.
Because the piano was ebonized, we painted the walls of the room white. The floor all over the house was very rough -- a soft pine that you didn't dare sand for fear of joining the furnace in the basement. Most rooms we covered with a jute matting, which soon roughened up the soft soles of our bedroom slippers. In the music room, as we so grandly titled it, we enameled the floor black.
The kitchen was a generous size, especially after we tore off the wall between it and the old kitchen porch, set on one side. Behind this room was what must have been a shed, a terrible old room, only fit for holding coal and cold. For a while, when we were buying seven acres on the lake to build our dream house, we rented out the top floor and finished (but not very far) this room as our bedroom. But I'm still cold with the memory of waking up in it.
Originally the back stairs had come down into the kitchen, but before our tenure, someone had added a needed bath on the second floor, right where the stair would have landed. The door still opened on the stairs in the kitchen, so we used it as a canned-goods pantry.
Upstairs were three good-sized bedrooms. The plaster was not reliable. I remember the time mother came to visit us and a fourth of the ceiling landed on her bed -- fortunately when she was not in it.
Behind the bath was a funny little attic room, which we made into a small kitchen, when we rented out the top floor. The girls who paid us $50 a month for this apartment, in the manner of university students, seemed enured to the problems of going through the bath to get to the kitchen.
Modern as it seems now, the first thing my husband did when we bought the house was to put 6 inches of insulation in the attic and buy a through-the-wall heat pump for the dining room. So you see these things did exist before the oil crisis.
Everybody thought we were quite crazy for wanting to live in such a place. And when we thought of the coal dust, the 90-year-old dirt, the broken plaster, and other such problems, we though we were crazy, too. to do anymore remoldeling, and we sold the house -- for $1,000 less than we had in it.
A few year ago, we went back to Knoxville, to find the street is now a historic district. Our old house is gussied up on the outside with two tones of blue paint and a greenhouse where the porch room was. But the new owners have made the downstairs into two apartments -- for university students, and a kitchen now clutters up our music room. I didn't think they'd improved matters.
But Victorian, one a swear word, is not chic again, as witness The Octagon show, and a great number of books recently published. One of the best is "American Victoriana," compiled by Eugene Mitchell (with an introduction by William J. Murtagh, edited by Judith Lynch Waldhorn, published by Chronicle Books). The book is made up of color plates with a descriptive text and black-and-white facismile pages from the Scientific American Architects and Builders Edtions, 1880 through 1905.
The book is fascinating because it takes up very specific houses and tells you in detail what they cost. A house that looked very much like the one we had, with one less room, sold for $1,800 in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1886. In the description of one of the other houses, there's a list of materials.Read them and weep: "4,541 feet spruce, worked, $127.32. Seven cellar windows, complete, $12.25. Cellar stairs, $4. wMason's work, $728.37.
For $10,000 in Springfield, Mass., you could have a parlor, dining room, library, office, pantry, kitchen, five bedrroms, a water closet on the first floor and an enormous bath on the second, not to mention a turret, an upstairs balcony, a vast front porch, exterior shutters and a stone tower.
"A Gift to the Street" is the book by Carol Olwell with a commentary by Judith Lynch Waldhorn (Antelope Island Press) from which part of the exhibit was drawn. In the book, the author explains that working people in the 19th century were able to afford the houses because of the invention of ballon framing. This method, still in use, makes it possible to use thin studding with less crossbracing. Studs or uprights go from sill to eave. The skin or horizontal members are nailed to the studs.
According to Waldhorn, "This framing method originated in the Mideast in 1839, when a builder realized that homes could be put up quickle if he took advantage of two new products, standardized lumber and machine-made nails. People scoffed at first; the name came from a critic who said the houses would blow away in a stiff breeze, like ballons.
"The Victorian Traveler's Companion," a guide to 700 Victorian buildings, including homes, gardens, inns and hotels, also has just been published by the Victorian Society. "Exterior Decoration, Victorian Colors for Victorian Houses," (published by Athenaeum of Phiuladelphia), an earlier book, is still available. Another splendid book, "The Tasteful Interlude," by Alexandria's Willian Seale (published by Praeger) shows pictures of the way those houses were actually furnished. Some books will be available for sale at The Octagon, but many booksellers will order them for you.
The Octagon show, orfanized jointly by the American Institute of Architects Foundation and the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service, will tour the United States after it closes here.
Everywhere people will find, as I did, houses like theirs in the exhibit.