Sunday, March 9, 2014

Century Bungalow Redux

I launched Century Bungalow in late 2012 as a way of celebrating a wooden house making it through its first century intact. I intended it as a record of the house and its designers, Hubert and Alys Savage, that would capture some of its original context that isn't obvious to the eye. The posts are rather speculative in nature, there being so little pictorial evidence of the Savages’ occupancy - the artifact is really all there is to work from, the house in its landscape setting. No photographs of home or owners that I'm aware of. No images indicating the social life of the house. 

No turned wood in view
Century Bungalow also looks at broader issues of stewardship that arise with custody of an older building whose character one wishes to respect and that has significance for the community. It considers the challenges and choices of restoration, and the difficulty and necessity of finding appropriate skills for the interventions needed to return the building to a state of sound repair. Heritage stewardship inevitably involves some enrichment of our understanding of the structure – what it is, inherently, and the tradition of which it is part.Without that understanding, it's hard to guide the hands doing the work towards the best choices.

Tall piers for a sense of entry
The Savage house is a bungalow, making it part of a larger phenomenon of its time – the first fully modern dwelling type to be supplied in market quantities, offered to city dwellers wanting to reside in attractive homes with all mod cons. A type that spread quickly in cities across North America, and far beyond. A home that was affordable to people who'd never owned one before, because the economics of land and materials made them fantastically cheap for a time. An amount of land that was lavish relative to current building lots, and that would have taken work to keep looking kempt. A quality of design that was often architectural, even when supplied in subdivision quantities. The Savage bungalow however is also one of a kind, an eclectic blend of British, North American and regional arts-and-crafts influences. And I believe we can even discern Gustav Stickley's influence in its layout and details.

British adapted the Bengali bungalow to colonial needs
The bungalow itself enjoys a rich history as a building form (a house on one floor, like a cottage, with all the principal rooms under a single roof form) travelling far from its origins in Bengal after many regional reworkings as housing stock for imperial administrators, then in turn romanticized, widely dispersed, and ultimately recast into the form we recognize today in the busy workshop called Los Angeles. LA is where it was minted as America’s first 'dream' home and supplied in subdivision quantities on spec to the masses - for the first time in history. The Savage bungalow has a lot of California in it, but its roots are more mixed than many. For example, the tapered rock pillars supporting the entry verandah are California-style, the enclosed soffits are regional arts-and-crafts, while the fusing of building with landscape reflects British arts-and-crafts thinking. It is a very eclectic house, even for a bungalow!

Bungalow with enclosed soffits: a regional feature
One thing I didn’t do is place this house conclusively in relation to the North American phenomenon of the bungalow, which went through early phases as camp, park and recreational housing before evolving into a subdivision type supplied in larger quantities in planned developments. That’s partly due to its complexity, which makes it part of the phenomenon, yet exotic. It may be correct to say that its type is actually transitional, and that it offers a glimpse of the bungalow form migrating from rural-recreational housing to something more suburban but retaining a rustic feeling. This house was built as an outlier with no other homes nearby. It draws on both rural and urban bungalow forms and incorporates regional design touches and local materials, yet the product did not exert an influence on the trends towards suburban housing on the LA model. As elsewhere, in Victoria the bungalow came to be supplied cheek by jowl, gable ends facing the road, on streets that were equipped with sidewalks. For a time the stone or brick piers and timbers holding up an emphatically presented verandah roof continued to define a look, lending variety to the closely packed structures. And then all that went the way of the dodo beginning in the great depression.

St. Francis Court, by Sylvanus Marston: note emblematic stone piers

The Savage bungalow would have made an unlikely prototype for subdivision housing on the new model: set cross-wise on its lot, built above a crawl space (thus lacking a basement), making extensive use of timbering, wood panelling, decorative built-ins, and many other artistic touches. Clearly it's part of the artistic small-house movement, a progressive-era direction favouring quality and detailing of space over volume and extent.  Ultimately it represents one couple’s vision of an arts-and-crafts dwelling, set apart by the fact that one of them actually trained to design such buildings. The outcome was sufficiently compelling that the couple occupied it happily for a lifetime.

What follows is commentary on the nine posts comprising Century Bungalow. It aims to convey some of the things learned via the researching and writing of the blog, and points to issues that have evolved or changed over the course of a year.

1. An arts-and-crafts bungalow at the century mark

Century Bungalow begins in late 2012 with a post commenting on the improbability of wooden houses making it intact through a hundred years today. Chief among the many threats to survival of smaller buildings especially is our own desire to replace the old with the new, to remove the hand of the past and the marks of time and start with a clean slate.
Excavator and dumpster = house be gone

Today the development potential – read as buildable square footage – of even a modest lot is so great that any older home, depreciated in monetary ‘value’, is a sitting duck for the wrecking ball. Or less hyperbolically, for the excavator, because that’s the machine being deployed to get the job done. A day and a half at most, several large waste bins hauled to the landfill, maybe $5,000 out of pocket – and presto, as heritage advocate Michael Kluckner says, the clock is reset to zero.
Heigh ho, to the landfill it's going to go

Evidently we like resetting the clock to zero. In the course of 2013 I joined a Facebook group called Vancouver Vanishes, which put me in touch with the excavators chewing relentlessly across Kitsilano and other historic city neighbourhoods. This site documents the steady disappearance of quality homes, and a quick tally showed at least 14 homes demolished in the first six weeks of 2014, none them dilapidated or even run down.  Vancouver is passively overseeing the liquidation of its domestic past on a truly vast scale.
Context smashed to bits
On average Vancouver sees 750 houses a year smashed up and dumped in the landfill, according to a 2011city report: “Considering the relative ease in obtaining a demolition permit and building new, it’s small wonder that so many Vancouver homeowners forgo the preservation of an existing house, even one that is in good shape.” By 2012, the number of annual demolitions had risen to 940! Vancouver is simply erasing its past willy nilly, and the same forces are beginning to chew away at Victoria.

Oddly, while my post canvassed the many factors that limit the lifespan of houses, I neglected to mention fire – a deadly enemy of wood frame buildings. This is a surprising oversight, given that I live in a wooden building on a treed site with heavy fuel loading. 
Fuel loading is a problem for arcadian living
It's doubly surprising inasmuch as I'm well aware of the history of places like San Francisco, hosting enclaves of bungalows in woody surroundings, where sudden fires have devastated swaths of historic buildings.

An early outcome of the Centennial Bungalow project was that the Saanich heritage committee took seriously my alert that a huge number of homes on the registry would turn one hundred in 2013. Ken Johnson and the committee followed up, drew up a list of centenarians, and made plans to commemorate the occasion with special cast heritage plaques for each of the century homes. Good job! Another outcome was that my restoration project received a Hallmark Society award of merit for the quality of work undertaken. The
Showing our place to the annual Saanich Heritage Tour
recognition is much appreciated, and in my fifth post, Sourcing Craft Skills, I try to share it with some of the skilled craftsmen who have worked on the building. We responded to our award by agreeing to open the house for the annual heritage tour on a Sunday in September, when nearly sixty people arrived by bus for a guided walk-through.


2. Town and Country

This post challenged me to figure out what Hubert and Alys Savage were doing locating five kilometers out of town on a lonely track at the edge of a cow pasture? The simple answer is that a new interurban railway opened the door to a novel way of occupying rural land. It enabled a picturesque way of life far beyond the pale with convenient access to services and work downtown. But that led me to further wonder what such an expensive infrastructure was doing way out there in the boonies, and from there, what forces brought about its sudden demise so soon after its construction?
Electric railways expanded suburbia into countryside

These questions reached back to the first appearance of the automobile and the particular way in which its distribution  began affecting the shape of North American cities, which was not initially as one might imagine: ie. mass individual ownership. When the car began to appear on city streets, the city of the day was extending itself through suburban enclaves clustered along streetcar lines. 

Saanich Interurban line, Prospect Station
Interurban railways vastly amplified the dispersal of these suburban pods regionally and had just come on stream when use of the automobile reached a critical juncture. It took the shape of the jitney bus, emerging as a business opportunity in transport that allowed enterprising individuals to compete directly with urban railways for passengers. Jitneys were the precursor to both the modern taxi and the bus. 

A jitney bus from the bungalow era

No one saw that particular development coming, least of all the backers of interurban passenger railways. Its impact was devastating given the scale of investment in bringing these advanced electric lines to life. To make economic sense, they needed rapidly expanding residential development based on their transit service, which would grow passenger demand. What they got was cut-throat competition for any new passengers, coupled with an unforeseen bust in economic growth. And without regulation to restrict their appeals, the jitneys could simply cruise station stops plucking passengers with cheap fares and the advantage of delivery right to the doorstep (a first appearance of  the 'convenience' attributable to the car).
City grown out of surrounding country using streetcars
Even in the small city of Victoria, the appearance of jitneys, followed closely by the rise of the private automobile on an expanding scale, completely destabilized the economics of rail-based transit. It also began modifying the urban form through the automobile’s potential to open up dispersed suburbs anywhere roads ran and unbuilt land was available for development. 

Ford motor plant, components ready for assembly

The loss of economic dynamism was especially acute in Victoria, coming with the advent of war in 1914. This receding economic tide left Hubert and Alys living way out in the sticks and, after 1924, without rail passenger service. The boom times didn’t return on anything approaching the pre-war scale until the post-WW2 housing boom again grew the suburban city-region. By then Hubert and Alys were reaching the end of their time, but they had managed to stay put on their remote hillside for a lifetime, despite the loss of much of his architectural practice in the post-war doldrums. In the end they must have adopted the car in order to access their paradisial enclave conveniently, one minor relic of which is a letter from Hubert Savage complaining to Saanich Council that Blackwood Road was becoming impassable due to potholes!

3. Romancing Nature

Sense of prospect from being removed, above the street
I still recall seeing the Savage bungalow for the first time and feeling struck by the novelty of a house in such a distinctive landscape setting. Its 'curb appeal' lay in the fact that enough of its original wooded lot remained intact that it continued to appear as a pictorial composition. At the time I didn’t know anything about picturesque landscape theory or the arts-and-crafts approach of placing and shaping a building to suit its setting – I only knew that this house seemed different from any place I’d seen in suburbia.

A sense of refuge as well

Romancing Nature is about the conscious connecting of building to surroundings, and how a particular architect, by design, sought to unify structure and landscape. And how, by skillfully exploiting both prospect and aspect on his sloping site, he managed to capture a sense of refuge that makes the building special to inhabit to this day. It feels both secure and removed here, yet at the same time intimately linked to its surroundings. House and setting feel as one, giving rise to a distinct sense of place.

Designed to admit light, frame views
Writing now in February 2014, with spring hinted-at by the flowering of aconites and snowdrops, I continue to marvel at the way the changing daylight reaches into the core of this bungalow. Living here comes with certain constraints, like the lack of adequate storage space, but one always finds it uplifting and cozy due to the light brought in from outside by design. The openness of this house to its immediate surroundings assumes a settled and peaceful society around it.

All mod cons in a romanticized setting
The threat of war may have been stalking the globe when this house was built, but it wasn’t coming directly to North America and certainly not to what was by then staid and genteel Victoria. Life in the mainstream was very peaceful and well on its way to becoming convenient. The entire kit of modern appliances, from toasters and telephones to stoves and hot water heaters had suddenly appeared and made for civilized living wherever a house might be placed, given the magic of electricity. I think the design and placing of this house on a rural hillside reflects the era’s romantic optimism about a life where connections to nature are sufficiently mediated that people can enjoy proximity while controlling for any discomfort. One exception may have been heating in the coldest parts of winter, as the house once depended upon inefficient fireplaces in the central rooms and a small oil heater for the bedrooms.

4. Lawson Wood

This post is about an unusual ‘art’ frieze by English graphic artist Lawson Wood that bands the living room of the house. It speculates about its meaning and placement. Since writing it, as intimated in the post, I've actually found a conservator to repair several damaged areas of the original work.

Simone Vogel-Horridge was recommended to me by heritage consultant Stuart Stark. She has now done close analysis of the condition of the art work, and drawn some conclusions about its genesis. Likely it's a chromolithograph or a 'chromo' as they were known in the day (therefore not a watercolour process as I wrongly surmised) a paint-on-stone print. It's unusual insofar as bungalow friezes are often repeating patterns rather than scenic depictions with people and animals. Lawson Wood’s signature block is also a printed device. Another blog reader with an art school background suggested that the frieze might have been made with a technique, known as 'pochoir', a printing process using stencils. Further research is needed to tie down the exact process used to make the art object.

Soon Simone will return to repair areas of the frieze that are damaged or have discoloured in reaction to daylight or because of acids leeching from the wallpaper under the frieze.This intervention is intended to stabilize the artifact, not to attempt restoration (which would involve wet-cleaning to remove a layer of wood smoke and tobacco residues).  Interestingly, Simone called a few weeks ago to relay that she’d come across a couple of similarly signed Lawson Wood prints at a local auction house – and that they were versions of the same details on the frieze in my living room, but coloured somewhat less vividly.

While I had no idea what I’d do with these quite bulky prints in a house with little wallspace for display, I allowed myself to put in a reserve bid at the last moment and then was surprised to learn I’d acquired them for next to nothing. Not much traction for Lawson Wood in 2014 Victoria. But, it seems I do have a knack for complicating things, and that I am a bit of a collector too. But perhaps these prints are better off with someone who appreciates them and has an understanding of how they came about.

5. Sourcing Craft Skills for Heritage Restoration

Oldest wooden building in North America: 1642
In June I wrote about the craft skills needed to undertake restoration of buildings like mine. Reading Steven Semes’ The Future of the Past as part of my centennial project only reinforced the value of keeping historic buildings in good nick, rather than having to intervene radically in order to rescue them from neglect. Morris, following Ruskin, counseled that we should carefully tend our monuments, watching for signs of deterioration and moving promptly to fix them as they appear. If repair is executed with the skill and caring of traditional craft knowledge, even wooden buildings can live for a very long time. The Fairbanks house (beside) built in 1642 and thought to be the oldest North America, is just 28 years shy of four hundred years and still going strong. The deGannes house in Nova Scotia (below) has been continuously inhabited and maintained since 1708.

One of the oldest wooden houses in Canada: 1708

But actually finding the person with the skills to do the work remains the challenge. My friend and ally Vern Krahn is now semi-retired from carpentry, and there really isn’t a viable replacement in sight. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to talk Vern into a few more projects here – recently he put a couple of hours into restringing the weights in one of my double-hung sash windows. Typically, he minimized the difficulty of the job, but in fact it’s incredibly finicky and if you don’t know the tricks, your chances of getting it done right are between slim and none. I’m left feeling that those of us who care about heritage need to do more to cultivate and assure the passing on of these old woodworking skills, or we risk enduring a time of unacceptable options. The picture below shows Vern and I with a gate he's copied exactly from a deteriorated original.

Vern Krahn and a reproduction gate he's installed

6.  A Shed of My Own

A friend who read this essay about the unusual genesis of my eye-catching shed wondered, over beer, if I may not have an obsessive-compulsive disorder or some other form of mental illness. No one, he allowed, goes that far just to create a small amount of storage capacity. Clearly he found my interest in the details if not outright obsessive, then at least excessive and absolutely beside the point (ie. spatial gain).

I accept that the exercise I involved myself in isn't a template for
Seen in between winter and spring
building an everyday garden shed, but I will insist that such an investment of time, money and engagement in design made for a fascinating learning opportunity, and that aesthetically, to my eye, the juice was well worth the squeeze. I lamely offered to lend him my copy of Michael Pollan’s autobiographical A Place Of My Own, to inspire his own thinking about such small buildings. But he just muttered darkly about renovations being the bane of the middle class and how he’d had enough of home improvement projects, and if it absolutely had to be done, it would now be the line of least resistance. After that the conversation reverted to sports: how about those Canucks anyway?

A cottage designed for the Halls by Hubert Savage
Hubert Savage held a lifelong interest in smaller houses, creating a number of them in the vicinity of his own home, both for the  market and for friends. Several remain intact in Strawberry Vale today. The one pictured at left, Stranton Lodge, is now a protected heritage structure within Knockkan Hill park - it was saved by citizen initiative from demolition to make way for a parking lot. I was fortunate to play a small role as a Saanich Councillor in helping to get it protected. It's a little gem of an English arts-and-crafts cottage, with a trademark 'S' for Savage visible on its chimney. We were told, by the way, by parks staff that there was simply no precedent for maintaining a house within a park. But a few minutes search of generic sources found us examples in North Vancouver of houses maintained in parks that served as park-keepers housing. Oops! 




7. Finishing Touches

Sanding a south wall before painting
Ambrose Bierce famously characterized house painting as the art of protecting flat surfaces while exposing them to insults of the critic. Paint choices often do elicit criticism beyond any statement we were consciously trying to make, perhaps never more so than when, as I did, you suggest there are better ways to make those choices when dealing with a heritage building. Some thought it more virtuous to repaint a house oneself as needed, rather than working through other, more expensive, hands. I respect DIY, am involved in loads of it, but it doesn't extend to exterior paint jobs. I no longer have the time, agility or inclination to tackle prep work perched on a ladder. It's a massive undertaking in sometimes precarious positions and it has to be done in dry times (here, during summer heat). Also, considerable skill goes into a job that's to last and look good for a more than a year. Skip or cheap out on the prep and your coat of paint will be splitting and blistering immediately. Most saving on the costs of building and maintaining today (including painting) comes at the expense of quality and longevity, and with a heritage building I feel that's definitely the wrong path. The fact that people now move as frequently as they do perhaps means that cheap and nasty has fewer implications for the owner than is desirable.
Caulking and undercoating with primer
I am satisfied with having adopted a colour scheme that I think works for the design details of the house, subtly differentiating the main elements of exterior woodwork. To my eye at least the results are tasteful. I’m grateful for the advice that got me to this outcome, and for the skilled hands that turned it so deftly from concept to reality. The modern tendency is often to wind up painting an older house white, almost by default, perhaps thinking that white-painting is innocuous enough to sidestep Bierce's critics. But it looks to me as though the building has been undercoated and is perpetually awaiting delivery of its colour scheme. The details of a wooden house simply disappear when the building is neutral white, although paradoxically a white object competes aggressively for attention in a scene. The yellow-and-black colour scheme we opted for echoes a regional variant of Tudor colorations from the English past – thus is to some extent consistent with the Tudor design elements that I referenced in my next post. 

8. Allusive Architecture

Proportioning and presentation of materials that are allowed to speak for themselves

In October I speculated about a turn-of-the-century direction in house design, involving the expressive use of natural materials coupled with detailing drawn from styles of other eras and places. Writing this piece led me to feel there’s more to be said about what could be termed ‘progressive’ design, as contrasted with Victorian design (busily eclectic) and modern design (where any ornament is considered a crime).

In broad terms, progressive design involved a rejection of Victorian excess in favour of more elegant proportioning and greater emphasis on the inherent qualities of natural materials. It was also
Extending the building harmoniously
Gustav Stickley’s approach to design - removing everything that wasn't essential, exploring the inherent qualities of the building materials themselves. Stickley distributed home plans in his Craftsman magazine that relied on expressed structure, refined proportions, and the texturing of space with natural materials. He was mindful of the Ruskinian precept that one should only ever ornament construction, never construct ornament. So he made any constructed ornament look structural, which gave it veracity.

I’ve come to see the bungalow during the arts-and-crafts period as the highpoint of this progressive design, a halcyon era that could profitably be studied for insight as to how we might rescue house design from the barrenness of modernism, the caricatures of post-modernism, or the doodads of Victorian times. Expressive use of the materials of construction and fine proportioning of components is an endlessly fruitful direction that sadly is not being explored today.

9. Shelter and Comfort

My last piece of 2014 ramped it up on the topic of water management and comfort, serving as a pretext to skewer starchitects Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier for their modernist excesses and egomaniacal lapses. Researching it enriched my understanding of how modernist thinking altered the way the basic units of suburbia have evolved, both good and bad.
Epic fail: a carton on end
It also sharpened a sense of grievance over modernism’s arrogant refusal to insist on both function and beauty in its creations.Wright, it must be said, accepted both beauty and function as goals, even though he could miss the mark in both realms at times. But to ideologically reject beauty and then show complete indifference to functionality as Le Corbusier did, and to refuse to acknowledge the failure but instead just blow it off as creativity – that is monstrous and unforgiveable ego-mania. Especially if you reject the idea that buildings should delight our sense of sight, functional worthiness is all that remains. Reject that and what remains is absolutely nothing at all. As pictured above, modernism is doing okay with function but still a dead-end when it comes to form.

Keeping moisture out – of rooms, of walls – has been a primary functional objective since Adam’s first house roofed out the sky. Leaking roofs, damp walls, uncomfortable and unhealthy living environments are unacceptable and unnecessary byproducts of a superficial design-arrogance.
Lo-maintenance plastic hedge adds a classy touch
Perhaps certain egos are simply 

thumbing their noses at the common run – Le Corbusier certainly was. Today the problems we face derive from modern materials used in such a way as to minimize costs to the builder – so long as that drives  development economics, we’ll continue to see damp walls that spore moulds that damage our health. On the other hand, buildings like the one above (complete with a no-maintenance plastic hedge) continue to be chosen by a portion of the well-heeled middle class, indicating that the modernist preference for structures that look like cartons still has cachet. Perhaps you feel very 'now' if you have one?

10. What’s  Next?

Apart from this post, I’m not currently planning more articles for Century Bungalow, which already focuses an awful lot of attention on a small and ultimately obscure house. Certainly there are other topics – like House and Garden – that interest me and may yet provoke a post. But the centennial year ran its course and the rationale for celebrating it with a blog has too. It's been a full and rich year in the life of the house, and the blog certainly contributed to that. Bottom line, I found it personally rewarding as a project and satisfying as the building's steward to create a bit of a record. It certainly refined my own thinking about heritage, and was a creative process in its own right. Maybe, in the end, that’s all that needs to be said.

Note: this blog was edited and updated in February 2016. And, a further post was added to celebrate the life of my departed friend and master carpenter, Vern Krahn.

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