I work at a house museum. So, when work is slow, I have a little down time to play on my phone–I mean, tweak yet another job application and read intellectual stimulating books. Okay, when I need to take a break from that, I go on Pinterest. There, I can browse through hundreds of pictures of everything I’m interested in–home decor, places to travel, clothes I like, tips and tricks for living in the real world (I need extra help with that).
Recently, I’ve been on a kick where I am pinning pretty much all Italianate houses in any condition. Though the Queen Anne style has been my favorite for years, I’ve grown to appreciate the long, angular, and austere architecture style of the mid-19th century. You can get a huge range of design within the Italianate style. Some are embellished with brackets over every aperture. Some have impressive and imposing eaves that would make some of the Greek Revivals look like vernacular cottages. Others, though, are simpler–though not plainer. These are the ones that I believe best represent the architectural bones of the Italianate style across the country. The ones that are built with white-painted clapboards, the ones that possess tall windows with thin muntins that almost disappear into the glass, leaving facades with large expanses of windows to let in light (and for architectural voyeurs like myself to peek in).
In the last few days I noticed a trend on Pinterest that disturbed me for several reasons. Pinterest will bring up recommended pins on your homepage that they think you will like based on your other pins (that disturbs me, though that’s for a different day). So, since I’ve been pinning pictures of Italianate houses, my homepage is now filled with recommended pins of other houses with the style. And I noticed something. Nearly every board title on these recommended pins had the title “Abandoned,” or some variation.
This made me pause and narrow my eyes. Abandoned? How did they know? I typed into the searchbar, “Abandoned.” Board after board popped up under the architecture category. They were filled with “old houses” in the most basic sense. Numerous photographs depicting historic churches and houses filled my screen. I noticed the things they had in common–stripped paint, frame, all or nearly all windows intact, (the appearance of being) structurally sound, in a field. They’re all in a field. Guess you can’t have “abandoned” houses in cities? (Tell that to Detroit!) I clicked on a few of the links that took me to the source. Some were from Flickr, the photo sharing site. Others were from blogs. The overhwhelming majority, though, did not identify the structure, its history, its location, why it was photographed, and, most importantly, why it is labeled as “abandoned.”
Dictionary.com defines the word “abandoned” as forsaken or deserted. Now, this is the problem I have–so many of these houses would not be considered abandoned by historic preservationists today. In fact, that word really isn’t in our vocabulary. And I think that is a good thing. I like to think of houses as possessing anthropomorphic characteristics, such as pride, loyalty, and a soul. I try not to think ill of any structure. Even the Brutalist hospital building three blocks from my house–I don’t understand the style, I do not like it, but I can appreciate its role in American history and aesthetics and respect that. All structures demand as much respect as we’d give each other–houses especially so, because houses give shelter to people, families, roommates, pets, and everything else people give meaning to. That includes furnishings that have been passed down, portraits of loved ones, and the intangible parts of making a “house”–a structure meant to be lived in– into a “home”–a retreat, a palpable though not physical definition that ascribes being comfortable. I have arrived. My classmates and I were banned from using the word “home” when describing a structure. It is not a structure, it is an adjective given to a structure that is derived from personal attachment and meaning. I think people have a hard time accepting that, preservationists and laymen alike. It’s asking us to think critically and sometimes brutally but not emotionally, when at its heart, preservation of historic and culturally significant structures is one of the most emotionally-wrought jobs to embrace. I would not be a preservationist if I did not love buildings. If I didn’t want to see another 19th century farm knocked down for a high-density neighborhood in my once-rural hometown. If I didn’t want to cry anymore whenever I learned of a structure that had nobody to fight for it, so it lost its battle without even raising a sword. This brings me back to my problem with people labeling boards full of historic structures as “abandoned.” It implies a human factor, a complex emotional component no one can begin to understand without having experienced it themselves.
I would call a house with a sagging piazza and broken windows as forlorn, but not forsaken or deserted. Forsaken gives humans too much credit. Deserted implies guilt on behalf of humans.
Preservation is sort of a giant web. There are all of these outer influences and disciplines with their own rules and code, and we, as preservationists, have to sort it all out while maintaining a balance of practicality and humility. A lot of times you’re sticking your nose into somebody else’s private lives, while other times you’re working with a government agency for an entire city. Preservation is complicated. I have a Masters of Science in it and I am still trying to untangle that web into a comprehensible image. But I think it begs to be said that, given the beautiful complexity of preservation, we owe it to the buildings as well as to ourselves not to call every historic house that looks like it needs a paint job “abandoned.” Don’t ascribe one action-filled word to any structure you see that you could not imagine being inhabitable. Because guess what–some of those houses are the most loved. They are the ones that become homes.
I would not describe a building I knew was uninhabited as abandoned.
Houses with old paint jobs are still inhabitable. Paint is a finish. It is not structural. If the roof is all there, if it isn’t sagging, if there aren’t any holes or weeds growing out of it, it’s in good condition. Even broken windows won’t push a person out of their house. Yeah, it looks unseemly. Okay. But is the exterior envelope sound? I mean, are the bricks all there on that house? Yep? Okay. It’s inhabitable. Not forsaken or deserted. Not abandoned.
The house museum I work at employs a “preserve as found” approach, meaning we intervene as minimally as possible to the interior and exterior of the house. One family lived in it for about 140 years and that created an amazing living history. The structural changes to the house are visible, as are the changing evolution in soft furnishings from the entire 19th century. In one of the dressing rooms guests can see two separate wallpaper campaigns. They can see the changes in the wooden flooring where the central staircase was reconfigured. The bleached sections of flooring in the bedrooms and hallways shows guests the carpet arrangement in the house. The ghost mark in one of the bedrooms of the corona that hung over one of the inhabitant’s beds shows her unique presence, a century after she passed away. The house is so beautiful with its bones exposed. The visible lathing in the slave quarters and the many different plaster campaigns that can be seen throughout the structure offers guests an interpretation of a family and how they grew up.
My stomach coils whenever a visitor says to me at the end of their tour, “so why are you keeping the house looking so derelict?” One woman said to me “I have a lot of the same furnishings that this house has, but of course mine are taken care of and are in good condition.” Others ask if we just don’t have the funding and that’s why we’re letting our house rot. What other reason could there be?? And I think to myself, “if they just walked through the house and outbuildings for a full house and still don’t get it, they won’t get it ever.” It’s when the guests look down at me while speaking their opinion that upsets me. Would you say that about a house you were invited to by a friend? Of course not. I believe many think they are entitled to state so bluntly how “horrendous” the house looks because they won’t accept houses in less than stellar condition, and that they must be helping us by pointing it out.
And that is also why I think people use the word “Abandoned” on their old house boards. They don’t want to believe that houses do not look as beautiful and perfect as they did from day one. Chipped paint, alligatoring, exposed lath–these things seem to undoubtedly confirm people’s worst fears–that houses get old and decay as a natural process of life. Those “deformities” in the house museum say to me that the house has lived through some things. The house witnessed so much history. And it is proud enough to stand as structurally firm as day one and allow over 100 guests walk up and down its hallways every day. Its decorations–wallpaper, plaster, paint–they can fall, they can fade. We’ll do the best we can to prevent it, but if (and when) it happens, it’s okay. The house will still stand. The bones are still strong. It is not, and has not, been abandoned.
I guess in a way I am fearful too. I do not want people to start looking at buildings and think “abandoned.” Because if it was once forsaken or deserted, the logical cause or effect is that the importance of the house was devalued at some point by some force. Who will fight for it now if they think it’s a lost cause? If it was abandoned once, there was probably a good reason–bad land, contaminated water, mold, the town died out, the inhabitants died or grew too old to take care of it, it wasn’t close enough to the city. To me, the reason doesn’t matter. What matters is that all houses deserve a second chance. All. As with people, these houses are individual and have unique defining characteristics. Yes, all buildings can’t be saved. That’s a fantasy. And, I accept, some should not be saved. But calling a house “abandoned” when you base that simply because it’s not pristine is doing a disservice to the house, the people associated with it, and the preservation movement.
So, instead of using the term as an adjective, I’ll use it as a verb in my last though. Do not abandon these houses. Do not abandon their value, their importance, their architectural heritage, historical integrity, their craftsmanship, their distinctive characteristics and forces that gave the house its very existence. By abandoning them, you’re giving up. And these houses have souls. Don’t abandon these souls.
Real life example: This article from the Daily Mail describes the Astor family estate, Rokeby, built in 1815 in the Hudson Valley of New York. The house was described as “shabby,” “rundown,” its inhabitants living in “squalor.” And when you hear Alexandra Aldrich, author of The Astor Orphan, described how they had nearly no money and had to dismiss most of its staff and close up its doors, you can’t help but feel sympathy for someone having to experience that. The situation worsened when it was in the ownership of three descendants rather than one. The story has a somewhat happy ending though and hinted to tax credits and a restoration fund that would hopefully help restore the house. And, in this article by the Huffington Post, Aldrich sums it up well when asked if they would sell. “My family is not interested in money. All of my cousins have been convinced that they should never sell. It’s part of our identities, part of who we are.” It may have looked shabby, but don’t think it was abandoned.