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. Read the rest of this entry »