[Note: I'm afraid this post is directed mainly at my fellow Americans. What can I say? It's where I live.... Ed.]
I have a great interest in houses. It's the kind of architecture I like and also a kind of sightseeing I like to do. (If you do too, I can recommend a very useful little book called A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America's Domestic Architecture by Virginia Savage McAlester). (And as a point of curiosity, here's her own home, if you're interested.) As with trees and birds and fonts, I have trouble identifying styles (/species) in the wild, but the ways people live in built spaces fascinate me. Another crucial, major book on that topic is the wonderful A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al., which is a book for a lifetime of study and revisiting. I notice on Amazon that a top review is from our friend Phil Greenspun, who founded Photo.net in 1993. He says of A Pattern Language, "Nominally about architecture and urban planning, this book has more wisdom about psychology, anthropology, and sociology than any other that I've read. Nearly every one of this volume's 1170 pages will make you question an assumption that you probably didn't realize you were making." Amen.
Anyway, I just wanted to ask: do you know when most of your state's houses were built? Zillow has published a crude but still fascinating map showing which decade is most represented in each state's housing stock. Both my recent states, Wisconsin and New York, have more 1950s houses than houses from any other decade. Interestingly, many states in the South and West have more houses built since 2000 than from any other era.
You might notice that the key to the map skips from the 1920s to the 1950s. Therein lies a tale. If you think about basic American (and world) history, you'll realize that "The Roaring '20s" were a boom time, a time of huge economic vitality and growth; the '30s were the years of the Great Depression; the '40s were preoccupied with WWII and the recovery from it; and the '50s (with its "Baby Boom" generation, now aging out) were again a time of growth and economic prosperity.
So lots of houses were built in the 1920s and 1950s, but relatively few were built in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, as Zillow's map shows, there isn't a single state that has more houses from either of those decades than from any other.
(I have a special affection for survivors from the mid-'40s. They're often interesting in one way or another.)
Many neighborhoods in the "1950s states" are in fact "'20s/'50s" neighborhoods. My old street in Wisconsin, Windsor Drive, was like that. Half the houses were built in the 1920s and very early '30s, and many others were "infill" from the 1950s and the years adjacent to them. There are a lot of neighborhoods that fit that description in the U.S. My 1957 house on Windsor Drive was built on a side lot of the 1932 house next door.
I don't take a lot of pictures of houses, but I'd love to. Interestingly, I have the same problem with photographing houses that I have with photographing strangers on the street...it seems intrusive to me, confrontational, and I don't really like to do it without permission. It makes me vaguely uncomfortable. This feeling is largely post-9/11, but still.
A small, blurry picture of my house prior to restoration, the only one I've so far been able to find. Style? Gothic revival, if you can believe that.
If I somehow had the resources or a reason to do so, I'd love to be a "house photographer," and create a documentary book of interesting houses. That ship has sailed for me—not my field—but I think it would be fascinating, and fun.
In photography, everybody needs a subject or two. And one's true subjects start from interests apart from photography.
There's certainly enough out there to look at in the way of house pictures, one way or another.
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Featured Comments from:
Adam Lanigan: "I've had an 'interesting house' project idea boiling in my brain for a while. My city (Halifax, NS) has a really wonderful and eclectic mix of architecture. As an old port city (old by North American standards at least—1749), there is a fascinating history to be told in the styles of the homes alone.
"And as with your note about construction in the '20s and '50s, there is also a very clear demarcation of new construction in Halifax, as half the city was leveled by the accidental explosion of two munitions ships in the harbour in 1917 (the largest manmade explosion prior to the atomic bomb). The history of development in the city (as likely with many cities) can also be traced by the areas leveled in the name of 'progress' and 'urban renewal' in the '60s and all of the politics of wealth and race that went along with that.
"And quite serendipitous to this conversation, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a wonderful blog run by Stephen Archibald titled 'Noticed in Nova Scotia.' He focuses on interesting architectural details and tidbits about homes, buildings, towns/cities, and various other things across Nova Scotia and elsewhere in his travels. His latest post (and here's the serendipitous part) was a visit to Corning, New York, to visit the Museum of Glass, as mentioned here just two days ago."
Dave Morris: "I am, at least in part, a house photographer. I came to photography from architecture after about 15 years of training and working in architecture, where photography had been my side-interest. The balance is almost even, now, and I couldn't be happier.
"Even when on holiday, my wife (an architectural historian) and I will basically be focused on the everyday built environment around us more than almost anything else! (Recently, for example.) And you're right: Sometimes, I really do have the best job in the world. There is barely an activity that I can think of more pleasing than spending a whole day in a new house, just exploring the place, waiting to see how it reacts as sun moves around through the day, finding the views which properly explain and evoke what the architect had in mind...really, it's heaven."
Richard Wasserman: "We are on our third house and they are getting newer with each iteration. Our first was built in 1875, the next in 1916, and our current one in 1970. They have all been charming money pits....
"I photograph a lot of houses. I recently completed a project examining the ramifications of eminent domain in the U.S. I was in 10 different locations around the country shooting currently occupied homes as well as areas that had been previously inhabited.The one time I asked permission the owner offered to shoot me instead. Everyone else was curious and supportive of what I was doing. It should be noted that I use 4x5 on a tripod and certainly don't try to be invisible, which I think makes a big difference in how people relate to me. I am happy to answer any questions and can easily talk about what I am up to and why their neighborhood is interesting and important."
Ann: "The '50s is when all of the WWII and Korea vets were using the GI Bill to buy houses, so it makes sense that a lot of houses were built during that period.
"My current house is a 1926 bungalow, in a '20s/'50s neighborhood. Our entire block was clearly built at the same time by a single builder. The houses across the street are newer. At the time our house was built, I'm sure it had a fabulous view of the valley, that was sadly destroyed by the 1950s building boom.
"Our California house is a beautiful 1929 Spanish Revival, in a neighborhood of '20s/'30s houses, that is pockmarked by a blight of 1980s 'Huffman six packs,' the local name for cheaply-built six unit apartment buildings that were built on lots originally occupied by single family homes. (Huffman was the developer of many.) We love that house and neighborhood, and were unable to bring ourselves to do the practical thing and sell it when my job moved me up the coast a couple of years ago. So it's leased out right now. We still plan to kick out the interlopers and move back there in a couple of years.
"I love older houses, and it would be hard for me to live in anything else. McAlester's Field Guide it's a very fun book to look at. Another interesting website is oldhousejournal.com. It's a labor of love by people who are true old house buffs. In years past, they published some very good books as well, that can occasionally be found in used bookstores and libraries. The Old House Journal Guide to Restoration was our bible when we were restoring our 1929 house, and I blame that book for both how nice that house came out, and for my love of old houses."