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Friday, 28 August 2015


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An abundance of homes from the fifties makes sense; this was the post war boom when houses became affordable for more families. One famous example is Levittown, New York.

My late wife's (Trish) former Grade 11* listed house in Devizes partly dated from the 13/14th C and is known to have had a third floor added in 1740. General Wolfe moved there in 1756 to further recruit his army in the West Country, prior to storming the Abraham Heights and claiming what is now Canada for the Brits. Mind you that's not so ancient... in the French town where I now live the local church was built in 1002, more than a millenium ago!

My house was built in 1920. The neighborhood is peppered with houses from about 1900-1920, and the rest of the area is filled in with houses built later - probably the 50's and after.

We bought the house because we wanted something with "character". It was also a house that needed "TLC". Turns out both of these things are buzz words for money. Oy.

We bought our first old house here in Duluth, MN last summer, built in 1914, which I know is not old for East coast houses and probably near new for some European houses. I had qualms since it is not only old, but too large and hard to work on, and needs regular work despite looking pretty good... so I get some heartburn from it discovering all the problems I didn't see at first, but I'm learning to relax. My wife loves it.

I collect house and building shots that interest me and let them pile up. Need to organize them better I notice... missing some recent ones.

Here's Duluth...


And Juneau...


Mike, you need the box set of Julius Schulman books, and a good tilt-shift lens. No wait, did you ever sell your view camera? If not, then all you need is some film for it.

After rehabbing two houses in Omaha Mrs Plews and I decided to build a place on a corner of her families farm. That was twenty years ago and in the midst of some kind of mid life crisis I decided to act as general contractor while still holding down a full time job.
The house got built and we are very happy with it but I am never going to try anything like that again.
It is however nice to know what is inside of the walls.

In the south of Europe, a more proper question would be: In which century was your house built? And if you happen to live in Rome, even more appropriately: In which millenium? ;-)

If you are shy about photographing people's houses, one solution you might try is to do so at night. It probably won't make the experience feel any less intrusive to you, but there are a lot fewer people around to challenge you about doing so! It's also a great excuse to walk around and explore your surroundings in a way that just can't be duplicated in a car or on a bicycle. It's also useful practice for your photography, even if you don't create any great art in the process, and dogs love it, too, so you can multitask.

As a bonus, you might be surprised by how different even familiar scenes look when seen under streetlights and/or moonlight. I have lived in my neighborhood for 28 years and for roughly the past five years, I've been photographing it at night. My only rule is that every outing starts and ends at my house and is done on foot. Assuming a comfortable radius of two miles or so, I bet I haven't walked even half of it yet and regularly revisiting areas has reminded me that neighborhoods are ever-changing and far from static, in ways both large and small, when one looks at them closely enough from the street level.

I found this detailed survey of housing stock from England.

House ages are presented in a different form there, but it says that 26% are semi detached houses. A semi is a fairly efficient way to use land in a country where there's not too much room. It allows access to the back garden without going through the house and usually, off road parking at the side of the house. On the other side of the house, land isn't needed for external maintenance access because it's a shared wall with the other half of the pair.

It is possible here to look at a road of Victorian or early 20th century terrace houses and easily see where different developers bought building lots for various amounts of houses, by looking at the detail design; terrace house layouts don't vary very much. You can also track the progress of development by looking at the year of building that some houses display.

My house here in a Sacramento neighborhood known as 'Land Park', named after William Land, was built in 1938 as were many/most of the houses in the area. There must have been a veritable building frenzy at the time. It seems to have stretched from the late 30's into the early 40's, not a time you'd associate with a lot of building. There are impressions in the sidewalks all around here that specify the exact date when the particular sidewalk was poured so it's not too hard to figure out when other parts of this neighborhood were built. The houses are a variety of archictrual types, mine is a lowly stucco covered 'ranch' - nothing of special interest, but styles don't repeat a lot, which suggests the builder or, more likely, builders, had a lot of leeway in the designs.

I read through a number of new urbanism leaning books about 20 years ago. I recall the first of them, "Home From Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler, that expressed the notion that houses built after WWII became a lot more cookie-cutter. I grew up in a home in Daly City that the 60's song 'Little Boxes' by Malvinas Reynolds skewered. It was a very boring homogenous place to grow up in compared to where I live now - which is itself no match for places I've lived in San Francisco years past. But this, at least, is a house I can afford.

Interesting point about few houses built in the 30's and 40's, never really thought about it that way. My wife and I were lucky enough to acquire and restore her grandparents 1947 farmhouse here in the foothills of North Carolina. Rock foundation, dirt floor cellar, hooks mounted from the ceiling of the back porch to hang meat for curing, a couple of tobacco sticks left over from storing cured tobacco in a spare room before delivering to market, (must have been a good year and the barns were overflowing).

I live in the distant suburbs of San Francisco. Our house was built in the late 1960s. It's small, 1400 square feet, with no basement or attic. Our neighborhood was built on a former Orchard and the developer didn't show much imagination. There are only three different home designs in our several hundred acre development. Thankfully over the years, individual owners have made changes to their homes so the redundancy isn't as obvious as it must have been several decades ago. Even though the homes are constructed poorly and the architecture uninspiring, this neighborhood has been a great long term investment. My next door neighbor has been here since the early 70s. She bought her small house for $70,000. Today her house would sell for $600,000.

Love the house and the place

I mentioned this before, but if you get a chance (Now that you are a lot closer!) visit the "Strawberry Banke" park in NH.

It was a neighborhood from the late 1600's to the 1950's and has houses from many of the different eras.

(All three of my houses were built in the 50's - two in California during the post-war boom)

This map is very interesting...

I think all the neighborhoods I ever lived in, in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Washington DC, had mostly houses and apartments built between about 1921 and 1932. There was certainly an ending to the post WWI housing boom by the early 30's because of the depression, but it just didn't cut out the day after the market dive, it took a while to stop. I used to live in the Bay View area of Milwaukee, and most of the houses on my block were built in the mid to late 1920's, and about half had no garages or parking place, because the mass trans street cars ran so often that the people didn't feel a need to buy a car.

Now, I live in Indianapolis, a city and state whose culture I do NOT like at all (and I'll be leaving as soon as I possibly can); it's interesting to see how the state shows one of the latest average housing construction dates in the U.S. And you know what? That's why I'm extremely uncomfortable here! Everything looks like a bad suburban construction from the 1980's. There are relatively few city neighborhoods, with the type of urban, walkable goods and services I'm used to (or even curbing!). And believe me, because of the lackadasical code enforcement in this "pro-business-conservative" environment, a lot of it is built like crap too. My apartment complex, built in the late 1980's, has no insulation!

This is a most informative map...

You note 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." Another way to understand the depth of Great Depression is to consider that it took 22 years for the US economy to recover. More specifically, the US GDP did not return to pre-1929 levels of production, as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, until 1951 -- and amazingly, that included all the production for WWII.

Thank you for that post Mike. Makes me look at my house in a new light. I used to think its history was ho-hum; it was built in 1946 in a neighborhood where many houses are from the late 19th century. I hadn't thought about the context. Now I can wonder about the state of mind of the person who had it built. Also who were the first inhabitants, and what was their relationship to the war? I have been fortunate enough to encounter some of the previous occupants who lived here in the 60s and 70s, so this adds to the history of the house.

Barrington, RI

[Hi Michel, I know your neighborhood--my brother lives there. Some interesting houses there for sure. --Mike]

I love old houses! The one I live in now was built in 1792, added onto in 1839, and probably has gone through several remodels both inside and out since then. The oldest photo I have of my house dates to 1857. It's an ambrotype made by the wet collodion process. Here's a link to that image and to a more recent shot of the home as it stands now.


The widow's walk and the front porch are long gone as are the shutters that modernized it in the 19th century, so today the home looks architecturally much closer to the Georgian style Federal Colonial period of American architecture popular when it was first built.

By European standards, it's probably a young house! By American standards and considering that it is built of wood and not huge field stone or brick, the fact that it still stands and has not already been blown down by the big bad wolf, never ceases to amaze me!

Mike, I do hope you will enjoy every little charming quirk of your new old home. You are not that far from me now that you have relocated to the finger lakes region in NY. Perhaps one of these days we might get the chance to meet.


This is probably the only map on which my state (Utah) is blue! But, my house was built in 1914.


I have a book recommendation for anyone interested in the history of buildings and photography. "How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built?" by Stewart Brand (ISBN-13: 978-0140139969, http://www.amazon.com/How-Buildings-Learn-Happens-Theyre/dp/0140139966).

The book is mainly about what makes buildings last, and how they change over time, but this is illustrated with very interesting photographs. This is where I first discovered the the praxis of "rephotography" -- illustrating how something have changed by carefully taking a new photograph based on an older photograph. This is a skill I want to develop myself one day. There is just so much to consider: When was the original photo taken? Where was the sun? (You want the shadows to be as similar as possible). What camera and lens was used? Where is the exact position the original photo was taken from? I can highly recommend it!

My house was built in 1932. I still have the original dust.

By the close of 1922, statisticians could gasp at the accomplished fact of the biggest building boom in American history.

Interest rates had fallen and so too had the cost of building materials. Labor was plentiful. Superimposed on these bullish facts was a large, unmet demand [ ... ]

In 1922, $3.5 billion of residential construction was put in place, up from $2.2 billion in 1921, a jump of 59 percent.

The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself.
James Grant

Dear Mike,

Like Dave, I live just outside SF (Daly City). Like Dave, the house design is uninspired. Unlike Dave, this house is very well- constructed. Malvina Reynolds wasn't right about that, 'though I still love the song.

Oh yeah, the question-- 1957.

pax / Ctein

Mike, I think you'd enjoy reading Witold Rybczynski; particularly "Home:A Short History of an Idea", "The Most Beautiful House in the World", and "Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture".

I'd love to photograph interesting houses and yards; not so much interesting in and of themselves, but interesting because of how they look like with people in them; with curtains, open windows, kids toys in the lawn, etc.

Our house was built in 1979 and lacks character. It's practical. Like my cars and cameras. I live in CT, where, according to zillow, the 1950s is most highly represented. I can think of many neighborhoods full of 1950s houses, yet can't think, offhand, of anyone I know who lives in a 1950s house. Older and newer houses, certainly.

If you will excuse me this is somewhat off topic but nevertheless a question on US housing that keeps coming up.
Those of us outside the USA see reports on TV about hurricanes which focus on certain areas. The result of a strong hurricane is that many houses are destroyed and this would appear to be because the structure is just not strong enough. In Europe most of our houses are built of bricks, stone or concrete, actually probably as they do in NYC. Why is this not done in the vulnerable areas of the USA?
Am ex colleague from the Faroe Islands where strong winds are a constant said that houses are made of solid concrete construction and this includes the rooves, in order to resist. They are also made to look attractive.
Is this a question of Risk vs Cost?

Our California Spanish revival was recorded with the county in 1935 and we assumed that more or less reflected the build date. But, elements didn't fit the era, especially the lathe-and-plaster walls, which reflected an earlier era.

Not long ago a neighbor gave us some scanned newspaper clippings from 1928 with display ads for a subdivision that included photos of our house as a model home. Imagine our surprise. Something seems to have happened around that time that halted new home sales for a few years.

The West Coast housing stock tends to be much newer than parts east, so it's fun--if intermittently aggravating--to own a home of character and history. The clear redwood support timbers in the crawlspace could never be duplicated today, not even for Larry Ellison. I would give Larry the remaining lead paint and asbestos bits no charge, FWIW.

I lived for 14 years in a top-floor walk-up flat in a converted 1850s terrace house (= row house) in Notting Hill, London. For 18 years, after I moved to Singapore, I rented it out. I have just sold it and bought a new flat in a nearly new development. The sense of relief at no longer having to worry about water getting in, slipped slates, defecting flashing, leaning chimney stacks, potential dry rot, deteriorating stucco, rotting window frames etc. etc. etc. is pure heaven. Old houses are great, for other people. That's my new motto. And I'm a keen conservationist ...

My house in St. Paul, MN was built in 1909. That's about average for my neighborhood, which was newly platted in the late 1880s, and only about 1/2-built by 1910, according to maps from the MN Historical Society. There was definitely even earlier houses here though, as i've found older nails and pottery while digging new stair footings outside the foundation.

I grew up in houses built from 1900 to the '50s to brand-new '70s construction, and always love looking at the structure and detail of older homes. You can see an interesting shift in people's housing priorities over the years, away from front porches toward backyard decks and away from alleys in favor of front drives and prominent garages. I also like to see remodeling work and the ways people adapt houses to new trends and technology. I'm just now finishing a kitchen reorganization to account for using a refrigerator, probably 75 years after the house's ice box was decommissioned.

There's a neat poster that shows the various types of architecture in American homes, all the way to the current trend of hideous suburban mansions, very useful for knowing the general families of styles. http://popchartlab.com/collections/prints-architecture/products/the-architecture-of-american-houses

I wonder if the willow fhart [Zillow chart? --Ed.] might be a bit different on the east coast if it measured housing units instead of homes? As in, a large apartment building might have 100+ units, a building like mine would have three, and a standalone house would obviously be one. There are a lot of apartment buildings and multi-family dwellings here, and many of them date back...

Ours was built around 1913, probably as the trolley made our neighborhood more accessible to Boston. It's a fantastic neighborhood, designed by Olmsted and with quite a diversity of home styles, from Victorians and colonials to an old friary that was condoized 25 or so years ago, to a large old house that is now flanked by twin vertical houses, built on land sold off from the original plot. I love the variety, it's so much nicer than walking past the weary same same same every day.

Living in Devizes, I was interested to see Ed Buziak's comment although I'm afraid our house is only 49 years old. The centre of town is mostly 18th century but many of the facades are hiding 17th century buildings; a 300 year old version of keeping up with the neighbours. The street plan is older than the buildings and follows the shape of the original Norman castle.

Mike - If you are interested in houses then I really recommend this story by Robert Heinllin - http://www.math.union.edu/~dpvc/courses/2010-11/mth053-fa10/assignments/crooked-house.pdf
It is also very American :-)

The current place dates to 1916; we really need to throw some kind of party next year.

I think this is the oldest place I've ever lived, but I don't know dates for the other three I've owned. I'm quite confident about the two I lived in with my parents, at least.

1916 is normal for this neighborhood, which was a development built fairly close together (though clearly not by just one developer). In Minneapolis that makes it fairly old, of course, especially this far out (nearly 4 miles from the center of downtown!).

I've been up in Sartell MN a lot lately (near St. Cloud), and while I think what I'm seeing isn't representative (my trip is narrowly focused, contract work), it's striking how everything I see from the roads I travel is brand new. To the point where several of the developments are clearly still being built, and the roads are new, etc. St. Cloud at least goes back a ways, and I've even seen the edges of some other areas if I looked down sidestreets carefully, but it's surprising how strange it is to see nothing but new buildings.

I didn't answer your question earlier. I live in a bungalow that was built in about 1963. Like many examples of public housing built between about 1948 and 1965 it is a solidly constructed brick and block building with a reasonable sized garden.

I grew up in an early 1950s semi detached house, again public housing. Like many council houses, the back garden was fairly large; at about a 12th of an acre, enough to grow a good selection of vegetables. That's what my dad did with most of it.

Gardens have shrunk since then. I have seen entire back gardens that are the same size, 13' x 30', as the bit of garden we had round the side of that house, which we thought was too small to do anything with.

http://cityhubla.github.io/LA_Building_Age/#12/34.0167/-118.2581 shows when almost all the buildings in Los Angeles County were built. Built:LA was developed by Omar Ureta of the Urban Policy Collective @ Roschen Van Cleve Architects, founded by Bill Roschen, FAIA and Christi Van Cleve, AIA.

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