Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Big Old Houses: Details, details ...

Details, details ...
by John Foreman


I flirted with the idea of calling this post "Self-Justification," but sobered up in time. This is not about why — or how I managed — to live in a big old house, but about why I like it. Daheim, the moldering manse I have rented from friends for (gulp) 33 years, is not a great house. It brims, however, with the sort of unheralded — assuming it's even noticed — detail and craftsmanship that lead people like myself to endure sky-high heating bills, bursting pipes, crackling electric lines, leaking roofs and moldy basements to live in an old house. (P.S. What is the big panic about mold these days? Everybody I knew grew up with it, and we're all fine).

I don't see modern archintects using a computer program to come up with a composition like Daheim which, while frenzied, is quite visually appealing. Whatever you might say about its coherence — or lack thereof — there's a lot to look at.
Daheim is surrounded by a contrived landscape that used to be laid out as formal gardens but is now just lawns. Even in its current condition, what we call the tennis lawn (there used to be a grass court beyond the fountain) remains extremely decorative. You don't see many urns, ornate retaining walls, shallow stairs or non-functioning fountains outside big new houses. They're pretty standard features outside big old ones.
Before I came along, "shrinkage," that euphemistic retailing term for theft, reduced much of Daheim's fantastic inventory of ironwork. This lantern is a lucky survivor. Not the work of the great Samuel Yellin, perhaps, but still a wonderful old house artifact. People spent more time doing things in the past, which is ironic considering they had less time (i.e. shorter lives) in which to do them.
There are 52 columns supporting this porch — one year I painted them all (never again) — and a plaque over the front door identifying Daheim, appropriately enough, as "The Old House." The German immigrant who built it — Charles F. Dieterich (1836-1927) — was the first president of the Union Carbide Corporation and a man with a romantic streak. You don't find plaques like this on new houses.
People glance at curved walls in old houses, nod appreciatively, and seldom consider all the elements that have to be curved — exterior siding, interior paneling, plate glass, leaded upper lights, sills, sash, etc., etc. Like a lot of old houses, Daheim is full of curves, each of which looks effortlessly perfect. I wonder how many of my readers have looked closely at the East Stair on the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal. Installed as part of a 1998 restoration, it looks at first blush quite magnificent. Closer observation, however, reveals horrifyingly inferior geometry on the twisting sections of the marble hand rail. In another age, the architect in charge would have had it torn out immediately and insisted the sub do the job over. Daheim's curved walls are simpler, but they're also perfect.
Daheim is no Newport cottage, and the interiors ain't the work of Richard Morris Hunt's favorite French "decorateur." Fireplace and wall paneling in the room below all came out of a catalogue, which is not a bad thing. The detail of the design and skill of installation, despite a few sags and some occasional loosening, make this room superior to most new custom jobs.
Old houses are full of stained glass, particularly big houses like Daheim. These aren't Tiffany windows or anything close. They're also from 19th century builders' catalogues.
The oak paneled walls below used to be the same color as the sliding door, the latter protected in its pocket from the darkening effects of 125 years. All the oak woodwork in the house is "quartered," a process wherein a milled trunk is rotated 90-degrees between each cut, resulting in a showier grain and considerably more waste. Old oak paneling looks about a million times better than new oak paneling because mills these days rarely quarter. As for veneering, it's been a hallmark of fine furniture for centuries. Unlike the wafer-thin veneers in new construction, veneers in old houses like Daheim are a quarter of an inch thick. While on the subject of doors, note the perfection of the mortice.
It is naive and untrue to suggest that craftsmanship and fine construction are dead. That said, old work, even when it's not top of the line, always looks like it took more time. Prior to one of Daheim's several enlargements, what is now the library was the dining room. An elaborate corner cabinet, today full of books instead of dishes, looks to me like it was inserted in the 1890s. The door surrounds in the library, while not architecturally earth-shaking, are careful compositions requiring multiple independent elements. Portières throughout the house hang from original solid brass rods.
The most obvious old house features in the main hall are those closely spaced balusters on the stair rail. To my eye, widely spaced balusters look a little cheap. Since they are a common cost cutting feature of much new construction, I guess that's exactly what they are. This part of Daheim was significantly reworked in the 1890s by James E. Ware, hired by Mr. Dieterich to enlarge the so-called "temporary" house until he got around to building a new and more grandiose version. (He never did). One imagines architect Ware paging though catalogues, picking out obscure bells and whistles that wouldn't even occur to us today — a corner bench (Victorians loved benches), a Dutch door to the porch, a bit of extra detail at the foot of the stairs, etc., etc.
The dining room has mahogany woodwork, precast detailing on the ceiling, machine made wall tapestries and parquet floors with appealing borders. Every room in the house seems to have a different floor pattern.
Another of the several alterations enclosed a portion of the back porch, creating a small in-house office for Mr. Dieterich and a new serving pantry. The office cornice is coved and finished in oak, a throwaway detail in an old house, but in new construction the sort of thing you'd save for the grandest public room.
The dish cabinets in the butler's pantry have glass doors, brass locks, marble legs and solid mahogany countertops.
How it pains me to see fine old tile and marble work smashed to pieces by new owners who don't realize what they're smashing. Notable in the images below: 1) a silky smoothness to the tiled walls, obtainable only with square edged tiles; 2) curved corners whose complicated nature is obscured by the skill of the tile man; and 3) marble windowsills which, together with terra cotta floors, were standard equipment in most big old house kitchens.
I love the artifacts of the past that populate old kitchens — clunky vitreous sinks for scouring pots and pans, an ice box lined with carrera glass (the access door for the ice is outside), and a Monel sink relocated from the butler's pantry. Most people have never heard of Monell, a nickel alloy developed by a man named Ambrose Monell. Unlike stainless steel, Monel spots if you give it a hard look, but when polished, it radiates an "old house" glow you'll never see in a piece of stainless.
By this point you probably think I'm nuts extolling the virtues of my decrepit old mansion. OK, so the place is a little run down. So is your mother, but you still love her, right? Things are in better shape upstairs. Details to note on the way up: 1) a marble top on the hall radiator; 2) a superfluous but handsome twist at the end of the hand rail; 3) the luxurious abundance of balusters.
The sliding doors below lead to a lobby between what were once Mr. and Mrs. Dieterich's separate bedrooms and dressing rooms, and are now my bedroom, dressing room and study. There's another bench, of course. Our Victorian ancestors were seemingly bent on sitting down every couple of steps. A glazed box built out onto the porch is a perfect place for plants. Painted canvas ceilings were cheap when rooms like this were built. Loud original colors have mellowed appealingly.
There are even a few "secret" panels, although you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out where they are.
Let's go to my bedroom, admire the various floor patterns, the curving benches on either side of the fireplace, and a lot of crazed jigsaw work which, despite design lapses, has survived long enough to be considered charming.
My closet is actually a gigantic piece of furniture, doubtless sold as an add-on to the rest of the bedroom woodwork, all of it made of solid cherry. Mass produced, overdone, deficiently designed, impractical, despised by aesthetes of later generations or not, a whole lot of imagination went into Victorian design.
Someone somewhere, in a townhouse apartment or private brownstone, in New York or Boston or Chicago, will look at my bedroom fireplace and realize with a jolt that the identical piece is looming on a wall right behind them.
My love for old fashioned bathrooms is not unrequited at Daheim. People in the late 1880s needed medicine cabinets, but in lieu of today's prefabricated metal numbers, contractors either built or bought wooden ones. The cabinet in this bathroom has been seriously kicked around — Daheim was ground zero for Tim Leary's hippies and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters in the 1960s, after which it was boarded up for a decade — but still remains serviceable.
The bathroom at the other end of the suite adjoins my study, which was formerly Mrs. Dieterich's bedroom. When I sit upon, or rise from, the throne, I can contemplate: 1) terrazzo flooring composed of individually set pieces of marble; 2) a toilet seat hinge of surpassing elegance; 3) a marble sink bib whose humble bracket is finished with a nickel plated finial; 4) complicated convergences of tile, marble and oak where workmanship borders on art; 5) and an alabaster slab on top of the radiator, gorgeous in spite of being in three pieces.
My daughter grew up with bathrooms like this. Here's hers.
Is there a new house anywhere on earth with a room that looks like this? That would be a no.
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