Commentary: Don’t ‘delete’ older homes; revive and restore

By Tim Fuller

Recently both Minneapolis and St. Paul have been experiencing an influx of “tear downs,” smaller, “undervalued” houses in stable neighborhoods being demolished to make way for new homes. These new houses tend to be much larger than their neighbors, often bringing an ungainly, suburban feel to the streetscape.

Much of the controversy that arises in these situations stems from people’s often-misguided sense of what role controlling measures like zoning codes play in all of this.

Zoning codes typically rely on a series of dimensional benchmarks to control the size of a structure as well as its location on a lot. More developed and sensitive codes address things like the number and size of windows relative to the overall size of the wall they sit in and attempt to maintain a street presence as a gesture to the public space fronting the buildings. But codes, in and of themselves, do a poor job of protecting established neighborhoods from infill homes that just don’t fit the place they invite themselves into.

I am not advocating for more proscriptive codes (codes that dictate toward or establish preferred historical styles) as an antidote, in fact just the opposite. I see those types of codes as a design slippery slope. God forbid well-meaning “design police” pull talented architects to the curb.

Instead, we need to recognize that great design springs from motivational origins that aren’t imbedded in superficially imposed design standards but rather originate in an appreciation of and respect for the interwoven fabric and intrinsically ordered structure of “street, lot, land and house” that make up the logic and language of our older neighborhoods.

Trust me. It’s really not about style.

There are many things at play here, but the bottom line is there is a market for bigger (more grand, more modern, more something) homes in neighborhoods that just haven’t been structured to receive them. Zoning, regardless of how carefully conceived, can’t shoehorn these larger new homes into the layout of streets, roads and open spaces that these older neighborhoods grow from, no matter how hard they try. There needs to be other forces in play to make it work.

In terms of our American housing dream, right now, we are a culture drunk on space (we seem to need more and more of it) and that inebriated building force, enabled by a housing industry looking for any sort of cheap date, is stumbling all over our late 19th- and early 20th- century neighborhoods like a sloppy drunk reeling from a post-recessional binge.

No wonder we have issues. So, what’s the answer?

For one, let’s sober up and embrace what’s already in place. Let’s honor the houses and neighborhoods that somehow survived the “Mad Men” rush to the suburbs in 1950s America. We should champion these “old” houses that have outlived the wild flight of millions of Americans looking for a “better life,” a migration fueled by a massive buildup of fast roads and cheap gas.

Choose to restore a home as it stands, and it will live with you for another 100 years in active and efficient support of the life that we aspire to live in today’s world. Resist the impulse to press delete. It’s easy, fast and cheap, but it also erases so much history, utility and design grace, which is almost impossible to replace.

A commitment to revive and restore has worked for many families who have a one-and-a-half-story bungalow with an unfinished attic and need a new bedroom. It has worked for the couples who have always wanted a place to gather informally with their friends and family and couldn’t find that space in their old Victorian. And it has worked for empty-nester couples looking to accommodate a need for one-level living and not be forced to liquidate all of their equity and move from the neighborhood where they’ve lived for 40 years or more.

Alter, transform, restore and revive. It works.

Of course there will always be situations where an older home simply can’t be revived. When it comes to that, what can we put up in its place that feels at home in the neighborhood? In my experience, if you start from a point of respect, appreciation and a clear understanding of the forces and cultural history that have combined to create the places you want to build in, it can work.

A careful and sensitive consideration of “scale” is the starting point. Scale is not a unit of measure but rather a balance in the relationship of the parts to the whole.

The houses that surround you have a scale to them that is embedded in the building culture, motivations and methods of its time. If you look closely, you can see it, even if you can’t find the words to name it. It feels at home in its own skin. It feels well-grounded but touches the sky in a way that hints at grander ambitions. It is as big as it needs to be, no bigger, no smaller.

Try this: Look up and down your street; imagine that there is a home missing (maybe there already is), a blank space, a dropped stitch in the fabric of the street. Make yourself

squint, focus on the outline of existing buildings as they meet the sky (trees will and should blur this edge), then knit it back together in your mind.

What do you get? What does it say to you?

What you should get is a line with a lift, a bump that picks up on a rhythm of up and down. It is stepped, a bit edgy but natural and in scale. The shape you might imagine filling the void. It’s not the alpha but more common to the tribe. It’s not a spike or a block, it’s a line of repose, an elegant engagement of positive and negative.

It’s a roof and also a room; it’s winged but willing to nestle into the brood. This elemental line, this edge between the sky and the house, between the building and air, has nothing to do with image, character or style but rather, it is all about scale.

Now that’s the seed for a great design conversation, new to old, old to new.

And if that conversation occurs, at whatever level as long as it’s respectful, you will have a better outcome.

This is the conversation that will bring enough of what the new American home dweller wants into these settled places while respecting the wonderfully rich scale, building history and honor the culture of craft that created these places not that very long ago.

Try it. Let me know how it comes out.

Cheers, and long live the neighborhood.

Timothy Fuller is a resident of St. Anthony Park and a residential architect with more than 25 years of experience in the Twin Cities.

    1 Response

    1. Rose Riley

      Well written! You eloquently expressed the sentiments of many and validated the reasoning behind wanting to save the older homes preserving the neighborhoods.
      I hope that these tear-downs cease restoration and revivals take place.

      Peace and warm wishes for historical preservation 🙂

      ~Rose

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