In America, a house has always spoken volumes about its inhabitant. Home as status symbol is a time-honored tradition: when George Washington remodeled Mount Vernon over 225 years ago, he carefully chose a neoclassical design style that expressed his growing status as a military and political leader amongst his people. Unfortunately, today’s houses are built in an era that values skin-deep appearances; features such as stone veneer and fiberglass columns are added as if selected from a fast-food menu, but lack the design depth or quality construction to stand the test of time.
Increasingly in Winter Park, these veneer and fiberglass mansions are eclipsing authentic historic homes, and the community suffers as a result. There are plenty of places in Central Florida that welcome fast-food box houses, flashy on the outside but not designed to last, which is fine for neighborhoods outside of Winter Park’s historical areas. Indeed, houses fitting into historic communities should be lasting and complimentary to their surroundings; in the meantime, houses that are already here and contribute to the character of the town should be honored for the whole public good.
George Washington’s case is an interesting one. Like many of today’s homebuilders, Washington, lacking formal architectural training, used plan books, patterns and styles that were trendy among his peers, and he relied heavily on his contractor for the design details. Yet he also used the traditional house that his father built as the basis for design, carefully integrating the old with the new. And unlike the disposable homes of today, Mount Vernon has passed the test of time for function, endurance, and beauty. This is the first in an occasional series of essays that are meant to examine these qualities and how they are expressed in a home, and to share some of the reasons that older homes should be respected and integrated into our lives, rather than be discarded like fast food wrappers.
McMansions, those huge homes built upon small lots out in the exurbs, began springing up in the older urban cores of our cities in the 1980s. People who wanted big homes fast also wanted to see their property appreciate, and could see that this was happening faster in town than it was on the periphery. Small lots were purchased and combined into one so a home could be fit onto them…and when this didn’t work, a home was squeezed onto a narrow lot anyway!
The delight of living in a place like Winter Park is to see its history through its architecture. The materials available in the early days either came in by train, or were made out of lumber nearby. The earliest settlers dealt with the hot, humid climate by building wood houses, open and airy, allowing natural ventilation to do its job, with deep, wrap-around porches to shade the windows. Thick-walled Spanish style homes, favored by affluent newcomers, are more suited to an arid climate like Spain, soaking up the sun during the day and giving off heat at night, when the air cools down.
These two styles used local materials but always kept their windows to a minimum – just enough to let in the bright sunlight, not enough to let in the rain. Plenty of land between homes assured a breeze coming through, and kept neighbors – remember, without air conditioning, the windows were open much of the year – from overhearing too much. Overall, the homes were hand-built by craftsmen who milled much of the lumber on site, and who situated the home to take advantage of the breezes, the shade, and the view.
These older homes, after several generations develop a patina and are imbued with what many call a “sense of place.” This can only be achieved over time, and goes beyond character to what the Germans call “stimmung”, meaning a certain atmosphere around a house. A house’s stimmung comes from its orientation, the shape of the spaces around it, the home’s materials and colors and how it fits into the land. All of this requires space and time and patience to come into existence.
To achieve this sense of character or atmosphere, a house must be well-built to begin with, and be continuously occupied, with each generation loving the house enough to respect its quirks and idiosyncracies and foibles, molding it and shaping it to fit evolving lifestyles without losing the original character. In this way, people come to gather at a house, and turn it into a home; this is what is meant by the verb “to dwell”, and this almost magical transformation is evident in a number of older Winter Park homes. The fact that it has happened in so many parts of Winter Park makes this place special, and it lifts all of our spirits to live here and partake of this stimmung. This is why, in this town, historic preservation is critical, so that we maintain our ability to dwell between the pretty lakes and under the grand trees that brought our ancestors here in the beginning.
And into this sense of place comes new people, continuously, who are attracted by the beautiful aspects of the town, but who have yet to discover this magical sense of dwelling. It takes time to discover, just as it took time to create; and in our contemporary, high-speed lifestyle, time is a highly precious commodity. If newcomers do give themselves the time, they almost always learn to love the nuances and oddities as well as the grand parts of the town, and they learn to slow down – and get to the essence of the place, its stimmung.
Where people have lost this sense of dwelling, you can almost always find a rapidly-developed subdivision filled with McMansions. These tend to be large on their lots, and to have showy front facades that feature details and materials that have nothing to do with Winter Park, its history, character, climate, or anything but a builder’s plan book. In older homes, windows were placed on facades with care, and when you have viewed many old homes, a rhythm and sense of proportion arises from the window patterns, their sizes and placement on the walls. Older homes were built by practical craftsmen, so materials like stone – weighty, massive, and good in compression – were used to hold things up, like the white masonry base on the Virginia Heights house to the left. Homebuilders were often good carpenters, so the roofline and rafters were exquisitely carved, expressing lightness and beauty. Thus the early bungalows and lap-siding homes had a grace and elegance about them, and a street with several of these exudes a very strong stimmung.
All of this is very, very far from the hamburger box that we started with…and for darn good reason. These houses aren’t throwaway structures–they come from an era when architecture mattered. And people have come to love Winter Park precisely because of this fact. They don’t come here because we have less traffic, or lower taxes, or cheaper lots, or faster food.
People who buy houses and lots here do so because, even though they might not initially realize it, they are attracted by the sense of place that has been created here over the last century and a half. It might take a while for that deeper understanding to be revealed. And that’s OK, we have patience…as long as the newcomers also have patience with Winter Park, as well. That way, we all benefit, and preserve this special sense of place for the public good, as well as for future generations.
Richard Reep is a board member of the Friends of Casa Feliz, the President of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture, and an Adjunct Professor, Growth Studies Department, Rollins College.