By Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
On May 17, Winter Park preservationists’ spirits were lifted, partly by the bright sunlight and partly by six gorgeous historic homes open for touring and study. What lifted spirits even more was the infectious enthusiasm of Nicole Curtis, HGTV’s “Rehab Addict,” who addressed an audience of 350 at Tiedtke Auditorium in Rollins College. This, the eighth annual James Gamble Rogers II Colloquium on Historic Preservation, brought some much-needed frank talk to the issue of preservation. The Friends of Casa Feliz, sponsors of the Colloquium, saw a room energized by Curtis’ street savvy and humor. Her message of pride in preservation launched enthusiastic people onto the home tour this year.
Historic homes in the Virginia Heights neighborhood were settings for interesting conversations about quality, craftsmanship, and authenticity inspired by Curtis’ talk. “These homes were made in America,” she pointed out about older homes, in contrast to newer homes full of materials that come from overseas. Craftsmanship, like hand-built windows and doors, seemed to stand out more in the homes from the 1920s.
If your environment is full of more recent construction, the ubiquitous machine-made parts dull the senses, and so small details like crystal doorknobs seem sharper in contrast. Views through divided-lite windows seem more precious somehow. Overheard during the home tour was an expression of delight that Curtis actually said things that people had only been feeling, hidden away, while Winter Park grants demolition permits and showy big homes take the place of the older dwellings so quickly removed.
“The building you have is always the most sustainable one,” she also stated flatly, rejecting the argument that a newer home has less impact on the environment. In fact, she pointed out, an older, locally-built structure embodies a fraction of the material and energy than structures that come about in our contemporary global economy. Keeping an old home out of a landfill is more sustainable as well, reducing the waste stream in our cities.
Restoring homes in Tampa, Detroit, and Minneapolis, Curtis emphasized how old buildings tell powerful stories. Winter Park, like many historic places, has a magical attraction for many seeking an authentic place to dwell, and this attraction comes partly from the stories and culture that bring it alive.
Some choice Nicoleisms from the morning lecture:
- On Demolition of Historic Homes: “It’s just plain wrong,” she said, “and here’s why. These houses are beautifully built, with incredible quality and craftsmanship, and the generations that lived in these houses helped make America great. Each house had Christmas presents under a tree somewhere. Buyers who tear a house down, in order to maximize their own return, steal not just from this past, but from the future as well.”
- On Sustainability: “The average Styrofoam container weighs 4.4 grams. Let’s say you have a 200 ton house. It takes saving about 37 million Styrofoam containers from a landfill to make up the damage from putting a 200 ton house in a landfill.”
- On Heritage Tourism: “Winter Park. No one’s coming here to see a 2014 build. They come here to see the quaintness, and the old houses. And once that’s gone, it’s gone. Number one reason? We don’t have the tradespeople anymore to build these houses.”
- On quality craftsmanship: “I have yet to meet a tradesman who could recreate something from 1904 without (power tools). Even adults don’t consider when they look at these homes they were all hand-crafted… and we certainly don’t have the building materials any more. My favorite line is that vinyl replacement windows are called replacement windows because they always have to be replaced.”
- It’s OK to be the best house on the street: “In Detroit, I bought a house on a street where the rest of the homes had burned down. No one wanted to rebuild. After I restored a house, suddenly there was a comp, and the rest of the owners could benchmark against my home. In this way, the community gets strengthened.”
You can watch the whole hour-long lecture by clicking HERE.
Curtis’ ultimate message, that it is OK to be a preservationist, echoed throughout the room, and an excited audience spilled onto Park Avenue for lunch, followed by a tour six authentic old homes. On the tour were three homes from 1925, a bungalow from 1926, one from 1928, and finally a 1949 home across the street from Lake Sue. Each one echoed what Curtis talked about: a sense of place, a storied past, and a beauty that arises from the human-sized scale, the idiosyncratic details, and the response that the home made to its climate, its owners, and its time.
While Curtis’ talk was inspiring, it was also street-smart. No doctorate degree or academic language was needed to convey her simple message, that, like oatmeal, loving our older homes is “the right thing to do.” Her show embodies the principle that the original design should be honored and respected, and worked around to move a home into the twenty-first century. For a multigenerational audience, this much-needed push should galvanize many whose preservation instincts are good, and bring more converts to the cause.
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.