Thursday, May 26, 2011

Architectural Details: New England

Few doubt the overwhelming importance that architecture plays when it comes to placemaking. Vernacular architecture gives a place identity and continues patterns of building which have been around for centuries, if not millennia. What evokes a building’s place of origin is more often than not a particular combination of features assembled in just the right manner. A single detail or configuration alone is seldom so place-specific that it instantly tells us where we are.

Having grown up in New England, I began to think of examples of such details which occur almost exclusively in the region and which single-handedly would tell me that I was home. I can honestly say that there are few, despite the architecture as whole being quite easy to pick out. To make the task a bit more challenging, I decided that the tradition must still be alive today in order to count.

Following are a few such configurations and details which exclusively dot the New England landscape. I’ll share some others in subsequent posts. I found the details themselves weren’t nearly as interesting as how they came about in the first place and why they are confined to a particular locality. Climate and availability of materials (i.e. cost) are overwhelmingly the driving forces.

"Witch Window" (Central Vermont)
To someone visiting Vermont for the first time, what might seem at first to be the humorous product of an eccentric builder is really a bit of practical problem solving on the part of generations of resourceful Vermonters. A most unusual example of an undeniably place-specific detail is known locally known as a “Witch Window”, but also called a “Vermont Window” or a “Lazy Window”, depending on who you ask. As one of the names implies, this detail is found almost exclusively in Vermont, tending toward the center and north of the state. This oddity occurred on homes starting from around the 1830’s onwards and can still be seen on new homes today, although to a much lesser extent. Smaller side wings added to the main block of a “cape” form house (either at the original date of construction or later on) obscured much of the gable wall. A standard vertically oriented double-hung window simply wouldn’t fit. Constructing a dormer is costly, uses precious materials, accumulates snow and ice, and contributes greatly to heat loss in the cold winters. The solution: turn the window at an angle to match that of the roof pitch between the eave of the main house and the roof of the addition. This eliminated the need for additional construction or having to find (or make) a custom window to fit the space.

Ice Belt on a Mid-Nineteenth Century House (Brunswick, Maine)

New Ice Belt (Massachusetts)
The roof “Ice Belt” is so common in New England, that it largely goes unnoticed. But this feature is unique to the region, becoming more prevalent to the north and east. Ice belts have been around as long as commercially available sheets of metal - at least since the mid-nineteenth century. Long periods of heavy snowfall combined with thawing, often caused from heat escaping from inside the house, leads to the build-up of ice dams along the bottom edge of roofs, particularly those facing north. These ice dams can lead to leaks and structural damage. While wood shingle, asphalt and slate roofs can contribute to this problem, metal easily sheds ice and snow. Various types of metal for roofing were previously difficult to obtain and expensive, as it is today. Rather than replace an entire roof, New Englanders simply replaced the bottom foot or so of roofing with metal panels, most often steel, tin, aluminum or copper. New buildings in many areas are often constructed with this feature as a matter of course.


New House (Foxboro, Massachusetts)
Shingle siding can be found all along coastal New England from Connecticut to Maine (and indeed in other parts of the country as well). However, the practice of putting shingles on just the side walls of a house with clapboards on the front is unique to southeastern New England since at least the eighteenth century. Interestingly, this tradition corresponds to places lacking topography and rivers, both necessary for powering early lumber mills which flourished elsewhere in the region. Milled clapboards and other lumber needed to be distributed from within interior areas of New England out to far-flung coastal regions. As the more “refined” and difficult material to obtain, clapboards were reserved for the face of a house where it could be most admired and shown off (think modern-day tract house sporting a brick fa├žade and vinyl sides). Split wooden shingles, on the other hand, could be made by just about anyone with an axe and a little skill. Southeastern Massachusetts, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and eastern Rhode Island continue this tradition today. Ironically, shingles have now become the more expensive of the two materials!

Thanks to Sandy Vitzthum and Tim Sheehan for supplying some of the photographs.

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