November 06, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

Learning From the Puritans

Whenever I leave the landmarked apartment building where I live, I silently berate the city Landmarks Commission. On the inside, I see the lovely oiled mahogany of our front door. On the outside, I see the hideous easy-eyes-green paint insisted on by Landmarks.

This institutional green - think of the color that is commonly found in low-grade public buildings - was, claims the Landmarks Commission, the original color on all exterior wood in our 1909 Italian Renaissance building. I don't believe it. However, even if I did, I would be unhappy with the government's demand that ugly replace beautiful in the name of architectural purity - and at substantial cost to the property owner.

Oddly enough, our Puritan ancestors - who got their disparaging name from their penchant for purifying themselves of sin - created one of the most adaptable and flexible architectural forms ever known. Developed to protect man and beast from severe New England weather, the "connected house" can be seen all over the East Coast. The concentration of these houses most familiar to New Yorkers cuts a wide swath up through Connecticut into the Berkshires.

A 19th-century children's hopscotch verse summarized the form: "Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn." According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor of architecture, Thomas Hubka, the big house, which nearly always faced the road, was given the finest ornamentation. Containing the parlor on the first floor and the bedrooms upstairs, it was designed to be elegant. The little house, which was the center of family life, held the kitchen and the women's work areas. Some families built the little house first, waiting until they had more money to build the grander big house.

The back house, which connected the little house to the major barn, stored equipment and outdoor work clothes and boots - and segregated the dirt and odors. The long connected building sheltered the farmer on his way to and from tending his stock.

The little house and back house buildings together were often Lshaped and called the "ell." During the 19th century, the middle buildings were habitually combined into one long structure that elided the distinct elements, Mr. Hubka said.

New Englanders usually had three separate yards: a formal front yard between the big house and the road, a working yard for the women outside the little house, and another working yard for farm work and animals outside the barn.

After their children were grown, the parents often moved into the little house, leaving the big house for the son who was now tilling the farm. Over the centuries, each segment has been adapted in dozens of ways. As industry replaced farming in some areas of New England, farmers would take in industrial work in the back house and barn, working at home and keeping the family together.

As areas became wealthy, all four segments would be renovated into residential use, although the barn often kept some work-related use. As the family moved up economically, it often stored carriages and elegant horses rather than housing cows and chickens. Later, the carriage house might become a garage for cars and lawn mowers.

Often, one or more of the segments were removed, sometimes to somebody else's house altogether. So familiar is the connected house that many Americans live in one without recognizing the form as distinct.

However, the point is that the design is by its nature adaptable. Preservationists cannot find in a historic New England house the one sublime moment to whose standards everything must be restored. And in no event would that sublime moment be on the building's first day of life - for the family's plan from the start would have included additions and improvements as they earned capital from their land.

Mr. Hubka argues that these stately buildings stand "as a living expression" of an earlier American culture. However, of course, that they continue to stand at all is because their present owners continue to live in and adapt them. To be saved, historic buildings must not just be loved - they must be used.

It's a funny thing about our American forebears: We think of Puritans and their descendants as rigid and inflexible, but a Yale historian, Edmund Morgan, said recently that it was the rigid ones who lost and the flexible ones who won. The "most dangerous tendency among the saints of Massachusetts," said Mr. Morgan, "was never excessive liberty but excessive purity. They had to work at tolerance and flexibility." However, somehow tolerance won.

Maybe they learned the importance of flexibility from the harsh land that demanded so much effort from them. Certainly they developed an architectural style that has endured so well that many of its original versions remain intact - and new houses in the early American style are among the most popular of all forms.

The 1960s iconoclast Stewart Brand, who was once famous for inventing "The Whole Earth Catalog," has become an articulate proponent of ongoing reuse. In his 1995 book, "How Buildings Learn," Mr. Brand advocated what he called "evolutionary design," by which he meant that buildings should be viewed as dynamic, evolving systems - ironically enough just what the New England connected house is all about.

If New York's many historic buildings are to be saved, we need to develop an appreciation for flexibility, change, and adaptive reuse. If our Puritan ancestors could learn flexibility, then surely so can we.