Froma Harrop: The early American dream house

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

 

They demand granite countertops. We don’t. They abhor 20-year-old kitchen cabinets. We don’t notice they’re 20 years old. They want his-and-her vanities in the master bath. We want to know, what exactly is a “vanity”?

Aha, it’s a sink. “Sink” is a bit downscale-sounding, don’t you think? That’s what the under-butler uses.

Most of the shelter media — and advertisers seeding our desire for better — portray the American dream house as big, new and soaring. Sturdy, neighborly and full of memories doesn’t sell “great rooms.”

Your author clearly prefers older houses. It’s a free country and all that, but shouldn’t there be more pushback to an American dream that promotes the tearing down of fine old American housing? Desirable neighborhoods across the country are watching gracious homes being leveled and replaced with 3,400-square-foot hulks for families of three-plus-dog.

By “old house,” we don’t mean just historically significant or ancient. True, houses from the 1600s still stand in parts of New England. The Spanish-built colonial masterpieces in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, are a century older. Keeping one of these entails great responsibility and often expense.

But today an old house can be a 1926 bungalow in San Antonio or a 1953 midcentury in Palm Springs. Many are in convenient locations where land is scarce and the existing housing stock reflects a more modest American dream.

Now, stronger women than I cannot resist turning on HGTV for the occasional real estate fix. The aspirational homebuying/home improvement channel fascinates on both the practical and the sociological levels. Most of the house hunters want new and big. Even some who profess to like old-house charm crumble at the imagined indignity of having a tub that doubles as a shower.

One observes a definite preference for open floor plans featuring a large islanded kitchen looking over a vast family room.

Old-house people, on the other hand, can appreciate kitchens with a swinging door leading into (can you take it?) a formal dining room. The thinking goes that if dinner involves more than popping containers into the microwave, the cooking battlefield might best be hidden from diners.

An “en suite” bath is now a basic requirement. That’s a bathroom that opens only to the master bedroom.

And many of the new master bedroom suites would put the sleeping area of Lord and Lady Grantham to shame, though spacewise only. Some have walk-in closets bigger than a lady’s maid’s bedroom.

Speaking of which, could you imagine the Granthams complaining that the antiquated bookshelves looked dated? And do note how the Granthams managed to make their library do triple duty as library, family room and media room.

Open floor plans have a venerable history as executed in the best midcentury architecture. But these spaces flowed gracefully. They weren’t airplane hangars, cavernous and impersonal.

In defense of HGTV, the channel does offer smart renovation programs. It even has a small-house series. And the handsome and witty Property Brothers are divine.
But, Jonathan and Drew, even you couldn’t make that foreclosed-upon ode to grandiosity in Las Vegas less than ghastly. Everything you could see was fancy; everything you could not was crappy.

But out of failure comes inspiration. Here’s a new hit show for you Scott boys, back-of-the-envelope title: “Tearless Teardowns.”

Every episode, you tear down one of those new monstrosities and put in its place a home of appropriate scale and superior quality. In Las Vegas, for example, you could have hired a couple of Girl Scouts with hammers to destroy those cheap thin walls.

And just imagine the graceful hacienda in the traditional Southwest style you could have put there. We old-house people can dream, can’t we?

Email: fharrop@gmail.com

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