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THE BUILDING OF THE HOME

HOME making is one of the sacred tasks of life, for the home is the family temple, consecrated to the service of parents and offspring. As the strength of the state is founded upon family life, so is the strength of society based upon the home. The building of the home should be an event of profound importance. It should be with man as it is with the birds, the culminating event after courtship and marriage, upon which all the loving thought and energy of the bridal pair is bestowed. How often in our modern American life do we find a far different procedure! The real estate agent and the investor confer, and as a result we have rows of houses put up to sell to shiftless home seekers who are too indifferent to think out their own needs, and helplessly take what has been built for the trade. The taint of commercialism is over these homes, and all too often the life within them is shallow and artificial.

The building of houses is an art, not a trade, and therefore it is needful that when those who are to occupy the home have thought out their needs, they should let an artist create out of their disjointed ideas an artistic whole. So apparent is this that it seems but an idle truism, yet comparatively few realize its full significance. It is not enough for a boss carpenter or a contractor to style himself an architect and hang out his shingle. We must demand of our architect that he be a real creative artist that he understand form and proportion, that he be a man of taste and originality, that he appreciate not merely the general types, but the inner spirit of the architecture of other peoples and other ideals of culture. Such a man will sublimate our crude and imperfect conception of the home and make of it a vital expression. Such a home will not merely fit us, but will be like the clothes of a growing child, loose enough to allow us to expand to its full idea, and with seams which can be let out as the experience of years enlarges our ideals.

It has often been pointed out that all sound art is an expression springing from the nature which environs it. Its principles may have been imported from afar, but the application of those principles must be native. A home, for example, must be adapted to the climate, the landscape and the life in which it is to serve its part. In New England we must have New England homes; in Alabama, Alabama homes, and in California, California homes. We cannot import the one bodily into the other surroundings without introducing jarring notes, although there is a certain quality in architecture which is racial and temperamental rather than climatic, a quality not to be ignored or slighted.

Even such a designation as a California home is too inclusive, for between the climate and scenery of San Diego and Mendocino Counties there is as wide a diversity as between New England and Alabama. In the following discussion, much will be of general application regardless of climate or landscape, but those points in which environment enters will refer mainly to the region about San Francisco Bay. Here a quarter of the population of California is concentrated, and it is with their homes that I am especially concerned.

The style of the house is determined in no small degree by the material of which it is constructed, and this in turn is to a large measure regulated by cost or availability. Primitive people in many lands have found reeds, grasses, or leaves, thatched upon poles, the most readily obtainable material for making a shelter. Even in the rural districts of England the use of thatch may still be seen, but the danger of fire and the comparative instability of such work has caused it to be generally abandoned.


Shingled Home of Northern Type of Architecture
Shingled Home of Northern Type of Architecture

In all countries where forests of suitable timber are accessible, we find wooden houses predominate. Even such savages as the Thlingit Indians of Alaska and the New Zealand Maoris, both living in lands abundantly forested, abandoned the temporary huts of their ancestors for permanent houses of wooden slabs. In desert countries, on the contrary, where wood is scarce and difficult to obtain, we find the first evidences of the use of stone or clay for building purposes. The Pueblo Indians of Arizona, the Aztecs of Mexico and the early Egyptians are instances in point.

California is still in the period of wooden houses. With great forest areas unexploited and the modern facilities for converting trees into lumber, this is still by far the least expensive material available for building purposes. A brick house costs today nearly twice as much as a wooden house, and a structure of stone, or even of terra-cotta, is far more expensive than one of brick. Since the average home builder puts into his residence all he can afford, building of brick would mean to shrink the house to half its dimensions in wood. It therefore follows that brick and stone, for some time to come, will be available chiefly for public or commercial structures, except amongst the very rich, while the man of average means must be content with wood.

In this there is no hardship if the one essential rule be observed of using every material in the manner for which it is structurally best adapted, and of handling it in a dignified style. The failure to observe this rule is the great sin in most of the domestic architecture of America. A few illustrations will emphasize the point. The arch of masonry is the strongest structural use of stone or brick. An arch of wood, on the contrary, has no structural value, and is a mere imitation of a useful building form. It is generally painted to imitate the effect of stone, and thus sins even more seriously in becoming a sham. We feel that a woman. with painted lips and cheeks is vulgar because she is shamming the beauty which only vigorous health can bestow; so also is woodwork vulgar when it is covered over to imitate the architectural form of stone.

The rounded arch, although the most obvious type of faulty design in wood, is only one of many points in which the effect of stone construction is unwarrantably imitated in wood. The round tower, the curving bay window, and a multitude of detachable ornaments are cheaply rendered in wood when their very nature demands that they be built of masonry. It is a good general rule in timber construction to build in straight, angular lines, thus in a measure insuring the effect of strength, dignity, and repose.

Having determined the general form of construction in wood, it is next important to consider its right treatment and handling. Wood is a good material if left in the natural finish, but it is generally spoiled by the use of paint or varnish. This is a matter which perhaps cannot be entirely reasoned out. It must be seen and felt to be understood; and yet it is a point vital to artistic work. There is a refinement and character about natural wood which is entirely lost when the surface is altered by varnish and polish. Oil paint is the most deadly foe of an artistic wood treatment. It is hard and characterless, becoming dull and grimy with time and imparting a cold severity to the walls. Wood is treated with paint for two avowed reasons to protect it and to ornament it. Experience proves, however, that the protection afforded by paint is quite unnecessary in most climates. Shingles, if left to themselves, rot very slowly and in a very clean manner. Since the grain of the wood is in the direction of drainage, the rot is constantly washed out instead of accumulating. With painted clap boards, in which the grain runs crosswise to the drainage, on the contrary, dirt and grime are scrubbed into the wood, and a renewal of paint is necessary after a very few years. Natural shingles last fully three times as long as a coat of paint, and are thus in the end an economy.

As to the second reason for treating wood with paint, ornamentation, let us consider for a moment wherein lies the beauty of a house. We are too prone to forget that a single house is but a detail in a landscape. In the country it is a mere incident amongst the trees or fields; in the city it is but one of a street of houses. In either case its effect should never be considered apart from the whole. The exterior of a house should always be conceived so that it will harmonize with its surroundings. The safest means of effecting this is by leaving the natural material to the tender care of the elements. Wood in time weathers to a soft brown or gray in which the shadows are the chief marks of accent. The tones are sufficiently neutral to accord with any landscape, and the only criticism from an artistic point of view which can be made upon the coloring of such a group of houses is that they are rather sober and reserved. California has a remedy for this defect in the abundance of climbing flowers. Banksia rose, ivy-geranium, Wistaria, clematis, passion vine, Ampelopsis, and a joyous host of companion vines are ready to enliven any sober wall. Wire-mesh screens a foot from the house will protect the shingles from dampness, and our houses can thus be decked as for a carnival in a wealth of varying bloom.

A practice much in vogue of trimming shingle houses with white is especially to be deprecated since the white accent is utterly out of key with the rest of the house and attracts the attention out of all proportion to the importance of the parts thus emphasized. If color must be used, a creosote shingle stain for the roof, of dull red or a soft warm green, is not apt to destroy the color harmony of the house with reference to the surrounding landscape, but the difficulty is that crude harsh colors are so often chosen, or, if successfully avoided by the original colorist, may be applied by some less discriminating successor. The colors bestowed by nature always improve with time, and are therefore by far the safest.

Our consideration of the home has progressed only so far as the right use of one material. There are two other matters of fundamental importance, the style of architecture and the plan. Our discussion to this point would apply equally to any country or climate, but in the matters now to be treated, the environment must be reckoned with. A simple house need not, in an exact sense, be classed with any style of architecture, yet there are certain distinguishing features which seem to throw many of our recent homes into either the Classic, the Gothic, or the so-called "Mission" architecture of the Spanish.

With the California houses which pass under the name of "Colonial" I have no sympathy whatever. In the Eastern States the real colonial houses are genuinely beautiful and appropriate, set amidst green lawns and shadowed with venerable elms, but their charm lies more in the natural use of good materials than in the introduction of classic columns and other embellishments. The cheap imitations of such homes in California generally have no harmonious setting and are characterized by the use of inappropriate materials in an insincere way. I need instance but one example, that of a large wooden house painted red to suggest brick, with blocks of white trimming as a reminiscence of marble or granite. In this there is no attempt at deception, of course, but a mere copy of an effect produced by more expensive materials.

It is unnecessary to dwell at greater length on the inappropriateness of meaningless white-painted fluted columns of hollow wood, which support nothing worthy of their pretentiousness, of little balconies of turned posts, which are too small or inaccessible to be used, and many other vulgar accessories of ornament, made more glaring by a hard surface of white paint.

I therefore pass next to the Gothic house. A real problem here presents itself for serious consideration, one, in fact, concerning which our best architects are not fully in accord. In brief, the question is: Shall we bar the pointed roof from the valleys of California, and with it the Gothic spirit, on the ground that our climate does not demand it? Those who reply in the affirmative, point to the fact that we live in a land without snow, and that the steep-pitched roof is called for only as a means of shedding the heavy snow of a northern climate. They contend that since our climatic affinities are with the Mediterranean countries rather than with Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia, our architecture should follow the inspiration of the South rather than of the North. Those who make this contention find their ideal in a masonry architecture with roofs of the slightest practicable pitch. I have much sympathy with this point of view, and yet the case does not seem quite so clear as some of its most consistent advocates conceive it. The problem seems to hinge, in part at least, on whether or not the steep-pitched roof is to be regarded only in the light of a snow-shed. If so, it is manifestly out of place in the valleys of Central and Southern California. But is there not another element involved in the pointed lines of Gothic architecture? Are the pinnacles and spires of a Gothic cathedral intended simply or mainly to carry off snow? It seems to me, on the contrary, that the whole pointed effect of Gothic architecture is, in a measure at least, a, means of expressing the ideal of aspiration. A flattened roof naturally carries the glance down to earth; a pointed roof, on the other hand, leads the eye upward to the sky. The two ideals are most completely embodied in the Greek temple and the Gothic cathedral, the one complete, finished, nobly crowning the earth, the other beautiful in itself but pointing heavenward toward spiritual things unrealized.

Even if the flatness of the Greek temple and the pointedness of the Gothic cathedral were primarily the result of the absence and presence of snow, these forms have, in the course of ages, become the embodiments of certain human ideals, the contented and the aspiring. The horizontal line suggests repose; the vertical line, action. If the Gothic spirit is to be introduced and perpetuated in California, it will have a temperamental rather than a climatic rationale.

That the pointed roof is not an essential in a country with heavy winter snows is well exemplified by the Swiss chalet. Those who disparage the pointed roof most strongly as an importation from a land of snow are most ready to follow the type of house characteristic of Switzerland, where broad roofs of very slight pitch, supported by massive timbers, hold the snow to serve as a warm blanket.

If we turn to savage architecture to discover the natural genesis of roof lines, we find the Thlingit Indians in Alaska and the Maoris of southern New Zealand, both living in lands of winter snow, building houses with roof pitch but little steeper than that characteristic of Italy and Greece, while the Hawaiians, who dwell in the tropics and whose ancestors lived there in the remote past, build grass houses with roofs as steep as those of Norway. In the face of such unconscious testimony as to the lack of necessary relation between roof pitch and snow, I fail to see how any fair-minded student of architecture can continue to press the point.


New Zealand Maori House Showing Roof of Moderate Pitch
New Zealand Maori House Showing Roof of Moderate Pitch

Personally I have no wish to argue in favor of either roof pitch for California. It seems to me to be largely a matter of individual taste, to be determined by the preference of the builder for Gothic or Classic ideals. There is a practical advantage in the roof of low pitch, in that it gives an increase in attic room, but the steep roof, on the other hand, is a more perfect water-shed, and therefore less liable to leak. The Mansard roof, with flat top enclosed with a railing, need not be discussed in this connection, since it is happily out of fashion and seems destined to remain so. Another form of flat roof that characteristic of Egypt and Palestine is, on the contrary, quite appropriate to California, and especially to city houses. In this style of architecture the outer walls of the house project above the roof level, enclosing an open-air garden on the house-top. Buildings thus designed are generally made of stone, brick, or plaster, although wood also may be fitly employed for a house of this description.

Our discussion of architectural styles has thus far been restricted to roof lines, and the conclusion reached is that taste and a feeling for simple, harmonious lines rather than climate is the governing principle in determining these. In the matter of windows, balconies, and the arrangement of the walls, on the contrary, climate plays an important role. Southern California is pre-eminently a land of sunshine, with slight rainfall, little fog, mild winters, and hot, dry summers. An out-of-door life is possible much of the year, and protection from the sun is a necessity to comfort. Deep recessed verandas, windows with deep reveals, and open rooms roofed over and with the sides protected by screens upon which vines may be trained, all these are suitable to the climate of southern California, and to the sheltered valleys in the interior of the central part of the State. The Spanish architecture is especially appropriate in these regions. Heavy walls of masonry, secluded courts, outside corridors sheltered from the sun, and houses set flat upon the ground, are quite in keeping with a warm, arid country.

The region about San Francisco Bay has a very different climate. The proportion of sunny days is far less; during the winter there is an abundant rainfall, while in summer much foggy weather is experienced. The winters are so mild that furnace fires are seldom considered a necessity, while the summers are so cool that there are only a few days when sunlight is not welcome for its warmth. Thus it follows that about San Francisco Bay we need to introduce into our homes all the sunlight we can get. Here the deep shadowing porches or outside corridors are out of place, as are also deep-set windows of small dimensions. We need plenty of glass on the south, east and west. A small glass room on the south side of the house is a great luxury, as well as an economy in the matter of heating the entire home.

Furthermore, the bay climate is mild enough to enable people to sit out of doors during two-thirds of the year if shelter is provided against the prevailing sea breeze from the west. Wide porches without roofing, on the east side of the house, or on the south side with a wall of wood or glass at the western end, are therefore the best means of promoting an out-of-door life in the family. These porches are most useful when large enough to accommodate a table and chairs, and they may be protected from publicity by means of bamboo strip curtains or by a screen of vines. A movable awning or a large Japanese umbrella overhead makes the porch into a livable open-air room.

The lighting of the home is greatly improved by massing the windows, thus avoiding the strain on the eyes occasioned by cross lights. Three or four windows side by side give a far better light than the same number scattered about the room, and the wall space can be utilized to better advantage by this arrangement. The old-fashioned hinged windows are more picturesque than the customary sort that slide up and down with the aid of weights on pulleys concealed between the walls; and leaded glass, when it can be afforded, not only ]ends decorative effect to the house, but also breaks up the view in a charming manner.

While insisting on abundant sunlight in homes about San Francisco Bay, I cannot overlook the fascination of wide eaves. A house without eaves always seems to me like a hat without a brim, or like a man who has lost his eyebrows. The decorative value of shadows cannot well be overestimated; and the problem thus becomes one of making the most of the eaves without losing too much sunlight from the rooms. In this, so much depends on the location and plan of the house that no general discussion would be of much practical value.

The plan of the home, which, after all, is the great factor in its convenience and livability, still remains for consideration. If I were to make one suggestion only, it would be to keep it large and simple in idea. A generous living room of ample dimensions is preferable to several small rooms without distinctive character. The custom of having a front and back parlor is relegated to the limbo of our grandmothers, and in its stead one large living room suffices for family gatherings and the entertainment of friends. The dining-room may open off from this assembly room as an annex or alcove, closed with heavy curtains or with a large sliding door. Little surprises in the form of unexpected nooks or cabinets seen through long vistas, and other elements of mystery lend charm when done by an artist, but it is decidedly better for the inexpert to avoid all but the simplest and most natural expression.

A high ceiling, with its wide expanse of unused wall space, commonly gives a room a dreary effect which it is almost impossible to remove, although an extremely high ceiling, relieved by exposed rafters, is sometimes very charming, effectively revealing the roof as in a barn or chapel. In other respects the plan depends largely on the life of the family, in which sanitation, comfort, convenience and adaptability all must be well considered. No home is truly beautiful which is not fitted to the needs of those who dwell within its walls. A stairway upon which a tall man is in danger of bumping his head is an example of bad art. So, too, is a stairway with risers so high or a flight so long that the mother of the family will be over-fatigued in going up and down.

Hawaiian House Showing Steep-pitched Roof
Hawaiian House Showing Steep-pitched Roof

Too little attention is commonly paid to the interior finish. Anything that tends to emphasize the constructive quality of the work enhances its value. No ceiling ornament can equal the charm of visible floor joists and girders, or of the rafters. They are not there merely to break up the monotony of a flat surface, but primarily to keep the upper stories from falling on our heads. Incidentally, they are a most effective decoration with their parallel lines and shadows.

My own preference for the interior walls of a wooden house is wood. If an air space is left between the shingle wall and the inner lining, the house will not be too susceptible to changes of temperature without. It is only of late years that the full charm of the natural California redwood has been realized. Until recently it was treated with a stain and then varnished, but now this practice has given way to the use of surfaced wood, rubbed with a wax dressing to preserve the natural color, or left to darken without any preservative.

The redwood walls of the interior may be made by nailing vertical slabs to the outside of the studding, thus leaving the construction all exposed within, or by applying simple vertical panels to the inside of the studding. A very effective door is made of a single long, narrow panel of redwood, with the edges of the frame left square.

There are other satisfying interior finishes beside the natural planed redwood. An extremely interesting result can be obtained by taking rough-sawed boards or timbers, and slightly charring the surface. On rubbing this down with sand and an old broom, a soft brown color and an interesting wavy texture is produced. Redwood treated with sulphate of iron is turned a silver gray, like boards exposed for years to the weather, and gives an interesting color scheme to a room. Rough boards sawed and left without planing may be colored with a soft green creosote stain, which gives a peculiarly subdued and mossy effect. Other stains, or even the application of Dutch leaf metal or of gold paint on wood, may be used with caution by an experienced artist, but should be avoided by the novice. Planks or beams, surfaced with the adze, have a fascinating texture, this finish being especially effective for exposed rafters.

A hard pine flooring answers very well in an inexpensive house, although a harder wood is to be preferred if it can be afforded. A coating of white shellac, followed by weekly polishings with wax and a friction brush, leaves the floor in good order.

I have thus far said nothing of ornament in describing the construction of the home. It is far better to have no ornament than to have it either badly designed or wrongly placed. We sometimes see shingle houses with a square piece of machine carving of commonplace design to relieve the monotony of a plain wall surface. The bare wall would have been inoffensive, but the ornament spoils the simplicity and effectiveness of the entire house. Ornament should grow out of the construction, and should always be an individual expression adapted to the particular space it is to fill. Thus all machine-turned moldings, sawed-out brackets, or other mechanical devices for ornament, may well be rigorously excluded.

As the life of the home centers about the fireplace, this may appropriately be the most beautiful feature of a room. Let its ornamentation be wholly individual and hand wrought.

Carved corbels, supporting a Plain shelf, or some good conventional form done in terra-cotta or tiling, may be used to advantage; but if something cannot be made for that particular spot, be content with a good, generous fireplace of the rough, richly colored clinker brick or of Pressed brick, or big tiles. If good in form, the hearth will be a beautiful corner, full of good cheer.

While on the subject of ornament, I cannot refrain from a word on the lack of vitality in the decorative work of even our best architects. This is due to the fact that instead of making designs from the decorative forms of animals and plants about them, they almost invariably copy, with more or less exactness, the designs from architectural works of Europe. How much easier to take books of details of Italian chapels and Greek temples, than to go to that wonderful book of nature and create from her treasure-house new motives! But until the latter method is followed, decorative work will be feeble and imitative.

Thus far our discussion has been confined to houses built) within and without, of wood. An outer covering of bricks may be substituted for the shingles without materially altering the design in other respects, and, if the construction be sufficiently massive to warrant it, slate or tile may replace the shingles of the roof, making the whole more durable and substantial in effect. But it is a mistake to suppose that a wooden structure is necessarily perishable in its nature. I am told that there are such houses in good preservation in Continental Europe which antedate Columbus, and we all know of the Anne Hathaway cottage and other Shakespearean relics of Stratford.

The wooden house may be varied by the use of plaster, either on the exterior or the interior. The point to be emphasized is never to use plaster with wood as if the construction were of masonry. The only safeguard is to show the construction. Houses built in the old English style, with exposed timbers between the plaster, are very picturesque. It has been ascertained that plaster applied to wooden laths will soon fall off, but when expanded metal is used as a foundation, the plaster seems to stand indefinitely. It may be toned to some soft, warm shade with a permanent water-color paint.

There is another type of plaster house much in vogue in California which is to be condemned as an unmitigated sham. This is the style which masks under the name of "Mission" architecture, and which imitates the externals of the work of the old Spanish missionaries while missing every vital element in their buildings. The modern structure in Mission style is built of wood, either completely covered with plaster or with exposed wood painted to imitate it. Many features of masonry construction, such as round pillars covered with stucco, arches and circular windows, are introduced. The construction is generally slight, but with a massive external appearance, and the roofing in most cases is of tin tiles painted red. Such work as this will do well enough for a world's fair, which is confessedly but a fleeting show, but it is utterly unworthy as the home of any honest man.

Glimpse of a Spanish California Mission
Glimpse of a Spanish California Mission

The Spanish missionaries did their work in adobe, brick, tile and stone. Much of it was covered with plaster and whitewashed. The charm of the low, simple buildings surrounding a court, with corridors supported by arches extending both on the outside and inside, can only be realized by one who has studied the lovely ruins of the Spanish occupation, or better still, by one who has visited Spanish countries. The glare of the whitewashed walls is relieved by the deep shadows of the sheltering corridors or porch roofs, the soft red tiles crown the work, and vines and orchards, with fountains and palm trees in the court, make a beautifully harmonious setting. There is a romantic charm about such architecture and an historic association which California needs to cherish, but to mimic it with cheap imitations in wood is unworthy of us. If we are unwilling to take the pains, or if we cannot afford to do the work genuinely, let us not attempt it. We may carry out the general form in wood if we choose, but let it then be frankly a wooden house, or a structure of wood and plaster worked out constructively as such. Furthermore, as I have already pointed out, the climate of San Francisco Bay, with its large percentage of cloudy days, is not suited to deep recessed porches that cut the sun from the first story.

The use of plaster as an interior finish has been, until the last few years in California, so much a matter of course that I should have mentioned it first were it not that I wished to emphasize the superiority of the natural wood interior for a wooden house. If plaster is used, however, let it be with visible rafters. It may be toned or papered in any soft, warm shade, but the use of a mechanically printed wall-paper I should avoid under any and all circumstances. As this is a matter which concerns the furnishing of the home more especially, a fuller discussion of the point may be reserved for the following chapter.

If it seems to any that too much of this discussion has been devoted to wood construction, my answer has already been given namely, that most people cannot afford, at the present day, to build of any other material, and that consequently a full consideration of the principles governing the right use of wood is a matter of the greatest immediate importance. At the same time, it is well to point out that every advance in the building of masonry homes is a progressive step, since it makes for greater stability, lessens the danger of fire, and saves our forests, which are so needful to the prosperity of the State. In masonry architecture the same fundamental idea should prevail, of using the material in the manner which emphasizes its strength and constructive value. Ornament should be studied with the same care and used with the same restraint as in wood.

Now for a last word on home building: Let the work be simple and genuine, with due regard to right proportion and harmony of color; let it be an individual expression of the life which it is to environ, conceived with loving care for the uses of the family. Eliminate in so far as possible all factory-made accessories in order that your dwelling may not be typical of American commercial supremacy, but rather of your own fondness for things that have been created as a response to your love of that which is good and simple and fit for daily companionship. Far better that our surroundings be rough and crude in detail, provided that they are a vital expression conceived as part of an harmonious scheme, than that they be finished with mechanical precision and lacking in genuine character. Beware the gloss that covers over a sham!


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