Author Archives: Hugh Howard

Find Out Which Renowned Homes Were Practically Uninhabitable

They're dream homes for fans of architecture, but for the people who actually live in them, groundbreaking designs can be a real nightmare.

Pushing the envelope always entails risk. But much more often than you might have expected, works of architecture that succeed aesthetically ultimately end up failing to keep out the weather. The use of cutting-edge materials in new forms: While on the one hand it leads to progress, it also invites trouble.


Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his leaky roofs.

Famous Houses' Leaky Roofs - Richard Lloyd Jones

Richard Lloyd Jones House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and built in 1929. Photo:

When client Herbert “Hib” Johnson was deciding whether or not to hire Frank Lloyd Wright, he visited the Lloyd-Jones House, a home Wright had designed in Tulsa. Arriving in a downpour, Johnson found that it was raining indoors, too. The floor was dotted with containers strategically positioned so as to catch the drops. Mrs. Lloyd-Jones dryly observed, “This is what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain.” The prospective client nonetheless commissioned a house.


“If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough.”

Famous Houses' Leaky Roofs - Glass House

The Glass House, designed by Philip Johnson, and built in 1949. Photo:

So said another Johnson, the irreverent Philip. He once told an audience at Yale that he regarded Wright’s iconic Fallingwater as a “pioneer work.” In a typically witty aside, Johnson observed that it was “a seventeen-bucket house.” He then had the good grace to admit that his own Glass House was “a six-bucket house.” A rather unusual rating system?


Madame Savoye declared her Le Corbusier masterwork “uninhabitable.”

Famous Houses' Leaky Roofs - Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye, designed by Le Corbusier, and built in 1931. Photo:

Within a week of moving into the home Le Corbusier had designed for her family, Madame Savoye found that its roof leaked everywhere. “It’s raining in the hall,” she wrote Corbu. “It’s still raining in my bathroom….” The “rain” actually gave her only child an illness from which it took him a year to recover. In the end, Madame Savoye demanded that Le Corbusier pay for the repairs. Otherwise, she threatened, she would contact her lawyers and take him to court.


The problem is forever.

Famous Houses' Leaky Roofs - Attingham House Picture Gallery

Picture Gallery of Attingham House, designed by John Nash, and built in 1805. Photo:

Such problems show no sign of going away. Witness the fact that MIT recently sued Frank Gehry when the Stata Center, built in 2004, sprouted leaks and an epidemic of mold. Likewise, leaky roofs at the leading edge of architecture are by no means a contemporary phenomenon. At the Attingham House, a grand country estate in Shropshire, England, Regency architect John Nash used skylights and cast-iron roof ribs in the picture gallery. Revolutionary for 1805, the room inspired a new breed of building, but it stopped leaking only decades later once a completely new roof had been added over the old one.

Buildings are supposed to keep us out of the rain. But when designers explore bold new ideas? Keep a mop at hand.

FDR’s “Real” Springwood on the Hudson

The fabled home of an unforgettable political family, stately Springwood endures with vitality to match the Roosevelts' legacy.

FDR's Springwood


With the release of Hyde Park On Hudson, a Focus Features film starring Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—moviegoers are treated to a rare, albeit theatrical, glimpse of FDR’s life at Springwood, the Roosevelt family home in Duchess County, NY. While the movie was shot on location in England and not at the historic property, Springwood remains unique among presidential sites, as revealed in this excerpt from Houses of the Presidents (Little, Brown; November 2012) by author and historian Hugh Howard.


BY 1915, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT’S PUBLIC CAREER followed the path of his idolized cousin, Theodore. Both Roosevelts had been elected to serve in the New York State Senate and received appointments to be assistant secretary of the navy. Franklin’s private life was proving productive, too. In 1905, against his mother’s wishes, he married Teddy’s niece, Anne Eleanor, and she birthed five children in ten years. Another was expected.

With his large ambitions and growing family, the need became obvious: The house known as Springwood, located at Hyde Park, New York, simply had to be expanded.

His father had died almost fifteen years earlier, but his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, remained in charge at Springwood. Over the years minor changes had been made to the house (a staircase was shifted in 1892 and electricity arrived in 1908), but a more radical rethinking was required. Together, mother and son commissioned a respected New York architectural firm, Hoppin and Koen, to prepare a plan. The revamped house that resulted mingled the architects’ beaux arts training and Franklin’s fondness for elements of the Dutch colonial design native to the Hudson Valley.

The raising of the existing roof allowed for the construction of a large playroom. At either end of the original structure new fieldstone wings were added. The north addition contained a common room for the servants and a schoolroom on the first floor, along with five servant bedrooms and a bath above. The south wing enclosed a spacious library down, three bedrooms up. The new plan retained the old configuration of the principal rooms, but the house was doubled in size.

Roosevelt Springwood Office Roger Straus Iii Housesofthe Presidents

Sara Delano Roosevelt paid the bills and managed the year-long renovation, which saw removal of the old clapboard cladding and the application of gray stucco for a look more compatible with the coursed rubblestone of the new wings. Other decorative touches added formality to what became a more imposing house, with a columned portico and a fanlight over the door. A vernacular Victorian dwelling reemerged as an orderly and symmetrical statement that spoke for the means and expectations of the man of the house.

In the years that followed, Roosevelt’s rise seemed likely to continue. In 1920 the Democrats named him their vice-presidential candidate, though he and his running mate, Ohio Governor James M. Cox, lost by an overwhelming margin to the Republican pairing of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Roosevelt returned to his law practice but, less than a year later, on vacation at his cottage on Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine, he took to his bed. The diagnosis was polio and, for much of the next seven years, Roosevelt worked at his rehabilitation. He would never regain full use of his legs and, wary that people would think him unfit for public office, he attempted to appear more mobile than he was, delivering speeches while standing (he wore iron leg braces) and taking pains to avoid being photographed in his wheelchair.

Roosevelt Springwood Bedroom Roger Straus Iii Homesofthe PresidentEventually, he reentered politics, and, in 1928, was elected governor of New York. After two terms in Albany, the fifty-year-old Roosevelt pledged at the Democratic convention in 1932 that, if elected president, he would deliver “a new deal for the American people.” That November he won a national mandate, carrying forty-two of the forty-eight states. He would win a total of four presidential elections as he sought to lead the nation out of the Great Depression and, eventually, to victory in war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which he described as “a date that will live in infamy.”

Historians and biographers have wrestled with the popularity of the politician and the complex personality of the man. Franklin Roosevelt was raised an eastern aristocrat but seemed genuinely to like everybody, regardless of class or region. When he addressed people as “my friends,” whether among a small group, in a public speech, or over the radio waves in one of his periodic “fireside chats” (many of which were broadcast from Springwood), all kinds of people were drawn to the man with the welcoming manner and a passion for conversation and company. The American people not only accepted his friendship, but they admired his implacability and the seemingly bottomless optimism that had been in evidence since childhood. Everyone felt they knew this man, and most people liked him.

Roosevelt Springwood Elevator Roger Straus Iii Housesofthe PresidentsAlthough Springwood offers a superb vantage from which to consider Roosevelt and his many facets, the home never actually belonged to its most famous occupant. At his death in 1900, Franklin’s father, James, left it not to his son (then newly enrolled at Harvard) but to his widow, Sara; prior to her death in 1941, Franklin had asked his mother to deed the estate to the federal government. Yet Springwood remains unique among presidential sites, as the property at Hyde Park was Roosevelt’s principal home throughout his life; even as president he traveled there often, making almost two hundred trips to Springwood in the course of his thirteen-year presidency.

President Roosevelt spent languid summer days in the house that overlooked the Hudson; he ritually returned home at Christmas for his hearthside reading of A Christmas Carol to the children and grandchildren; he planned war strategies with Churchill there. After his death on April 12, 1945, his remains made one last pilgrimage to Hyde Park, traveling through the night past thousands of Americans who gathered to watch and grieve as the funeral train passed. He was bound for the resting place he had chosen, his mother’s rose garden at Springwood.

Color photos courtesy of Roger Straus III; B&W image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Historic Paint Colors

A primer for researching and choosing paint colors for the historic house.

Historic Paint Colors


The gasp was audible. On entering the dining room at Monticello in late 2011, the chatter abruptly ceased as the tourists took in the brilliant yellow walls. The hue—chrome yellow, to be exact—produced a stunned silence. “It’s like looking at the world from the inside of an egg yolk,” one visitor observed. The shock was redoubled for repeat visitors since the vibrant yellow replaced a subtle blue that had set the tone of the room since 1936.

Why the change? Progress, you might say. Thomas Jefferson liked to be au courant and, in 1815, he got his hands on a supply of lead chromate yellow pigment, invented only a few years earlier in France. The color was fashionable, and few people complained of its intensity in an era when the after-dark illumination of candles and lamps produced the equivalent of fewer than five watts of electric light.

Today, the science of paint analysis is providing new insights into early decorative schemes. Just a generation ago, the standard method of determining a paint chronology (that is, the sequence of colors applied to a surface) was simply to scrape, sand, or otherwise expose the lower layers. The colors were usually faded but some had lost their original tones due to sun exposure, oxidation, and the passage of time.

One consequence of such studies was the so-called “Williamsburg palette,” the product of early restoration work at Colonial Williamsburg, begun in the1920s. Even today, many people maintain the mistaken impression that our ancestors lived in a world of muted and “tasteful” shades.

In the last several decades, however, preservationists at Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and countless other historic sites have benefited from the expertise of a new breed of technologically-savvy conservators. They employ cross-section microscopy, organic and elemental lab analyses, and other scientific techniques. The result is that restorers now can “see” what the naked eye cannot by reading the residues of pigments, oils, washes, and other media. By identifying the hues, color saturation, and the lightness of paint samples, paint analysts have produced new understandings of the tastes of the past.


Historic Paint ColorsOften the paints historians find are surprisingly bright; many of the colors, like Jefferson’s chrome yellow, were fresh and new in their time. At the turn of the eighteenth century, for example, the first chemically synthesized color, Prussian blue, became wildly popular after a Berlin colourman produced it using a salt compound of iron and potassium. Verdigris green was another innovation, made from a crystal formed by suspending copper sheets in a vat of vinegar. Before chrome yellow was first manufactured in 1819, other yellows were in use, including Turner’s Patent yellow, marketed in the 1780s.

Of course, some pigments weren’t new even in the age of the Founding Fathers. Among them were whiting (a form of calcium carbonate), white lead, indigo, and burnt umber. Yellow ochre and traditional reds, including Venetian red and the purplish Spanish brown, were each made with naturally occurring earth pigments in use since antiquity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the range of choices would expand exponentially, making possible the polychrome paint schemes of the Victorian age, typified by the so-called “painted ladies” of San Francisco.

Wikimedia Painted Ladies Victorian Houses Historic Paint Color Bob Vila

In the pre-industrial era, none of these colors was sold premade in the cans and tins we take for granted. Each painter had to prepare his own paints using dry pigments ground into powders, which were then mixed with liquid media, most often linseed oil. The process was laborious, since the more thoroughly the pigments were ground into the binder, the richer and more uniform the color. Occasionally water-based or even milk-based media were used instead (the latter was often a mix of milk, lime, and Neat’s foot oil).


Even if you’re an historically conscious homeowner, you’re not required to grind pigments in a paint mill or boil linseed oil in a copper cauldron. If your house has an important architectural pedigree, you may wish to commission a paint analysis, but mainly you’ll want to consider clues you’ve found, such as old paint surfaces located in rarely repainted closets, atop moldings, or that emerged with the removal of old wallpaper. You may even wish to undertake a sand-and-scrape analysis yourself (if you do, keep in mind the colors are likely to be very much faded).

Another potential source of guidance is the good work done at many historic sites. Most paint manufacturers have been paying attention to these findings, and the marketplace now has many hues that replicate popular colors from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century. That means old house owners can pay due regard to the historic character of their homes while using convenient water-based paints that offer easy clean-up and shorter drying times. Many of these products are also more environmentally friendly, as low- or no-VOC paints emit fewer volatile organic compounds.


Just like Thomas Jefferson did in his day, you get to exercise your taste when choosing paint colors for your home.  If you don’t have an existing color scheme you’re trying to replicate, it still makes sense to pay heed to historic precedents. And there is good guidance available to help you choose colors that both please your eye and suit the style and heritage of your home. Check out the Bob Vila’s Guide To Historic Paint Colors slideshow.

Builders and homeowners in every era are, to some degree, subject to the prevailing tastes of their times: The differences are obvious when you compare, say, the elaborate Queen Anne color schemes of the 1890s to the austere white-on-white of some pre-Civil War Greek Revival houses. If you can fit your home into the timeline of American architecture, you’ll find clues to suitable color choices from a variety of resources, including:

If you like early yellow houses, Bob tours one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where both General George Washington and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived.

Consult the Valspar color charts containing the 250 hues identified at National Trust for Historic Preservation sites and marketed by Lowes.

Take a look at the handy color guide from California Paints, prepared in collaboration with Historic New England, which features 149 colors linked to architectural styles dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

The British firm of Farrow & Ball sells high-quality paints made in small batches; consult their paint selection. What anglophile could resist colors with names like Rectory Red and Manor House Gray?

Most major American paint manufacturers produce lines of historic colors, too, from Benjamin Moore’s Historic Paint line to the Pratt & Lambert Williamsburg palette.

Hugh Howard’s new book is Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War, a fresh look at the War of 1812.

A Farm Grows in Brooklyn: Visiting the Weeksville Heritage Center

One of America’s first free-black communities reemerges in a twenty-first century neighborhood.


Photo: Weeksville Heritage Center

Weeksville’s Origins
Before the city grid was imposed, a Dutch and Indian trade route called Hunterfly Road meandered through central Brooklyn. In 1838, a free African American from Virginia named James Weeks purchased land along that country road.

A town bustled to life, becoming one of the first, free-black communities in the United States. By the 1850s, Weeksville’s population grew to more than 500 people, including doctors, teachers, and other professionals. Weeksville had churches, schools, an orphanage, and a newspaper, the Freedman’s Torchlight.

Yet as Brooklyn became the most populous of New York’s five boroughs, little Weeksville quite literally disappeared from the map.

Historic Dwellings, Discovered
Fast forward a century and a half. A professor from nearby Pratt Institute looks down from his seat in a small airplane. In a 1968 eureka moment, urbanist Jim Hurley’s aerial survey reveals the topography of old Hunterfly Road and a set of forgotten dwellings on a back alley.

Largely hidden by much larger and later buildings, the once-rural farmhouses had lost their identity. But the plain, mid-19th-century houses, though vacant and vandalized, were remarkable survivors of a once prosperous and self-sufficient community.

They were soon designated New York City Landmarks and entered on the National Historic Register. A grassroots effort was launched to raise funds to save the houses, and some of the first monies came from the children at Public School 243 (later renamed the Weeksville School). The goal came to be to restore the antique houses in today’s North Crown Heights and to knit together a neighborhood.

Weeksville - Interior

The people of Weeksville lived comfortably in the community. Photo: Weeksville Heritage Center

Restoration and Celebration
More than thirty years were required to do the archaeological, architectural, and historical research; to raise the money; and to complete the restoration of the houses at what is now the Weeksville Heritage Center.

In 2005, Senator Hilary Clinton addressed the crowd celebrating the opening of the restored houses. Today, visitors interact with the dwellings in a manner unusual at historic homes. As Director Pam Green says with a laugh, “We’re not quite a please-touch museum, but we are participatory and moving closer. We use inquiry-based and object-based learning. Students are invited to handle some of our artifacts.” It’s a hands-on, brains-on way of looking at how free black Americans lived in the three distinct times the houses re-create, the mid-1800s, circa 1900, and the 1930s.

If the houses draw visitors to learn the Weeksville story, a mix of other programs aims to keep people coming back. A seasonal farmers’ market on Saturdays offers fresh produce, some of it grown in the site’s kitchen gardens, in a neighborhood with limited shopping options. An annual festival in August, lectures, musical performances, and other activities welcome adults and children alike to the site.

Weeksville - Planned Development

Old buildings and new will soon share a neighborhood green space. Photo: Weeksville Heritage Center

Cultural Oasis
Weeksville remains a work-in-progress, as ground was broken in October 2009 for a new, 19,000-square-foot education and art center. The gold LEED-certified design incorporates workshop space for preservation training, a media lab, spaces for out-of-school time, a research institute, and a performance space for dance, theatre, and symposia. For the first time, there will also be an exhibition gallery for showcasing new art related to the built and natural environment by artists working in various media.

The historic structures and the new center will be linked by a large green space, as the site now occupies much of a city block. “You’ll have a sense of what agricultural Brooklyn might have looked like in the nineteenth century,” says director Green, “with a semblance of farm grids, plantings, trees, flowers, and foliage.”

Taken together, the Weeksville Heritage Center is a remarkable experiment that melds historic preservation, community activism, arts, and education. As Pam Green says, “We are a cultural oasis in the middle of the inner city of Brooklyn. And we provide a sense of pride for our neighbors.”

Visiting the Center
The Weeksville Heritage Center is located at 1698 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY 11213. Phone: 718.756.5250. Subway stop: Utica Avenue (A,C and 3,4).

Weeksville’s historic homes are open for tours Tuesday through Friday at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm during the winter season. The Farmers’ Market runs May to September 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays.

For updates on events and other information about the Weeksville Heritage Center, visit

Bill Clinton’s Birthplace Achieves Historic Status

The newest presidential home on the National Park Service roster celebrates the early boyhood of the nation’s forty-second president

President Clinton’s first home.. Photo: Courtesy of the National Park Service, President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site.

Billy Blythe’s Hope
Close to America’s center is a half-forgotten railroad town called Hope. Located just off Interstate 30, not so far from the Texas border, this Arkansas burg retains two notable claims to fame.

For one, its farmers grow whopping great watermelons. The biggest of them, in fact, weigh a good deal more than does the town’s other notable product, namely, favorite son Bill Clinton. He was born within Hope’s borders on August 19, 1946.

Historic Site Status
Effective January 1, 2011, the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace on South Hervey Street entered the rolls of the National Park Service as its newest historic site, celebrating the early boyhood of the nation’s forty-second president.

To be frank, the place is no Monticello. Built in 1917, the home is a classic foursquare, with three bedrooms upstairs and a living room, kitchen, and dining room down. If it isn’t a memorable architectural monument, its efficient design, with a squat pyramidal roof with wide overhangs, and the generous porch out front, conveys a sense of southern comfort.

Bill Clinton’s Early Years
The architectural story isn’t really the point here. When newborn William Jefferson Blythe III left Julia Chester Hospital a few blocks away, he and his mother, Virginia Dell Cassidy Blythe, arrived on her parents’ doorstep. A single-mother, Virginia had been widowed at the death of her husband three months earlier in an auto crash on a Missouri highway. For the next four, formative years, Billy lived with his grandparents, as his mother came and went (she was completing her nurse anesthetist training in New Orleans).

Both Edith and James Eldridge Cassidy would help shape their grandson’s character, but it was “Papaw” that Clinton’s remembers as shaping his values. In the dedication of his autobiography, My Life, written more than half a century later, former President Clinton cited Eldridge Cassidy as the man “who taught me to look up to people others looked down on, because we’re not so different after all.”

Visiting Bill Clinton’s Birthplace
On a recent visit to the house, which was restored by the Clinton Birthplace Foundation prior to the Park Service taking possession, the overwhelming sense was that Ozzie Nelson might walk through the door at any moment. Or even Hopalong Cassidy, television’s first cowboy hero. Young Billy’s boyhood worship of “Hoppy” culminated in a broken leg at age five when he tried to clear a rope in cowboy boots, and there’s a black cowboy hat on his bed in the restored house.

Looking beyond the atmospheric memorabilia, the visitor learns something of the character of Hope, Arkansas during Clinton’s earliest years. His grandfather’s nearby general store sat on a fault line between the white and African-American communities; in segregated Hope, his store was among the few places where the races mixed freely. As presidential nominee Bill Clinton told America in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, “when his customers, whether they were White or Black … came in with no money, well, he gave them food anyway. He just made a note of it. So did I.”

Young Bill Blythe soon moved on with his mother and new stepfather to a bigger place — Hot Springs, Arkansas — and adopted his new father’s surname. But he often returned to Hope to summer with his grandparents and, in spirit, the place certainly informed his later life.

Want to visit? Find more information here.