Historic Homes & More - 3/14 - Bob Vila

Category: Historic Homes & More

The Great ESCAPE—A Prairie-Style Cabin on Wheels

See how a 400-square-foot cabin—designed on a human scale and with style to spare—can be spacious, inexpensive, and even movable.

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay Escape

Meticulous is the word that comes immediately to mind when you first see ESCAPE, the cabin-on-wheels designed by SALA Architects in conjunction with Dan Dobrowolski, owner of the luxurious Canoe Bay resort in Chetek, Wisconsin.

The tiny 400-square-foot structure, informed and inspired by the Prairie style, is the culmination of more than two thoughtful decades during which Dobrowolski oversaw the building or renovation of 17 structures at the resort, including a lodge, a restaurant, and a collection of gem-like cottages. Canoe Bay was at first an ambitious, learn-by-doing enterprise for the network meteorologist turned hotelier. Over time, the resort’s architecture matured into a sophisticated, cohesive aesthetic that is reflected in the design of ESCAPE.


“Twenty years ago, I bought an abandoned church camp and developed it into a world-class hotel and restaurant,” he says. “We’re in Wisconsin, home of Frank Lloyd Wright, so we adopted our native son’s architectural style for our property.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

Showing savvy design instinct in his vision for Canoe Bay, Dobrowolski recruited Wright protégé John Rattenbury, a cofounder of Taliesin Architects in Arizona. He then brought in Kelly Davis from SALA Architects in Stillwater, Wisconsin.

Their designs paid off in spades, as the evolving architectural language they’ve articulated is immensely popular today. Five thousand people pass through Canoe Bay every year, pausing to stay in Dobrowolski’s carefully crafted cottages, to enjoy the outdoor life on three lakes tucked into 300 acres, and to commune with eagles, otters, and bears out in the middle of nowhere.

And now they also come to admire the ESCAPE.

Although the little home takes its cues from the standard park model recreational vehicle (RV), it doesn’t suffer from the standard claustrophobic interiors, usually the result of attempting to cram in every possible luxury, appliance, and gadget known to mankind.

No, this cozy structure has been deliberately built to feel spacious, an effect achieved in part by its cathedral ceiling, but also by its simplicity; the interior is stripped down to the basics without sacrificing style or scale. “It’s a different kind of animal,” Dobrowolski says. “We came at it from a different angle—from the building side.”

A park model RV—taxed as personal property rather than real estate—is restricted by law to a size of just 400 square feet of enclosed space, excluding a porch or deck. So the designers and builders had to adapt. “We decided to see if we could make our architecture fit that size,” he says.

First, they designed ESCAPE on a human scale, despite the limitations of its 14-foot-by-28½-foot dimensions (14 by 40 with the optional screened porch). Second, they did not scrimp on either materials or features. ESCAPE is clad in cedar outside and yellow pine inside, with oak floors. There’s built-in cabinetry everywhere, and a fireplace crafted from weathered aluminum sits in a corner of the main living area. In the bedroom, a huge armoire provides both drawers and hanging space. The full-size kitchen accommodates a standard 30-inch range, and the expansive bath includes such amenities as a walk-in tile shower, a double vanity, and a separate toilet room. “Everything is normal-sized, with high-quality elements,” he says. “It’s built for real people—I’m a big person, and Wisconsin has a lot of full-sized people, so that’s the way it’s built.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

To say that ESCAPE is energy efficient is like saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was somewhat gifted. The prototype now on-site at Canoe Bay requires very little electricity. In fact, with every LED on, the lighting uses perhaps 120 watts total, and the entire home could be solar-powered. “The refrigerator and television would eat up most of the energy,” Dobrowolski says. “The energy bills for this prototype have never met the minimum bill of 30 bucks—it’s never gotten close.”

ESCAPE is constructed in the same manner as a traditional stick-built home, with a balloon frame and standard windows, trusses, roofing, siding, and floors. It just happens to lie on top of a steel frame on wheels. “It complies with the federal code, just like an RV,” he says. “It can be pulled anywhere—and the wheels can stay on, with a plywood skirt that covers them.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

At 22,000 pounds, however, it’s not something that can be towed around on the rear of a pickup. Like a mobile home, ESCAPE requires the power of an over-the-road tractor to get it where it’s going. But once on-site, setup is essentially a “plug and play” process for plumbing, wiring, and the like. “It takes four to five hours, and we’re done,” he says. “You can take the wheels off if you want, and the hitch too.”

A stripped-down model, sans screened porch, starts out at $79,000. Add the porch, a heated floor for the bath, and all the furnishings, and ESCAPE can top out at $124,000, window coverings included. “You have to bring your own clothes,” he says. “But then you’re ready to have fun.”

ESCAPE can be financed as you would a car or RV, rather than with a mortgage. The monthly payments, he says, are less than the rent for a one-bedroom apartment. Better yet—and unlike an apartment—the ESCAPE can be moved if need be.

Dobrowolski says he’s been surprised by the “tsunami” of demand for the little building since its debut late last year, but he believes he’s hit a nerve. So far, he’s received commitments for more than 100 units, a number of them destined for large campgrounds and resorts out West.

“I’ve immediately solved their problems,” he says. “If I deliver 20 of these to them, then they’ve got an instant resort.”

If only, he says with perfect hindsight, he’d thought of it 20 years ago.


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.

Green and Gorgeous: Presenting the 2014 New American Home

The 2014 New American Home showcases energy efficiency and sustainability while creating a luxurious, flexible, and comfortable environment perfect for today's families.

New American Home 2014

NAHB / Trent Bell Photography

The New American Home for 2014, nestled in the foothills of Henderson, Nevada, is an “idea house” showcasing new trends in home design and construction technologies that was recently on display during the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) International Builders’ Show. In their design for this 6,700-square-foot show house, architect Jeffrey Berkus and interior designer Marc Thee honored the natural elements of fire, water, metal, earth, and wood, while builder Josh Anderson, of Element Building Company, employed the latest trends in building science to bring their vision to life.

NAHB - New American Home 2014


“The 2014 New American Home represents how people are going to live and what that might feel like,” explains Thee, who worked with Berkus to seamlessly integrate indoors and out and to take full advantage of the site’s jaw-dropping views of the Las Vegas valley. Mixing organic and modern aesthetics, they created a sumptuous setting for 21st-century family life.




Although the New American Home is luxuriously appointed, one of the team’s foremost goals was practical: to achieve Emerald status under the National Green Building Standard. The first step toward reaching that goal was orienting the house to maximize natural light and solar energy while minimizing solar heat gain. During the building process, Anderson’s crew used sustainable materials as well as innovative building products. To harness the sun’s natural energy for powering the house, they installed photovoltaic panels on the roof.

Embracing the notion that today’s families need flexible spaces, the design team included an attached “casita,” a self-contained suite that can be used as an office or guest quarters without requiring entry into the main house. A larger carriage suite can be accessed by the adjacent staircase or elevator. Both of these accommodations contribute to the multigenerational nature of the New American Home’s design, which provides housing options for in-laws or grown children who want to be nearby yet independent.

NAHB 2014 New American Home

NAHB / Trent Bell Photography

Just inside the front door of the main house, a waterfall sets a calming tone as visitors proceed down the porcelain boardwalk that leads to the heart of the home. “The first floor was designed around an entry gallery where all the spaces are connected but have distinct qualities of their own,” says Berkus, in reference to the two-story space anchored by the boardwalk.

To the left of the boardwalk, the state-of-the-art kitchen hosts two islands—one for cooking and a second for eating and homework. “Today’s lifestyle dictates open-living floor plans,” says Thee. “So, kitchens have to feel like part of your living space.” To both define and integrate the kitchen, Thee and Berkus eschewed walls and instead used design elements, such as lighting, floor coverings, wall finishes, and furniture, to create a subtle transition from the kitchen to the adjacent living room.

Across the boardwalk, the dining area features glass walls that glide open into pockets, extending the interior space to the poolside terrace and outdoor kitchen. A floating staircase supported by a sawtooth stringer, an artful combination of wood and metal, leads to the second floor. One of the house’s two master suites is tucked beside these stairs and features a glass-and-stone bathing area integrated into the bedroom.

2014 New American Home

Photo: marc-michaels.com

Upstairs, glass railings surround the gallery overlook. A media room serves as a family gathering space and shares a private terrace with the expansive second-floor master suite. In this open-flow retreat, a two-sided fireplace partition separates the sleeping and bathing areas. Two additional family bedroom suites and a laundry room complete the second floor.

“From the beginning, we knew we wanted a modern design because of efficiency, but I didn’t want it to feel cold or industrial,” recalls Anderson of his early meetings with Berkus and Thee. “I am so pleased that it is the most energy-efficient New American Home ever built, and also—thanks to all the natural elements we brought inside—it is really warm and inviting.”

The Tudor-Style Home

Tudor-style homes are staples of residential developments throughout the United States. They're so popular, in fact, that we often lose sight of their historical roots. It's time for a refresher course.

Tudor Homes

Photo: Newdigs.com

If you grew up in an American suburb, you’re probably familiar with the Tudor architectural style, typified by homes with a stucco exterior accented with dark brown trim and topped with a steeply pitched gabled roof. What you may not know, however, is that, charming as they are, those 20th-century homes are simply “mock” Tudors, or Tudor Revivals, inspired by timber-framed cottages built 400 to 500 years earlier, during the reign of the Tudor dynasty in England.

Related: Living Like Shakespeare: A Tudor Tutorial

While the gentry of that post-medieval period built impressive brick or stone manor homes replete with hundreds of casement windows and ornate chimney stacks, the commoners developed a more modest architectural style. Back then, an ordinary village home or farmhouse was first framed entirely of timber. The builder would then insert woven sticks known as wattle between the timbers. Using daub (a mixture of clay, sand, and dung), he would infill the spaces around the wattle and seal the wall. Once the wall was dry, the daub was often painted white with limewash and the structural timbers were sealed with tar to protect them from rot. This building technique, known as half-timber, created the familiar brown-and-white exteriors we associate with Tudor-style homes today. In a variation on this construction method, the more well-to-do commoners often integrated sections of brick between timbers and added windows made up of small panes of glass held together by metal or wood.

By the 16th century, fireplaces with chimneys became commonplace in ordinary homes, and the interiors consequently became more complex. Rather than relying on one large room with a central fire pit for heat and cooking, Tudor homes could now have multiple rooms that served different purposes, each with its own fireplace as a heat source. Often, large fireplaces included inglenooks where people could sit to keep warm. And now that smoke could be channeled out through chimneys rather than up through a hole in the roof, these structures could include second stories, and with them staircases made of hand-hewn timbers. These upper-story rooms—usually bed chambers—generally had ceilings with exposed beams.

Tudor Revival

Photo: Gardenweb.com

Other architectural details that were integrated into Tudor homes included depressed arches—flattened arches with a slight central point—in doorways and on mantels; elaborate masonry chimneys on rooftops; steeply pitched roofs of thatch or tile; and jetties. A jetty is formed when the second floor extends beyond the dimensions of the first, creating an overhang. This feature enjoyed particular popularity in cities where the first-floor footprint was limited by the street outside.

At the turn of the 20th century, Americans embraced the Tudor style, building new homes that blended some of the old-world design elements with modern home-building techniques. Cousins of the Stick-style house, Tudor Revivals eschewed authentic half-timber construction and often featured brick or stone walls on the first story, and upper floors that were stud-framed and covered with a veneer of stucco and decorative faux timbers. Cross gables were commonly included in the plans, as were typically Tudor features like steep rooflines and gabled windows with leaded-glass mullions. The traditional thatched roof, however, was replaced by slate. Interiors incorporated such Tudor-style elements as decorative beamed ceilings, arched doorways, plaster walls, and detailed wooden staircases.

REMODELER’S NOTES: Tudor Revivals continue to be a popular architectural choice today, especially for homeowners seeking an historic aesthetic. They can, however, be expensive to maintain due to some of their most compelling elements, namely slate roofs, plaster walls, and highly inefficient leaded-glass windows. Advances in building techniques and materials have led some homeowners to turn to synthetic wood and stucco substitutes when updating a half-timber structure, and to replace the interior plaster walls with drywall.

Deconstruction and Smart Planning Brings New Light (and Life) to a Raleigh, N.C., Home

A heavily wooded lot and a poorly built house steered a North Carolina couple toward deconstructing the existing dwelling to erect in its place a new, light-filled gem of a home.


A Raleigh, N.C., couple’s desire for dappled sunlight—thwarted by poorly placed windows in their 1990s house, which was already in horrendous shape—spurred them to build a new, contemporary home on its existing footprint.

“The natural light was there, but it couldn’t be appreciated because the old house had no windows on the south side,” says Angela Hodge, who with her husband had bought the house—their first—in 1999.

The master bedroom suite on the southwest side was the one exception. “That bathroom was nice and bright all the time—the brightest spot in the house,” she says. “But I didn’t hang out in the bathroom all the time.”

Spring Residence Original

Original house prior to deconstruction.

After living there for 10 years, the couple stepped back to take stock of the residence, whose builder clearly must have been in a hurry to throw it together. “As you live in a place, you begin to see its quirks and faults, its good points and bad points,” she says. “This house just wasn’t that well built, with various things like mold and other stuff going wrong.”

“It had Masonite siding and rotting windows, with west-facing, large Palladian windows and solar issues addressed really poorly,” says Erik Mehlman, principal in BuildSense, a design/build firm in nearby Durham that the couple had encountered at a 2009 Green Home Tour. “They had a good sense about the particular house we were in, and what we were ultimately hoping to accomplish,” Hodge says. “So we asked Mehlman to come to the house for a walk-through.”

“It was a production builder’s house, a plan-book house meant for a flat site,” says Mehlman, “but it was on a steep slope.” Underneath the home was a crawl space, 4 feet deep at one end and 12 feet deep at the other.


Discussions ensued about whether it would be best to sell the home, then find another lot and build there. But the clients kept coming back to their heavily wooded site with its mature trees and the light that trickled down through the leafy canopy. Clearly, they did not want to leave it. After careful consideration and weighing of options, the architects conceded, opting to stay on site and rebuild.

One of the initial challenges was the house’s location. Because the home was located near a U.S. Corps of Engineers lake and in a buffer zone for an old streambed, the architects had to respect the home’s existing footprint. Initially, they decided to build atop the crawl space and foundation.

Spring Residence - Living Room

An open plan, ample outdoor spaces, and expanses of windows blur the lines between indoors and out. Photo:

“We said: Let’s take it down to the floor system of the first floor, leave the foundation and masonry work and crawl space, put the floor joists on top of that, then the walls, and then the roof,” Mehlman says. “We wouldn’t have to move the driveway, and we’d avoid site work and the money involved in that.”

Then the client came to them with a request for a guest room in the crawl space, and a wood shop too. The architects began to reconsider. Before long, they ended up digging out the crawl space to create a full, 2,500-square-foot basement with 8-foot-tall ceilings. The space offered a guest room, wood shop, mechanical room, wine cellar, and greenhouse with southern exposure and skylights.

Rather than demolish the home, the architects deconstructed it. They removed the brick and reused it. They saved all the wood framing and built the main staircase out of old studs. “It’s a direct visual link to the old house,” he says. What couldn’t be used was donated to Habitat for Humanity.

As the architects’ vision was coming into place, the homeowners were having a similar shift in design sensibilities—from antiques and clutter to lean, modern, and contemporary. “I call it my Southern Living phase, and actually I guess it really wasn’t me,” Hodge says. “But then I started seeing spaces in homes I visited that were different—streamlined, visually simpler, without a lot of ornate stuff going on—and I responded to that aesthetic better. It was calmer, and resonated with me.”

“They brought us a stack of Atomic Ranch magazines,” Mehlman says. “Then Angela asked if I’d heard of the Japanese engawa way of circulation. It blurs the lines of interior and exterior spaces, and she wanted to experience the outside as much as inside.”

Spring Residence Perforated Aluminum Panels

Perforated aluminum panels distribute light throughout the home. Photo:

So began the design phase. BuildSense started to dissect what makes an Atomic Ranch house—what it is and what, precisely, the client liked about it. Primary candidates were the low, sloping roof, the abundance of decks, and the aesthetic strength of a large masonry unit, inside to out. Instead of focusing on a heavy element, however, the architects listened to what both the clients and site were saying about light. They proposed a three-story tower built of perforated aluminum panels. Lacy and bright, the 16′ x 20′ structure forms an illuminated beacon that pierces all three stories of the new home.

“That light box defines the entry,” Mehlman says. “It’s a good orientation device that brings light in during the day, and at night it’s like a lantern to the street.”

It’s also helpful for finding one’s way up to the third-floor catwalk that leads outdoors to a platform and the telescope that the client required.

But mostly, this is a tower that’s all about dappled light.


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com

Mountain Re-Shack: An Abandoned Outbuilding Becomes Home

Architect Chad Everhart breathed new life into a derelict, abandoned shack in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to create a house that is not only eminently habitable but architecturally interesting too.

Mountain Shack Makeover

Photo: Chad Everhart

“Brutal” is the word architect Chad Everhart uses to describe his first encounter with a home he now calls the Mountain Re-Shack.

“There was a seven-foot-long black snake sitting on the front porch,” says Everhart, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “Nobody had lived in it for decades—the windows were blown out, and there were animals in it. But it was solid—you could jump on the floor OK.”

Most would call that a fairly low threshold for a renovation project. In fact, most would simply have called in the sledgehammers and the wrecking ball, and simply taken it down. But not Everhart. “I thought I could patch this thing up,” he says. “I thought it was fixable.”

Original Mountain Shack

The original mountain shack. Photo: Chad Everhart

It was a Depression-era home sited in a 10-acre cow pasture 25 minutes west of Boone in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was most likely built for a farmhand working on larger fields down the road. There were no studs in the walls, just hemlock boards barely hanging on. A galvanized tin roof struggled vainly to keep the structure dry. Inside, vandals had had their way.

“Everybody I talked to said, ‘Tear it down! Put it in the dump!’ ” he says. “But it would have cost a substantial amount of money to throw it away.”

Besides, he was enamored of its highly unusual fieldstone foundation and chimney. It was a cast-in-place affair, shaped by someone who first created wooden forms, then just tossed in rocks and poured concrete on top. Clearly absent were the craftsmanship and clean grout lines that any self-respecting mason would have insisted upon.


“A bunch of farmers probably got together and made this thing—pretty fast and not too fussy,” he says. “There’s no cut stone at all—it’s more like: ‘Here’s a pile of rocks, now let’s see what we can make of it.’ ”

Everhart’s client had initially hired him to build a new house on the site but then shifted gears: Why not do the little house first, live in it for a while and get used to the property? He wanted to see what it would take to make the derelict, abandoned shack livable for a time.

The architect thought about it and offered two approaches. He could fix it up like a little cottage and make it dark and rustic. Or he could celebrate its abandonment with a ghost-like frame that would give it an ephemeral kind of commentary. His client was intrigued.

“Should we patch it up or go absolutely crazy?” Everhart asked him.

The client answered with his own question: “Can we do both?”

They met in the middle and wound up redesigning the house so that it’s not only eminently habitable but architecturally interesting too. It maintains its old ruinous roots with its stone foundation and chimney, but now it wears a new skin—a hemlock-banded rainscreen, painted bright white.

“The client wanted to contrast the old and the new,” Everhart says. “It was kind of like: What could have been there, what should have been there, and what’s there now?”

The architect found a local contractor who’d been a carpenter for 40 years and got to work on reconfiguring most of the interior. “It was 1,000 square feet when we found it, and then we whittled it down to 850,” he says. “It was real chopped up and didn’t make a lot of sense—you had to walk through one room to get to another.”

They replaced the old roof with a new one and added gutters, then moved on to the interior, replacing a few joists to level the floors. “We didn’t want the client to walk on an undulating floor, so we squared it up to make it safe to occupy,” he says.

Mountain Re-Shack Chad Everhart

Living room before and after. Photo: Chad Everhart

They converted two tiny bedrooms on the second floor into one loft that now overlooks the living room below. In that living room, a propane stove, vented through the chimney, heats the entire home; a kitchen/dining area with full bath and laundry area are adjacent. The hemlock rainscreen is repeated inside, painted bright white in contrast to the gray-painted drywall and exposed ceiling joists.

Now it’s a home with its own narrative to tell, rather than a tear-down or a simple restoration. “It’s a story of how the past and the present merge together to show how something abandoned was reclaimed, reworked, reclad and reinhabited,” the architect says.

Everhart looks to both client and site for design inspiration, noting that this is not the house he would have designed for another client—and that for anyone else he probably would have torn it down. But this client is an interior designer who has worked with a number of architects on other projects and was itching to work with one for his own home. Moreover, he represents a new kind of resident for the rural mountains of North Carolina.

“He’s a typical client moving into this region, saying, ‘I want a farm, but a fresh overlay to what that means,’ ” Everhart says.

And then there’s the site itself. “It’s in an old farming community, and we responded to that with local materials and a local guy to build it—and we maintained the original form.”

They did so economically too. Even with its new well and septic system, the Mountain Re-Shack came in just under what new construction might have cost.

“We probably did it for about $150 a square foot,” Everhart says.

And there’s nothing brutal about that.


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com

New Look (and Life) for a 1950s Cape

The remodeling challenge was typical: how to get more living space for a growing family. The transformation was anything but.

Cape House Remodel - After

Photo: Ann Sellers Lathrop / Olsen Photography

It’s a classic challenge in an older neighborhood: How can a growing family increase their living space without expanding their home’s footprint?

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop answered that question by transforming a 1950s Cape Cod into a modern farmhouse informed by the bungalows of the 1920s.

Old Hill House- Before

The Old Hill House before.

“The client wanted it clean and modern, in a transitional style to fit the vernacular of the neighborhood,” she says. “This was a farming community in the late 1800s, so there are farmhouses, colonials and onion barns down the street. A lot of the homes have front porches.”

By creating a continuous shed dormer, she was able to turn former roofline into useful living space. “That gives you the floor area and the ceiling height on the second floor, and you get a peak that’s enough for an air handler up there,” she says. “It’s a trick to reduce costs and keep the scale down, so you don’t end up with a big, boxy look.”


When she started, the client consisted of a young couple with one daughter. A potential job change coinciding with groundbreaking slowed things down a bit, and simplified their plans somewhat. By the time the renovation was complete two and a half years later, the family had grown by one child, with another on the way.

So the expansion was timely. Upstairs she added a master suite with walk-in closet and bath, and renovated two existing bedrooms and a bath for the children. “It gave them more space,” she says. “By taking the roof off and coming out to the edges of the first floor walls, we added 600 square feet.”

After Old Hill House Living Room

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop /Olsen Photography

The renovated home now totals 2,900 square feet.” She took one bay of a two-car garage, and gave it a new and useful set of functions. Where once there’d been no entry from garage to home, there’s one now, along with a new mudroom and powder room.  Lathrop also enhanced the street presence by designing a welcoming front porch.

Related: 10 Design Inspirations for Mudroom and Entryways

The only addition is in the rear of the house, where a poorly constructed and poorly insulated screened in porch was taken down to the foundation and rebuilt as an expansive  family room off the kitchen.  A higher pitch to the roof, and energy efficient windows and skylights make the space even more expansive, while  providing passive heat gain in winter.

The home was sheathed originally in tall wooden shingles. When the client suggested making the change to more of a Nantucket Maybeck look, the architect resisted. “I said ‘No – paint them,’” she says. “So we wove in some new ones and painted them an off-white color – a light, pewter gray.” It’s a monochromatic, oyster-colored tint that works well with the color palette of the region.

After Old Hill House Kitchen

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop / Olsen Photography

Inside, the home is awash in natural light from new windows and skylights, with an easy, open flow from kitchen to family room to dining room.

“It was a Cape Cod that was totally unusable for a young family—with a small scale and little rooms” she says “They wanted to keep the nature of that smaller scale. So now it’s tight and compact, but a very livable, warm space.”

It’s also a smart renovation with a stylish response to a classic question.


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Dwell. He also publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.

How Old Is My House?

A mystery awaits! Learn how to scour paper records and decode subtle clues to uncover your home's true age.

How Old Is My House? - Exterior

Photo: shutterstock.com

Nothing satisfies like solving a good mystery, especially when the mystery to be unraveled is the history of your house. The average owner of an old house knows only roughly when the house was built. While the real estate company might have said one thing, the neighbors probably have their own ideas. So how do you find out exactly how old your house is? A surprising number of resources are available for the determined sleuth!

Government Records
Visit your town, city, or county tax assessor. Assuming they have been conscientiously maintained, the tax records should list the name of every person who has owned the land on which your house sits, along with the assessed value of the property from year to year. Do you spot a sudden jump in valuation? That suggests the construction of a new home on what had previously been an unimproved lot, or it might signify the completion of a substantial addition or renovation.

The office of your county clerk is another important place to stop as you wend the paper trail toward knowing more about the provenance of your home. You’re interested in three files: the Registrar of Deeds, the tract index, and the grantor-grantee index. These give you a comprehensive listing of all transactions that have involved your lot. Names and dates are included, and in addition, you’ll find the salient details of any lawsuits or liens filed over the years.

If you live in a city or town, seek out the local building inspector. Ask to see any permit applications associated with your street address. Because building permits are typically required for new construction and substantive remodeling projects, this line of inquiry may reward you with some interesting facts. Even if the date of your home’s construction is not given, you can at least learn about any major changes that have been made to the structure—additions and so on.

How Old Is My House? - Levittown

Photo: uic.edu

Fire insurance maps are yet another source of trustworthy particulars. These maps, which in many cases date back to the 1870s, can help you determine the materials used in the initial construction of your home.

Community Libraries
Many libraries devote sections to local history, their valuable archives containing such things as historical maps, original building plans, and even old photographs. Scour the real estate listings in decades-old newspapers and consult the census records for your area. Also, consider delving into wills and probate records, insurance ledgers, phone books, zoning maps, and municipal planning studies.

Architectural Investigation
If the case has gone cold despite all your efforts, turn your investigation toward the house itself: Its materials, method of construction, and architectural style all provide vital clues to its age.

For example, asphalt tile flooring exploded into popularity around 1920 but had been virtually forgotten by 1960. (Note that if at least one of your bathrooms still has the original fixtures, you can usually find a manufacturing date stamped on the underside of the toilet tank cover!) So long as your home has not been completely renovated, the builder’s choice of materials is likely to suggest a specific period of construction.

Related: 10 National Trust Properties to Visit

Another strong indicator of age is your house style. Like fashions in the clothing world, the popularity of different architectural styles waxes and wanes. Italianates were an 1850s favorite; Colonial Revival was all the rage in the 1890s; and by the 1900s, Craftsman-style houses had begun popping up everywhere.

Of course, you can always hire a professional architectural investigator to solve the mysteries surrounding the origin and history of your home. But why pay for someone else to have all the fun?

Create a Restful Refuge with a Traditional Sleeping Porch

Though popular in the Victorian age, the sleeping porch had been virtually forgotten by the postwar period. Today, homeowners are rediscovering this practical and utterly charming architectural tradition.

Sleeping Porch

Photo: Seth Benn

As a youngster, one of summer’s great thrills was “sleeping out,” usually on someone’s deck or porch, but sometimes even on the garage roof—any place where a gaggle of girls might giggle into the hours past their regular bedtimes. All these years later, adults across the country are rediscovering the simple joy of being lulled to sleep by cool night breezes and chirping crickets.

Sleeping porches were extremely popular at the turn of the 20th century, when health professionals advocated sleeping outdoors as a way to bolster the immune system. And prior to the advent of air conditioning, sleeping porches were especially popular in the South and the West; it was cooler to sleep outside at night.

Sleeping Porch - Kids

Photo: Lands End Development

Queen Anne Victorians and Arts & Crafts-style homes both typically featured sleeping porches (in effect, screened decks or balconies). You’d often find sleeping porches adjacent to second- or third-story bedrooms, located on a corner to receive breezes from all directions. But many rural farmhouses had sleeping porches on the ground floor, and even some city apartments contained such spaces.

Today, sleeping porches are making a comeback. According to a 2008 survey from the National Association of Home Builders, 63% of new home buyers consider a screened porch either desirable or essential. Whether they wish for it to be a nighttime escape or a daytime refuge, homeowners are indeed returning to the comfort afforded by the once-abandoned sleeping porch.

Transforming a deck, balcony, or porch into a sleeping porch is a fairly simple project. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

• The space should be covered against the elements and for safety, it should have at least a low railing around the perimeter.

• If you live in an area where bugs abound in summer, it probably goes without saying that screens are essential. Many choose also to integrate fabric shades or awnings, which can be lowered for privacy.

• Furnishings should be casual, comfortable, and resistant to the effects of water and sunlight.

• Since sleeping porches often serve as living areas during the day, fill these spaces with versatile pieces that perform more than one function. One idea: A suspended bed doubles as a porch swing.

• Since the key to a comfortable sleeping porch is air circulation, consider adding a ceiling fan. For indirect lighting, you may want to include some table lamps or flameless candles.

The most important thing to remember about sleeping porches is that they are for rest and relaxation. So grab a good book, a cup of tea, and a soft pillow, and curl up for a calm, peaceful, and soothing respite from the stresses of the day.

Earthbound: 5 “All Natural” House Styles

Around the world today, as in centuries past, homes are being built, not with traditional wood, stone, or brick, but with earthy materials like clay, sand, and straw.

This is nothing new: For thousands of years, people have been living in shelters made from earth-based building materials—that is, homes more or less made from dirt. As sustainable practices have surged into the mainstream, natural modes of construction have found (or returned to) popularity.

Related: 12 Hobbit Houses to Make You Consider Moving Underground

Featuring thick walls that absorb sunlight, earthen homes remain cool through summer and stay warm through winter. Since they are not built from wood, they are not as vulnerable to termites and fires, though in comparison to traditional stick-built structures, they are more prone to dampness.

Scroll down to read about five different earthy approaches to building eco-friendly homes for today.



Earth Homes - Cob

Photo: thiscobhouse.com

In Britain, there are some cob homes that have remained standing for hundreds of years. In 1997, the region welcomed the first new cob home to have been built in over 75 years. Though cob homes of old often included dung as a key ingredient, today’s iteration is built from clay, sand, straw and water. (The straw performs the same role that re-bar does in concrete.) That mixture is molded to create solid and smooth structures, which often have rounded corners.



Earthen Homes - Bermed

Photo: mazas.ca

An earth-bermed shelter is built into or against—you guessed it!—the earth. In essence, the topography of a building site, whether naturally formed or shaped by men and machines, allows for habitable space to be carved out in the creation of a semi-subterranean dwelling. Champions of earth-bermed construction praise the quality of insulation that soil provides.



Earthen Homes - Adobe

Photo: b-greendreamscape.com

If you’ve been to the Southwest, you’re familiar with the beauty of adobe architecture. Adobe, long used by indigenous groups like the Anasazi, is water, straw, sand, and clay, a mixture that is formed into bricks and then sun-dried. Adobe is particularly well suited to hot climates; the material absorbs heat from the sun, fostering a cool interior.



Earthen Homes - Rammed Earth

Photo: motherearthliving.com

The walls of rammed-earth homes are built from dirt that is packed (by hand or by tamper) into small blocks or bricks. It’s a “dirt cheap” material, provided that your building site makes available a sufficient amount of soil that is usable for the purpose.



Earthen Homes - Earthbag

Photo: akdn.org

Here’s another type of building that lives up to its name: Earthbag construction, a relatively recent technology, depends on polypropylene bags (or tubes) filled with dirt that is sourced either from the site or imported from elsewhere. No special binding or molds are required; each row of bags is laid, then compacted from above and left to cure to a hard finish.

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