Can you glean useful information from books that have no direct relation to your new home project?

I would have to say yes. After reading several recently published books that included a survey of American homes built between 1775 and 1840, a monograph on modern houses in a small Connecticut town, family houses in a part of the country where I don’t live, and elegant colonial furnishings from a part of the Caribbean that I have never visited and probably never will, I concluded that a broad brush, “liberal arts” approach to planning a new house can be invaluable.

Looking at houses and furnishings that are not even close to what you intend will actually get you closer to the house you want because you will have a broader base from which to develop and refine your ideas.

What did I learn while pursuing the seemingly irrelevant?

With “The Harvard Five in New Canaan,” (Norton), William D. Earls presents 36 houses designed by 16 distinguished architects, five of whom taught or studied at Harvard. The houses were built between 1947 and 1966 in a style generally called “modern” with flat roofs, large expanses of floor to ceiling glass in most rooms, and a lack of detail both inside and out. 

When the houses were built, they differed radically from conventional notions of what a house should be. But a homeowner who looks at them today will end up asking, “What exactly is ‘modern?'” While 99 percent of the American buying public has eschewed the stark aesthetic of these houses, most have embraced their open plans with cooking, dining and living in one space and the use of a few strategically placed walls to define entire areas of the house. Every homeowner wants spaces that are flooded with natural light, another hallmark of these houses.

The buying public’s objections to these houses — and indeed some of them have been demolished — would seem to be more a matter of their livability, not their looks. By current standards, the storage is minimal and the bedroom closets are small (a master walk-in was the exception). The bathrooms are small and there aren’t enough (the earliest ones had only one bath for a four-bedroom, two-story house). The kitchens are not well designed (kitchen design had not yet evolved into its own specialty when most of these were built). The houses also present maintenance headaches — flat roofs in a Connecticut climate with lots of rain and snow can be problematic, and the heating bills would be enormous without a lot of costly retrofitting of insulation and energy efficient windows.

On the other hand, some of the houses are wonderfully over the top, inviting readers who are planning a new house to imagine the impossible and hold out for the affordably unusual. In his 1953 Willey house, Phillip Johnson placed the kitchen, dining and living functions in a large, 15-foot high glass cube that sits at a 90-degree angle on the bedrooms and playroom below. As shown, the furnishings of the large master bedroom included a grand piano.

Did these unusual looking houses make for an interesting family life? The photographs, floor plans and brief text tells a reader what the houses looked like, not what the households experienced while living in them. 

In contrast, Jack Larkin describes American home life in the period from 1774 to 1840 perhaps too well. “Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home,” (Taunton) begins with a vivid description of a prosperous farm family in Sturbridge, Massachusetts in 1775. It will make every reader thankful that he or she lives in the 21st century and not the 18th. The farmer’s modest, four-room, 700-square-foot house was occupied by 12 people — seven family members and five household servants and laborers. Not only was it crowded. Grime was everywhere and each room had an unmistakable chamber pot odor. Bed bugs and lice were a fact of life, and mosquitoes made the summers unbearable. During the cold winters, wind blew through the walls, and the only source of heat was the fireplace. In January, 1810 a Salem, Massachusetts preacher noted that the temperature on the far side of his Chamber, opposite the fireplace, was 16 degrees below freezing.

Life today is definitely more comfortable, but some homeowner concerns are clearly timeless. The desire to impress neighbors and visitors seems to have been imprinted on our national psyche almost from day one. The center hall plan, still with us, was an instant hit because the simple insertion of a hall than ran from front to back created a larger and more imposing entry as well as the illusion of a larger house. A room that was only used for special occasions, even in houses as small as the Sturbridge farmer’s, was common.

A historian, Larkin has drawn from a broad range of sources, including personal diaries and letters, historical building surveys, and tax and census data.

The subject of Michael Connor’s “French Island Elegance” is frankly obscure — French West Indian antique furniture made for the fabulously wealthy French plantation owners who made quick fortunes raising sugar cane. The planters started accumulating their wealth in 1750; their furnishings reached a level of surprising sophistication around 1800.

The furniture is not what you might choose for your house, but it’s fabulous, if you have a weak spot for rich, red mahogany pieces that are highly crafted and beautifully proportioned. In its accommodation to the climate, the furniture offers some pointers worth considering when choosing pieces for yourself. To make life bearable in the hot and humid tropics, the empire styling was modified. To maximize the cooling effect of any passing breeze, woven cane was used for the backs and seats of sofas and chairs. In many cases, the caned chairs were rockers, which allowed a sitter to stay cool by creating his own small breeze. The rockers also had ergonomic advantages. The original users knew only that the rockers were comfortable, but now we know that they are also good for you. As any ergonomist will point out, a rocker provides excellent lumbar support while taking the weight off the base of your spine and when you pump a bit, the slight movement helps move blood from your legs back to your torso.

Connor’s text includes interesting furniture facts-who knew that the rocker originated in France?-and startling political ones. The sugar trade of Guadeloupe alone was so profitable the English seriously considered taking it and leaving the vast, cold and largely unknown Canadian territories to the French at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

Just as these books show that you shouldn’t limit your new home idea search to the present century, Eliza Cross Castaneda’s “Family Home of the New West” (Northland) shows that you shouldn’t set geographic limits either. This book is full of details that could be adapted to any region of the country. It also offers sound advice. A round table where everyone can see each other is the friendliest arrangement for family dining, Castaneda says. Another gem: The powder room is the smallest room in the house and the one area where “creative design can reign over daily practicalities.” A wonderfully eccentric example of this notion is the way one family chose to remember a European trip. They installed a red telephone booth from London in their powder room, added shelving, and now they use it as a linen closet.

Castaneda also shows how a single detail can have a wonderfully playful effect. As most homeowners know, flooring changes are an easy way to define functional areas. You can have tile for the kitchen floor and hardwood for the adjacent dining area. But when you add a wavy, 12-inch wide swath of small, highly polished river stone between the tile and the hardwood, you inject a remarkable degree of positive energy.  

In alphabetical order:

“Family Home of The New West,” by Eliza Cross Castaneda, Northland Publishing, 2006.

“French Island Elegance,” by Michael Connors, Photographs by Bruce Buck, Abrams, 2006

“The Harvard Five in New Canaan,” by William D. Earls, AIA, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

“Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home,” Jack Larkin, The Taunton Press, 2006.

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at http://www.katherinesalant.com/.

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