A while back, in a modest old suburb of San Francisco, I happened upon a charming little street flanked by rows of towering palm trees. And just as this remarkable allee gave the place a unique and special character, so did the houses that lined it.
They were classic Craftsman bungalows of exceptional quality, with stout columns of river rock, massive beamed porches, and lovely leaded glass windows — in short, all the attributes today’s bungalow connoisseurs covet.
There was just one problem: Although the neighborhood’s original architecture had once been remarkably consistent, at least half the houses had been badly mauled by inept modernizations or ham-handed expansions — erstwhile "updates" that had instead diminished their architectural value. Even more surprising, many of the worst modernizations had been carried out recently.
By far the most common transgression was the replacement of the original wooden windows with clumsy, glaring white vinyl ones. Vinyl windows are, after all, simply the modern equivalent of the cheap aluminum sliders that defaced so many fine old traditional homes during the postwar era.
Regardless of what window replacement companies may tell you, and regardless of what kind of "historical" muntin patterns they claim to offer, vinyl windows are not suitable for installation in any vintage home style — least of all the emphatically naturalistic bungalow.
But a nasty outbreak of tacky windows wasn’t all that had gone awry on this cozy little street. Some homeowners had found their premises a little too cramped and, rather than examining more discreet possibilities, had simply added on vast, looming second-story additions — the architectural equivalent of a jackboot stomping on Bambi.
Less sweeping but equally irreversible was the harm done by owners who had, in an apparent attempt to keep up with latest color fad, painted over the natural river rock columns and chimneys of their bungalows. The sad thing about these various desecrations is that they were not only unwise but unnecessary.
Old wood windows, for example, can often be repaired for less money than it costs to install second-rate vinyl replacements. Moreover, the energy savings gleaned by switching to double glazing — the motivation for many replacement projects using vinyl windows — is trivial compared to the same investment made in a more efficient furnace or higher insulation levels.
As for additions, they needn’t detract from a home’s architecture. Even second-story additions can be designed with minimal visual presence, and with detailing that blends in with the original architecture rather than clashing with it.
Lastly, wanton painting over materials that were meant to be left natural — brick, stone, cement, copper — is proof that it doesn’t take much effort to ruin a vintage house. It just takes one trendoid fool with a paint brush.
Alas, the punishment for such bad judgment is inevitably meted out when it comes time to sell. Take the homes on our lovely little palm-lined street, for example: Though they stand one beside the next, the houses that escaped arbitrary modernization will command the higher prices at sale time. The ones that were "improved" will no doubt be marketed, in the parlance of real estate, as "needing a little TLC."
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