In my grandfather’s house in Hurley, South Dakota, you walked up the main staircase to a right angle turn. To the left, six more steps led up to the upstairs bedrooms. But straight ahead on that landing lay a door — a simple slat affair with a clip hasp for a handle. Open the door, and you descended three steps into a little recessed wooden room, apparently added above a back porch. The ceiling angled, the closet had five oblique interior surfaces, there were built-in bookshelves. The room was half-paneled in wainscoting which had been painted over and over again throughout the years.
My sister and I always made a beeline for this room when we visited. There we’d curl up with my father’s and my uncle’s old Big Little Books, reading and reveling in the space and the light.
Eighty miles away, in Arlington, my other grandparents’ house had a porch-like room attached to one end of the house, the end away from the street. Custom being the funny thing it is, a wooden staircase that led to the door into this room from the outside became the regularly used entrance to the house. If somebody came to the front door, we knew he was a stranger.
It was a crowded little room. It had a tall old metal-framed hospital bed. It had a wood stove, and so always reeked of the comfort of creosote. It had hooks behind the door for hanging jackets. We leaned our shotguns behind that door, too. It had the kitchen garbage can. You had to make a short step up to get into the kitchen proper. We called it “the little kitchen.”
That was where I slept when I visited. It had windows on three sides, north, east, and south, and so I could lie there in bed and watch the weather roll in. Too much lightning and my grandmother would come and get me. She remembered that room being struck once. An electric ball descended fizzing from the light fixture to the floor.
Lest you think me entranced by the ramshackle, let me add one more. For years in Boston I met on Wednesday mornings with a men’s Christian group. One of our number was a rich old Beacon Hill type, and so had access to various historic club buildings in that neighborhood. Off one of our meeting rooms, which had perhaps been a breakfast chamber, lay a butler’s pantry. We plugged our coffee pot in there. The pantry, a single narrow hall, had dark wooden cupboards above and below a narrow counter, where there was sunk a miniature sink. Everything to a purpose in the butler’s pantry. What a marvelous place to hide.
DRIVING AROUND OUR OLD New England town, you see a lot of “development.” That’s what they call it these days when builders stick up houses all over the place. In our area, which is full of historic homes, these big new structures stick out like whores at a D.A.R. convention. They have grand “features,” of course: “Open” floor plans, “gourmet” kitchens, and (get ready to gag) “great rooms” (that means a giant room, generally built over a triple garage). They have palladian windows stretching two stories tall, “master suites,” and all the rest.
But there is no enticing nook for a child to happen upon and curl up in. There are no linoleum-floored sun porches with ratty old furniture and stacks of comic books where you can lie on summer days and read and doze to the hum of flies batting against the screens. There are no mysterious second staircases winding up from the kitchen. There are no leftover closets filled with a century’s worth of stuff.
The modern builder gives away the game. He employs nothing but right angles. Nowhere will you find a stately corner tower, whether a cylinder or an octagon. Nowhere will there be an enchanted chamber like the one Erica Jong described in her parents’ apartment, that looked like the inside of a witch’s hat, with a wrought iron lamp hanging down inside from the point.
I HAVE SOME HOPE THAT INTERESTING HOUSES will start to be built again. Why? For the same reason they were built, then disappeared, in the first place: Heat. The historic houses in our neighborhood have at least two chimneys apiece, and sometimes as many as six. You might find half a dozen fireplaces in a single home, because, in the old days, there was no way to convey heat from one part of the house to another. Central heating came later, and, in its earliest forms, was still a pain. The coal truck backed up to your house and dumped an enormous load in the side yard. Then you and your grandfather had to shovel all that dusty anthracite through the coal chute into the coal bin in the basement, whence it had to be shoveled again, a load at a time, into the furnace. And where the fire had to be banked in the middle of he night, and somebody had to get up to do it.
When you build a house around hard-won heat, you get lots of detail, lots of separation from room to room, lots of doors, good hallways with a character of their own — your classic Colonial, and with it wonderful little spaces in between those separated rooms.
But along comes central heat and a/c and cheap energy to run it, you start to get today’s McMansion, grandiose without grandeur, with its careless “open” floor plan and, when it tries to do a colonial imitation, wasted rooms. Commonest thing in the world around here is to walk into a giant modern colonial and find the two rooms to left and right of the entrance — living room and dining room, generally — completely wasted, because you walk right through to get to the business area of the house, the inflated “open plan” kitchen with adjoining dining area and den.
ENERGY IS GETTING MORE EXPENSIVE. It costs more than $400-$500 a month to heat a McMansion in the Northeast. Accordingly, some manufacturers are starting to advertise room heaters, run on gas or electricity. You can try an experiment yourself: Leave your furnace off, or turned way down, or shut the heat grates in your bedroom. Then turn on a $20 electric heater in the middle of the room. Depending on size, the room will be warm in no more than 15 minutes.
This is not energy efficient, nor is it flexible, but the new room heating units are, and I expect this industry sector to experience a rapid increase. (One of the manufacturers is the extremely hip Rinnai, pioneers in the no-reservoir hot water heater field.) With the housing industry taking a recess for a while, I can imagine a new wave of homebuilding coming along built around the frugalities of room-by-room heating instead of the wastefulness of cheap energy and central heat. In such a new house, you would heat only the rooms you use, when you use them. Just like Mt. Vernon.
So maybe we’ll start to get interesting-looking houses again, with nooks and alcoves and crannies where children will want to go hide and play. Or adults, for that matter.
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.