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After many months of the macro, let’s step down to the micro. Behold the many layers of renovation of an ancient (by US standards) house on Main Street. See the original corbel that braces the fragment of pediment above the door. It was but one small grace-note among what were many grace-notes in this humble vernacular building when it was built (1850 -1870, I’m guessing). Grace-notes endow a building with the reminder that humans, at our best, deserve to be loved. They convey the message that the building was built lovingly, with care for its details, which derive from the grand spectacle of life on earth. Nature, that is. The humble corbel did not have to be curved — but somebody cared enough to do it that way. It took some skill to, at least, design and proportion it, even if it was fabricated by machines at a millworks.

It appears that the building has been given at least two 20th century exterior renovations — “skin jobs” — first with aluminum siding slapped over the original wood, and secondarily with vinyl some time after that. These materials are always marketed as “maintenance-free!” It’s a lie of course. Houses still require care, but these materials actually repel the instinct to care for them. They are without grace and they invite neglect. Of course they age badly, and as they do, they defeat our instinct to love the things that our town is made of and care for them.

Below, note the condition of the eaves. The renovators saw some value in saving the brackets, plus the original wood of the soffit and the frieze board. But see how violently the corner of the building was assaulted by industrial progress — as if technology had gone to war against beauty — and how nature (a trumpet vine, I think) fought back against that insult.

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About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

12 Responses to “March 2022” Subscribe

  1. Freddie March 3, 2022 at 3:30 pm #

    Thanks for that, Jim.
    I am old and maintenance on my old house is challenging. But my own modest house also has some “grace notes” like the one you pointed out.
    Overdue for some tlc.
    Thank you for reminding me to be more grateful.

  2. tucsonspur March 3, 2022 at 7:14 pm #

    Absolutely wonderful Jim, going with the ugliness of neglect concerning homes built with craftsmanship and care, that neglect like defacing a wonderful work of art, rather than going with another modern, melancholic monstrosity.

    You can see the vines growing up what appears to be some kind of electrical pipe, seeming to say that its intrusion is not welcome. Underground utilities would help. It looks like some kind of coffering above the door, with the door itself having what looks like leaded glass, but I’m not sure it’s original. Looks more like some kind of replacement, like the windows.

    The trim around the corbel is tacky, as the corbel’s connection to the original building has now been compromised. How beautiful the frieze and soffit must have looked with those underlying brackets back around 1860.

    These old homes were more holistic, with a certain feng shui already built into the corbels, fascia, finials, framing, floorboards, and friezes. You said it well Jim, regarding these modern makeovers:

    ‘…. They defeat our instinct to love the things that our town is made of and care for them.’ Bravo!

    • NatureLover March 6, 2022 at 7:44 pm #

      Very well stated. I respect your appreciation.

      • tucsonspur March 7, 2022 at 4:54 pm #

        A nice surprise. Thank you.

  3. holdfastspike March 4, 2022 at 2:44 pm #

    yes, the covering of old wood with vinyl and aluminum is an act of cheap savagery and lazy stupidity usually done by “flippers”. this accelerates rot and makes the house a perfect termite nest. however i have restored a couple of these and they are labors of love indeed.

  4. a kullervo March 4, 2022 at 9:47 pm #

    Dear Mr. Kunstler,

    Thank you.

    Your writing remains beautifully evocative even – or specially – outside the gross political and social arenas.

  5. NatureLover March 6, 2022 at 7:57 pm #

    Jim, I understand your appreciation for earlier design creativity, and focus on quality construction. Concord, NH is gifted with unique, well-built, and beautiful historic buildings, some that were threatened to be destroyed to enable developers to build clap-trap structures that we see today. What happened to pride, and creative engagement that built historic structures in the past? I know that we share the answer to the question. I am so grateful for your post.

  6. Chris at Fernglade Farm March 7, 2022 at 6:43 am #

    Hey Jim,

    Where’s a good old school carpenter when you need one? What surprised me in the photo where the aluminium cladding had been removed, was that there was no supporting structural timbers supporting the timber fascia boards at the corner of the eaves despite that join somehow holding up what looks like some sort of roof shingles. It looks like the fascia boards were cut at 45 degrees and then joined with a couple of nails, which have long since rusted. And where does the rain water go when it falls upon the roof? If the roof sheets don’t extend slightly beyond the timber, then the timber will be exposed to the rain and rot – and here we are. And the veranda over the door looks as though it is at right angle to the wall – thus rain can go both towards the house walls (and veranda join) as well as away from the house and possibly drip on the head of anyone unfortunate enough to want to step under the veranda. Not how I’d do things, but then I didn’t do that.

    Certainly not impossible to restore and finish off better than the original materials allowed for with a few small modifications. I did like the use of the corbels as support brackets – a nice touch. Down under in Victorian times they used a lot of cast iron supports and posts. They look great and give an edge to an otherwise basic façade .

    Cheers

    Chris

  7. bymitch March 9, 2022 at 4:06 am #

    In an environment that actively discourages ‘over capitalising’, lack of real effort is the logical outcome.
    Those that still care do so with no external reward.
    However, there is also a problem with over-doing it, which is based more on more reasonable argument, when embellishment is a wasteful cause.
    The grace notes of; sweet and sour, ketchup, and barbecue sauce, juxtaposed with chicken nuggets, springs to mind.
    Same goes for plonking some nature in the frame to add interest to a bunch of architecture
    Or
    covers of already brilliant original musical pieces osterized in a stylistic blender.
    What constitutes an eyesore, an I saw, or a see saw, happens way back before we add any glitter.
    I find more delight in extreme forms of ad hocery to be honest.

  8. JackStraw March 15, 2022 at 4:28 am #

    The house across the street from me was built in the late 1800s as far as I can tell, and it was the first house on the street, the street being a half mile long path to what was once a sprawling farm. The owner has descended in to hoarding, and spends all his time accumulating garbage, rather than address the dilapidating house.

    His only repair in the last 10 years has been an ugly metal front door that he acquired at the local ReStore.

    It’s heartbreaking to see what was once a beautiful home with a huge barn, on the verge of collapse due to neglect and overstuffing with worthless detritus.

  9. Jewel March 22, 2022 at 11:00 pm #

    This is my favourite kind of eyesore post. Can you do more like it?

    • Kempton March 25, 2022 at 6:29 pm #

      Jim,

      Looks like the aluminum and vinyl wasn’t the first facelift this home received. From the simple yet elegant chamfered door casing and the paneling above the front door, I get the feeling this house predates the Victorian scroll braces and bracketed cornice. This looks like your classic gable-front New Englander, probably built 1850-1860s, and given a victorian facelift in the 1880s or so. It’s interesting how buildings learn over time, a lot like children in our modern school systems, dumbed down with their personality and charm plastered over with a cheap institutional facade and a bland plastic smile.