Since my last commentary about Pocket Neighborhoods and community living, a close friend of mine actually purchased one of the examples I cited along Milwaukee Avenue in the Seward Neighborhood.
When he first showed me the listing, I couldn’t believe it was available. The houses are treasured neighborhood landmarks by those that worked hard to save and restore them decades ago. My friend’s real estate agent initially deterred him from looking at the house because it didn’t have a garage, unaware of the historical significance of the assembly.
In my first visit to the house, neighbors from both adjoining lots visited with us across pocket-sized rear yards. “Are you wondering where we park the cars?” one of my friend’s new neighbors said with a grin. “That’s what most people want to know.”
The situation illustrated something our society has been trained to forget when it comes to housing: one size does not fit all. Though it has debilitated my profession, the current and ongoing financial stagnation has done one thing I can appreciate, it has refocused the expectations we put on our homes. Our homes have ceased to be a source of income and financial return and have necessarily returned to their original intent: a place of shelter, security and comfort.
In the past decade the assessed value of our homes was based on a combination of overall square footage and the number of bedrooms and baths, regardless of age, character or quality.
It is possible for the public to blame the industry for this lack of originality, but equally guilty is the public for accepting it. It only takes a comparison of Sears Roebuck kit homes from the early 1900s to the drab sprawling stock available today to see that our expectations of longevity and quality have deteriorated.
Age old quality is still available, if only at a wildly increased cost — and I am the first to admit that is a great injustice of our housing stock. But the notion that homes should be valued for their comfort, uniqueness, and efficiency is more possible now than it has been in decades.
When I was in junior high I began pleading with my parents to bring me to the annual Parade of Homes in the western suburbs. I would ask my father to pick up the guidebook at the local Holiday station, and often before we’d seen our first house, I had pages full of imaginary floor plans sketched from the published front elevation image in the guidebook.
My favorite homes to visit were always the ones that I couldn’t predict, the ones that were clearly generated as original interpretations of someone’s dreams, be it the architect, designer or homeowner.
There is a new tour in town. One that I can only wish existed when I was craving the quirky and unpredictable. It is the fourth annual Homes By Architects Tour (Sept. 17 & 18), sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects and many generous sponsors. In full disclosure, I have a home on this tour outside of Minneapolis, but if I can only encourage you to visit those homes in or near Southwest, I am doing my profession and the community a great service.
I think it is important to see homes that defy expectation, that explode the limitations of square footage and number of plumbing fixtures. Our homes have the ability to inspire us, and once the dust settles from the collapse of their assigned value, I hope American homeowners will once again value inspiration.
Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects.