Vintage Housing and Neighborhood History

Imagine a fake Mona Lisa hanging at the Louvre next to authentic masterpieces. People with an untrained eye (that would be most people) would have no idea that it was fake, they would think it was real. And what if it was painted by a company standing to profit from making you believe that what you’re seeing is the real thing? What is wrong with this situation? What is wrong is that it is a lie. It is a deception. It is making people believe something that is not true, that they are gazing upon the real, authentic masterpiece, when in fact, what they are looking at is a fake. And moreover, it is wrong because it taps into people’s innate attraction and enjoyment of a real masterpiece and exploits those feelings to make a profit without actually creating something that deserves those feelings.

Why People Love Historic Buildings

People love historic buildings because they trigger a certain nostalgia and are the physical embodiment of an different era. We project a lot of things onto bygone eras, calling them the good ol’ days and we think of them as a time when things were simpler and easier. Of course, this is not true, but still, there is something very romantic about historic buildings, just like there is with vintage furniture and knick knacks and appliances. Historic buildings help us to believe in continuity and that civilization was around before we were born and that it will be around long after we are dead. Historic buildings help us connect to our ancestors and if we’re not direct descendants of the people who built them, it helps us connect to the history of the city we live in. Historic buildings are also an existing part of the landscape, not unlike a mountain range, or a lake, or a very old tree and as such, they make up a place’s identity. This is why places that have lost or demolished a lot of their historic buildings lack a sense of place and are hard to really create an emotional attachment to. Seeing the patina of age on buildings, like efflorescence on brick, the weathering of wood, and even the slight sag of rooflines connects us to the natural cycle of life. Everything ages, including buildings, and it can be a beautiful thing. When our surroundings are composed only of brand new buildings that are pristine and perfect, life feels a little bit mechanical and artificial and we feel disconnected from nature.

Renaissance Home’s (Fake) Vintage Collection

“Imagine a brand new Renaissance Home in an urban Portland location. These “Old Portland” custom homes include modern, efficient floor plans with all the updated charm, built-ins and period details of the Portland homes you’ve come to love. These homes with vintage-inspired architecture are LEED Certified and built green with the latest technology.” – from the Renaissance Homes website

Fake Vintage 2

A few months ago, I saw a sign in front of what was obviously new construction (it was just a floor slab at the time) that said “Another LEED Certified Vintage Home Coming Soon”. I did a double take and wracked my brain as to how a “vintage” home could be “coming soon”. Vintage to me connotes something made a long time ago. But this wasn’t even made yet, it couldn’t be any newer, and yet it was posing as historic.

As noted above, the Vintage Collection is meant to create new homes with “period” details. The “period” details are meant to illicit the emotional reaction that comes from actual historic buildings, but at the same time cater to modern needs, like the need to have a home about five times the size it might have been were it built in the era it’s evoking.

The Vintage Collection relies on our impulse to have it both ways, to have our cake and to eat it to. We want the emotional connection and nostalgia that comes from historic buildings but we don’t want to deal with actual historic buildings. We want to have all the convenience that comes with new buildings without dealing with maintenance and care and faucets that sometimes leak. So what’s wrong with creating something with brand new modern amenities while at the same time making it look like a historic house so you get the best of both worlds? It sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea, in fact, it’s a genius business idea, which explains why I’m seeing more and more “Vintage Collection” and similar “fake historic” homes pop up all over Portland. But what may seem like a great idea on the surface is actually bad for architecture, for historic neighborhoods and the character of a city.

Why Fake Vintage is Bad for Architecture and Historic Neighborhoods and the Character of a City

Here is why. What Renaissance Homes is doing is shamelessly copying an older style. It is more insidious than an Elvis impersonator, because at least with an Elvis impersonator, you know for sure that it’s not the real Elvis. Fake vintage homes are predicated on creating a doubt that they could be real historic buildings. To the untrained eye, these fake historic homes could very possibly have been built in the 20s, 30s or 40s. It’s this blurring of the lines and uncertainty that makes these homes so pernicious.

If the “Vintage Collection” merely made reference to older building styles but were clearly new builds, it would be a different thing. But there is a huge difference between making reference to an older style versus actually just plain copying an older style. The latter is lazy and opportunistic. Instead of moving architecture forward, it slows and even reverses the creative momentum of the discipline by recreating styles, forms and details that made sense decades ago, but have nothing to do with our current times. Architecture is supposed to be a reflection of what is happening in the world today, the current technology and the current ethos of our culture. When buildings become nothing but bad copies of buildings past, it sullies the entire creative process of designing buildings.

Some neighborhood associations and design review boards insist that new buildings “fit in” with the existing homes and buildings to protect the historic character of the area. And to many of these groups, “fitting in” is synonymous with “copying” the style of existing homes. But in reality, a contemporary house can fit into the existing landscape in a variety of ways without having to copy the homes that are there. It can look like and be a home of the age we live in AND fit into a historic neighborhood. We don’t have to build fake historic homes to fit into a historic neighborhood. New architecture can reference the materials, scale, proportions, and even incorporate things like front porches without having to look exactly like its historic neighbor. Of course, it is entirely appropriate to learn from and integrate the fantastic aspects of historic architecture – such as deep overhangs, passive heating and cooling strategies, the human scale and welcoming aspects of well-designed entrances. In fact, these are the things new buildings should not abandon. But it’s not appropriate to copy Craftsman or Victorian details verbatim and stick them onto your new building.

Recreating a fake historic home hurts the character of a city rather than help it, because it diminishes the actual historic buildings that are in it. When people can’t tell what is new and what is historic, it detracts from the buildings that were actually built in a particular era. This is why some insightful city ordinances insist that new buildings distinguish themselves from their historic neighbors, precisely to protect the historic character of the neighborhood, instead of devolving a neighborhood into a Disneyland version of what a historic neighborhood should look like. For example, the City of Phoenix Planning & Development Department General Design Guidelines for Historic Properties states, “New construction should be clearly discernible as “new” and reflect the technology, building materials and design ideas of the present era. However, like additions to existing buildings, the design of new construction should be compatible with and respectful of its historic setting.” Again, being compatible and respectful of a historic setting does not mean copying the style of the existing homes. It encourages a contemporary expression of what a building should be, but in a way that fits into its overall context. This is the fundamental imperative of architecture.

Photo Credit: All photos by the author.