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Turn-of-the-Century Often Turns into the Best Home Plans

Mar 31, 2015 09:41AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Turn-of-the-Century Often Turns into the Best Home Plans In the early 1900s, the Sears catalog included mail-order houses. The 1912 offering advertised a complete package for $892, including plans. Of course, labor was needed to assemble it, but many handy people would build the houses themselves to save money—the original do-it-yourselfers. In the 1920s, these kit houses were so popular around here that Sears developed a design called The Pittsburgh. Advertised as "Six Rooms, Bath and Big Porch" and "Already Cut and Fitted" for just $1,789, this home offered "the pleasing exterior lines of a modern bungalow and the interior efficiency of a high grade apartment." It was a modest-sized house at 1,200 square feet with a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and three bedrooms and the only bathroom on the second floor—hence another local tradition, the ‘Pittsburgh toilet,’ a second, makeshift bathroom in the basement for cleaning up after a day working in the steel mill. Last night, I was invited to a Squirrel Hill home built in 1910. Much larger in size than a Sears house, it was built with much of the same charm and integrity from an era when life was filled with hard work, and reputation meant everything. Consequently, the house reflected this. Wood moldings and stair railings were of the type builders today consider labor-intensive, costly upgrades. Yet in a time when many people built their own homes, extra work was put in to make all of the finishes just right. When I was leaving the home, I commented on how well the floor plan was designed, how the rooms were arranged thoughtfully and flowed effortlessly from one into another. Quite often I am asked by clients to help give their house a good flow. It is a characteristic not easily described, but is understood and felt immediately when in a house built during the turn of the century. Back then, home designers took great care of such things, making the interior space not only suitable and appropriate, but also meaningful to the way in which a house was lived. Today's suburban homes are often designed for other reasons, like resale. Homeowners consider the way a fictitious buyer would live in their house. Decisions about wall placement, floor materials and countertop finishes are made for this person who may live in that home someday. In reality, years pass by quickly and people live in their homes longer than planned, all the while making due with a house that doesn't suit them. This morning I met with a Wexford homeowner in a home that the couple had built three years ago. There were some additions to be made that were put off at the time. They wanted an architect to help them avoid making mistakes they felt were made the first time through, spatially, proportionally and functionally. This is not uncommon. Many people know what they like when they see it. But when scouring the Internet for a floor plan, all they find are plans circulated by production home builders, which are plans intended for homebuilders turning out mass quantities of houses, using a one-size-fits-all plan for a whole variety of buyers. It is no surprise that these plans are tweaked over the years by market forces through trial and error. But a home is not a house designed for the many; it is a place lived in by a particular family, each with its own personality, interests and way of doing things. For a house to feel like home, it must respond to these forces, not to market forces. Yes, Sears considered the buying market when they designed The Pittsburgh model house. However, it was also designed with another thing in mind which designers today often overlook—something that we in the visual design industry call affordance. For example, when a tree grows, branches sprout out in all directions; however, there is always a certain arrangement of branches that fork in a particular way that provides the perfect conditions for nest building. Year after year, a different bird will find that same spot, attracted by its inherent qualities to build a nest. The physical design of the tree's branches ‘affords’ the making of a nest. It is not that the other branches couldn't support a nest; rather, these branches naturally work better. These houses of a bygone era do the same thing, providing a certain configuration of rooms, windows and furnishings that naturally afford our way of living. Entering the home, a hall receives guests; not to impress them, but to greet them and provide a place to converse while taking off jackets and hats. The dining room is not solely a repository for a dining set, credenza and china cabinet; it is a place arranged in such a way that it affords dining, laughing and reminiscing with friends. Every detail of the room is considered from this perspective in the way that natural light casting across the floor at sunset enriches the experience or an arched opening frames a view of the living room fireplace. These things are subtle, and are not visible to the untrained eye on a set of plans. But consideration of these things—human size proportioning, sight line vistas, tactile materials and detailing—make a house feel like a home. So if you are in the market for a new home this spring, you might want to pick up a turn-of-the-century Sears catalog rather than surf the Internet for a house plan. Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

In the early 1900s, the Sears catalog included mail-order houses. The 1912 offering advertised a complete package for $892, including plans. Of course, labor was needed to assemble it, but many handy people would build the houses themselves to save money—the original do-it-yourselfers.

In the 1920s, these kit houses were so popular around here that Sears developed a design called The Pittsburgh. Advertised as "Six Rooms, Bath and Big Porch" and "Already Cut and Fitted" for just $1,789, this home offered "the pleasing exterior lines of a modern bungalow and the interior efficiency of a high grade apartment."

It was a modest-sized house at 1,200 square feet with a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and three bedrooms and the only bathroom on the second floor—hence another local tradition, the ‘Pittsburgh toilet,’ a second, makeshift bathroom in the basement for cleaning up after a day working in the steel mill.

Last night, I was invited to a Squirrel Hill home built in 1910. Much larger in size than a Sears house, it was built with much of the same charm and integrity from an era when life was filled with hard work, and reputation meant everything. Consequently, the house reflected this. Wood moldings and stair railings were of the type builders today consider labor-intensive, costly upgrades. Yet in a time when many people built their own homes, extra work was put in to make all of the finishes just right.

When I was leaving the home, I commented on how well the floor plan was designed, how the rooms were arranged thoughtfully and flowed effortlessly from one into another. Quite often I am asked by clients to help give their house a good flow. It is a characteristic not easily described, but is understood and felt immediately when in a house built during the turn of the century. Back then, home designers took great care of such things, making the interior space not only suitable and appropriate, but also meaningful to the way in which a house was lived.

Today's suburban homes are often designed for other reasons, like resale. Homeowners consider the way a fictitious buyer would live in their house. Decisions about wall placement, floor materials and countertop finishes are made for this person who may live in that home someday. In reality, years pass by quickly and people live in their homes longer than planned, all the while making due with a house that doesn't suit them.

This morning I met with a Wexford homeowner in a home that the couple had built three years ago. There were some additions to be made that were put off at the time. They wanted an architect to help them avoid making mistakes they felt were made the first time through, spatially, proportionally and functionally.

This is not uncommon. Many people know what they like when they see it. But when scouring the Internet for a floor plan, all they find are plans circulated by production home builders, which are plans intended for homebuilders turning out mass quantities of houses, using a one-size-fits-all plan for a whole variety of buyers. It is no surprise that these plans are tweaked over the years by market forces through trial and error.

But a home is not a house designed for the many; it is a place lived in by a particular family, each with its own personality, interests and way of doing things. For a house to feel like home, it must respond to these forces, not to market forces. Yes, Sears considered the buying market when they designed The Pittsburgh model house. However, it was also designed with another thing in mind which designers today often overlook—something that we in the visual design industry call affordance.

For example, when a tree grows, branches sprout out in all directions; however, there is always a certain arrangement of branches that fork in a particular way that provides the perfect conditions for nest building. Year after year, a different bird will find that same spot, attracted by its inherent qualities to build a nest. The physical design of the tree's branches ‘affords’ the making of a nest. It is not that the other branches couldn't support a nest; rather, these branches naturally work better.

These houses of a bygone era do the same thing, providing a certain configuration of rooms, windows and furnishings that naturally afford our way of living. Entering the home, a hall receives guests; not to impress them, but to greet them and provide a place to converse while taking off jackets and hats. The dining room is not solely a repository for a dining set, credenza and china cabinet; it is a place arranged in such a way that it affords dining, laughing and reminiscing with friends. Every detail of the room is considered from this perspective in the way that natural light casting across the floor at sunset enriches the experience or an arched opening frames a view of the living room fireplace.

These things are subtle, and are not visible to the untrained eye on a set of plans. But consideration of these things—human size proportioning, sight line vistas, tactile materials and detailing—make a house feel like a home. So if you are in the market for a new home this spring, you might want to pick up a turn-of-the-century Sears catalog rather than surf the Internet for a house plan.


Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.
Home+Garden, Today architecture Sears model homes
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