Architecture Laid Bare, or Reasons to Travel in the Winter

Recently I took a jaunt up to Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Despite having lived in the greater Washington, D.C. area my entire life, and having enjoyed many lovely days up in Harpers Ferry, Boonsboro, and Berkeley Springs, I had never managed to visit before. Shepherdstown is the oldest town in West Virginia, having been founded in 1734 and chartered in 1762. There are lots of great reasons to visit, even in February. The historic town and surrounding rural landscape are vibrant even in the dead of Winter, and the views of well-preserved 18th and 19th-c. buildings are unimpeded by trees and vegetation. Historic resources here have strong local support in the form of Historic Shepherdstown and the Shepherdstown Historic Landmarks Commission. As the town’s comprehensive plan states, “historic preservation remains a key quality of life that the citizens of Shepherdstown hold in high regard.”

1906 Jefferson Security Bank

c. 1906 Jefferson Security Bank. This Beaux-Arts bank building housed the Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant from 1975 until 2015, and is now home to a Mexican restaurant. Photo by author, 2019.

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VAF Conference 2018: A Shared Heritage

Ask around in the historic preservation / architectural history field about folks’ favorite conferences, and invariably you’ll get the same reply: “VAF!!” There’s a reason attending the Vernacular Architecture Forum conference is a beloved ritual for many–the field trips. You get to access little-seen spaces and privately-owned historic properties, the equivalent of a back-stage V.I.P. pass for your favorite band. Seeing and discussing these incredible places in the friendly company of other architectural historians, preservationists, historic site directors, and academics (this year I met a historical geographer and a medievalist) makes for an invaluable learning experience. Continue reading

Modern Prefabs of Montgomery County

In case you missed it, Clare Lise Kelly, senior architectural historian for Montgomery County, Maryland, recently published a fantastic book, Montgomery Modern: Modern Architecture in Montgomery County, Maryland, 1930-1979. The section on one of my favorite topics–prefabricated housing–starts on page 19. It includes a mention of the late-1940s plywood-panel Gunnison Homes (possibly the cutest of all the postwar prefabs, IMO). I was honored to see, in the footnotes, that Kelly used my blog post on the Gunnison Homes in Silver Spring and Kensington, Maryland as a resource for the book. From my cursory windshield surveys back in 2010, it seemed that most of the thirteen Gunnison Homes in Silver Spring possessed sufficient integrity to warrant a National Register multiple property nomination.

Of Ice Houses and Igloos

Sometimes research topics intersect in really strange ways. There I was, knee-deep in ice house research, when I got a message from a journalist friend asking, “Jen, do you know anything about the Falls Church ‘igloo houses’?” Beyond the apparent sub-zero nomenclature, unfortunately, there is no connection whatsoever between the two types of structures. The first was usually an underground pit (at least in the early 19th century) built to store ice through the summer. The second was an igloo-shaped dome made of concrete sprayed over a giant balloon, a late 1930s invention of a California architect named Wallace Neff. At the time the igloo houses were constructed in 1941, ice houses were well on their way to obsolescence thanks to the Rural Electrification Project and the advent of electric refrigerators. But the “igloo houses” and ice houses did have one thing in common–both served as a cool retreat in the summertime. Neff’s concrete dwellings apparently stayed comfortable, albeit damply so, in the heat of our northern Virginia summers, prior to the advent of air conditioning. Alas, they were razed and replaced by an apartment complex in the early 1960s. Read more about the igloo houses, officially named  Airform homes, courtesy of talented writer and historic preservation advocate Kim A. O’Connell, in the March-April 2016 issue of Arlington Magazine.

Considering Risk Tolerance when Evaluating Historic Agricultural Structures

In my ongoing research on ice houses, the apparent lack of clear building trends within time periods and geographic regions continues to frustrate me. I originally conceived of my research project with the goal of developing a typology of Potomac Valley ice houses and delineating general construction periods to assist architectural historians and archaeologists. With supporting field work data, perhaps ice house or ice well remnants could be identified and dated via the shape or dimensions of the pit, construction materials, or other factors.

As far as outbuildings go, it’s a simple structure with one purpose: to preserve a huge pile of ice as long as possible, ideally until the following Winter. How much variation could there really be? British ice houses almost always took the form of a large conical brick-lined pit, covered with an earthen mound (which could also serve as a garden mount), revetted into a hillside, or covered with a conical thatched roof. One would expect to find these traditional forms prevalent among the early ice houses in America. Indeed, earthen mound or hillside ice wells can be found at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg (early 1700s), possibly the Oxon Hill Manor archeological site (18th c.), Hampton in Towson, Maryland (1790s), Lexington Manor archeological site in Lorton, Virginia (1790s), and Huntley in Alexandria, Virginia (1820s). However, my preliminary research and field work is turning up examples of subterranean conical or circular ice wells built long after the agricultural advice literature proclaimed them obsolete and unnecessarily expensive compared to square ice wells or double-walled above-ground ice houses. As early as 1806, Frederic Tudor, the first American ice merchant, proclaimed traditional subterranean ice house construction obsolete, and subsequently built the first of many above-ground commercial ice houses. American farmers, however, seem to have avoided this “new” type of ice house construction until after the Civil War. Continue reading

Five Years

“The days are long but the years are short.” I’ve often heard this said about parenthood, especially the early years, but I think it applies to life in general just as well. Somehow, over five years has gone by since the last time I posted to this blog. I had launched it not long after getting my Master’s degree, as a way to keep my writing skills fresh while job hunting. I also wanted to continue researching 20th-century prefab housing–the topic of my thesis–and needed a way to quickly share new bits and pieces that would hopefully help others in the preservation community and general public.

Fast forward five years, after working as an architectural historian/planner with an environmental services firm, having kids, losing sleep (re: kids), staying home with kids, working on a few research projects, moving to a new house, and changing my web hosting provider, I think I’m ready to put this blog back online. Continue reading

VAF 2010: “Housing Washington”

The 2010 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference, “Housing Washington,” has sadly drawn to a close. I’ve heard from many in the architectural history and preservation fields that VAF conferences are their favorite, and now I understand why. A great balance of bus tours, walking tours, and sessions of three 20-minute presentations grouped by theme keeps things moving and interesting.

As for me, I somehow managed to get through my presentation, “Postwar Prefabs in the Washington, D.C., Suburbs: The Mass-Production Success of Vernacular Prefab Homes,” without dry heaves or hyperventilating. Many thanks to session moderator Janet Foster, of Columbia University, and the other session presenters, Nancy Holst and Erin Cunningham, for providing a supportive, collegiate atmosphere.

I was pleasantly surprised at the interest the audience showed in my topic — more historians have begun to take interest in the prefab homes in their own postwar suburbs. Continue reading