Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Contemplating Windows

Habitat for Humanity is to be commended for making the effort to build houses that are compatible with Hudson's historic architecture. After building a little neighborhood of five one-story houses on Mill Street, which outnumber the existing houses on a dead end street at the edge of town, Habitat responded to the challenge of building houses more suitable to their surroundings when they moved to their next location in the 400 block of Columbia Street. In constructing these buildings, they did several things they had never done before--among them, involving an architect and building a pair of two-story attached houses. They made the effort with what they like to call their "Federal design," but why does the outcome seem somewhat less than successful?

A comment made recently by a friend about these houses got me thinking about windows and doors. What is true for every unspoiled 19th-century building facade in Hudson--except for later 19th-century houses that are deliberately assymetrical--is the regular placement of doors and windows. They are spaced evenly apart, and they are centered on the building. This is true for major houses designed by architects and master builders, and it is true for smaller vernacular houses. 

The regular placement of doors and windows is so important to 19th-century facade design that sometimes, when there is no interior reason for a window or when the interior design makes a window impossible, a house has false shutters where windows should be to maintain the rhythm. An example of this is 201 Union Street where there's a chimney behind the false shutters. The windows and doors in the new Habitat houses are spaced evenly apart like 19th-century houses, but they are off center, which creates an awkward break in the rhythm of the facade.

The Habitat houses aren't the only houses meant to be compatible with their surroundings that miss what seems to be an essential shared characteristic of Hudson's historic architecture. The Hudson Homestead houses built by Housing Resources at various locations in the city have windows and doors that are irregular in their placement in different ways. For example, in these houses on North Second Street, the rhythm of the windows misses a beat, something seen in some badly altered facades around the city where windows that once existed have been closed up and covered over. 

When tasked with creating something that is compatible with existing historic buildings, some architects seem to focus on the decorative details. I recall an early design for Crosswinds that involved the developer and his architect driving around Hudson identifying appealing details on various 19th- and early 20th-century houses--an interesting window here, an pleasant molding there--and then cobbling them together on an otherwise undistinguished big box of a townhouse apartment building. Perhaps if the focus were on the more basic elements like mass and the placement and size of doors and windows in the facade, compatibility with the buildings of our predominantly 19th-century city could be more satisfactorily achieved.  

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