The term “vintage” has gained such common currency these days that it seems as though anything that makes even the vaguest reference to any style or design that predates the millennium can be described using “vintage” as a qualifier. Let’s examine this. Popular interest in the visual culture of decades past continues to rise, partly owing to hit television shows like Mad Men and Netflix’s peculiar obsession with overproduced historic programming. It has come with the commodification of all things “vintage” in tow. However, using “vintage” to describe, well, any old thing, has led to the word holding far less meaning and value. Used to label poorly-made, poorly-designed replicas, or to inflate the online sales of what is likely junk from someone’s basement, not to mention knockoff bric-a-brac from China, “vintage” has now become a word with an identity crisis. Even worse, for some it is associated with cheapness or “kitsch.”And while it cannot be denied that kitsch happens, and that one can enjoy it, its link with vintage is dangerous. As kitsch makes reference to mass-manufactured and cheaply-produced material goods, crossing wires between “kitsch” and “vintage” can lead to an undervaluing of the material and design quality of products from the past. This is especially troublesome for historic buildings. When it comes to homes, vintage means different things to different people. A Queen Anne Revival house with asymmetrical facades and picturesque massing would fall into the category of “vintage” for some, where as another might only think of a mid-century modern ranch. These variations of interpretation can make describing a historic home with the word a little ambiguous, but the greater challenge is emphasizing that vintage means quality and integrity. This is why the language and marketing used to promote a historic home requires the knowledge and expertise of someone who understands and appreciates these unique buildings. Someone that understands the value of the intact millwork still in place on that Queen Anne porch, or the pink bathroom fixtures in the mid-century modern ranch (which is totally back in vogue).
The variety of styles, design and craftsmanship of buildings from earlier eras represent textured histories as well as a consideration for the quality of materials and construction that is unparalleled today. However, when poorly or inappropriately maintained, historic buildings can all too easily adopt a fun-house aesthetic. Enjoyed by few, offensive to the rest of us. This insensitive treatment of historic buildings, described here as “Kitsch Vic,” contributes to the confused and muddled understanding of not only the word “vintage” but the beauty and integrity of vintage homes.
Beyond the “radically-restored” vintage single family home or historic building, as cities and towns continue to develop and modernize, a prevailing attitude towards demolition over reuse also puts vintage buildings and mature neighborhoods at risk. As a result, landmark district neighborhoods have become safe havens for historic homes and properties. The security and stability of landmark district neighborhoods have produced areas of handsome, older building stock that maintains the original character and preserves the vintage buildings within. In cities like Chicago, there are criteria that need to be met in order for a neighborhood to become a landmark district. The criteria allows unique patterns of history and design to be defined and protected through designation. As a result, no two historic neighborhoods are alike, each representing the distinct character of the district.As we discussed previously in our Stability and Longevity From Historic Designation and Million Dollar District; How Landmark Designation Pays posts, value is established through more than a dollars and cents approach. And understanding the value of vintage homes and historic neighborhoods is vital in getting the most out of your home. How does historic status give a property value, you may ask? Property-rights enthusiasts lament the restrictions put in place through landmark district designation, citing a “highest-and-best use” concept as the ideal status for every property. This viewpoint, however, is prime example of placing quantity over quality. Though landmark district preservation does place some restrictions on home-owners, the stability and longevity of the neighborhood increases the value of the property. Not to mention, the quality of the materials and craftsmanship contained within a historic home, when properly maintained, will outlive much of today’s new construction shelf life. From vernacular workers’ cottages or high style Victorian era mansions, to Eichler modernist designs, living in a historic home or within a landmark district brings assurance and certainty, qualities that appeal to any homeowner. Vintage absolutely has value. And until “vintage” is once again synonymous with “quality,” I’m going to keep fighting the good fight to advocate for the beauty, integrity and value of historic, vintage homes.