One of the most characteristic features a house can boast is an architecturally interesting front porch. Much as the eyes are the window to the soul, the porch is the window to the house. Well, that’s a bad metaphor, since the porch is the porch to the house and the windows are the windows to the house, but you get it. The historic quality of your porch deeply affects the perceived historic quality of the rest of the property. Removing or enclosing a historic porch can irretrievably alter a house’s visual character.
Property rights enthusiasts often argue their opposition to preservation ordinances through the lens of “highest and best use.” The concept of highest and best use provides that any given parcel of land should be used in a reasonable, legal, and financially feasible way to yield the highest value for that land. Think of it this way: this principle is essentially why skyscrapers are a thing. You can use the land over and over and over again, collecting rent each time. And tell me, readers, what’s a better use than making cold, hard cash? For economy of column space, we’ll keep zoning out of the discussion because that’s a big discussion. Just know that you can only build skyscrapers where you are allowed to build skyscrapers. Enough on that for now.
As we’ve noted before, houses come in infinite styles, plans, and configurations. It can be hard to keep track of the different types of housing stock out there. The American domestic architectural gods have given us one reprieve, though: generally speaking, there are just a few major roof types found on a wide range of house styles across the country. Lucky us.
Earlier this week we looked at a commonly misused term in architectural parlance: “Victorian.” I’d posit that “stained glass” is one that gets tossed around incorrectly just as often. It is extremely unlikely that you have true stained glass in your home (unfortunately!). Truth is, in the U.S., actual, honest-to-goodness stained glass is a rare bird, especially in an area like Chicago, which was largely developed in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
Perhaps the most common argument made by anti-preservationists has been that local historical commissions — the cityfolk who decide what’s a landmark and what you can do to your landmark — are inherently subjective in making their decisions. It is very often assumed that a board of commissioners will deny a homeowner’s proposal for an addition on his or her historic house because it’s just not very pretty. Sometimes, this has held up in court, and there’s a robust history of property owners attempting to sue the pants off their municipality for denying a building or demolition permit.
Let’s be honest: we all like historic architecture, but not all of us know quite how to talk about it. Maybe you can wrap your head around Colonial vs. Victorian vs. Art Deco vs. Modern, but in a city like Chicago, we’re blessed with building stock that challenges those descriptors. And getting the nomenclature right when there are dozens of architectural styles and infinite substyles can be frustrating, even when you’re at your most eloquent.
So you bought an old house and those old radiators are clanging, hot, and everyone tells you they are inefficient. Everyone’s got an opinion – right or wrong.
Some surprises in old houses are great — like finding original wallpaper under layers, or finding hearty wood floors under carpet or tile. But some surprises are bound to be unpleasant and costly. Buyer beware.
I Speak Vintage has heard quite a few horror stories from folks that have bought vintage or historic homes, only to be left holding the bag, as it were. While historic homes have an appeal and charm for many buyers, there are certain restrictions and expenses (that’s an understatement) you need to know about before signing on the dotted line.