Friday, August 13, 2010

Howards End

I just finished re-reading “Howards End” by E. M. Forester. Once upon a time I thought that this book was about social classes, social injustices, antiquated relations between men and women… Reading again, I find the book is about the concept of home and how the Basts, Wilcoxes and Schlegals find, make or lose home.
Mrs. Wilcox’s house – Howards End – with its ancient wych-elm leaning protectively over it and a vine covering part of its walls was more than mere real estate, more than the inheritable value of the dirt upon which it was built; it was her home and being comfortable with both her person and her home Mrs. Wilcox was able to extend this sense of home to protect her family and loved friends.

After her passing, the Wilcoxes do not realize that they have lost home even though the deed to the property is comfortably, legally in their hands. The Schlegals’ childhood home is had on a 30-year lease and the land owner has decided to tear the house down when the lease expires so the family is left on the edge of having to make a new home with no experience at having done so. The Basts are on the edge of vagrancy with the loss of any penny.

All three are followed either to a new sense of home, or to the edge of society where they fall off and disappear forever. Pick this one up, do: You will not be sorry.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Splinters and Fragments.

A fellow artist and friend on Facebook posted a very interesting link that got me thinking: Could Saginaw’s incredibly strict building codes be worked around or through to construct creatively-designed, green-friendly houses or studios on a tiny scale?

There are major challenges that must be overcome before building a new structure in Saginaw’s inner city districts becomes the first choice to pursue:

-There are too many housing units to be sustained by the city’s current tax base or population.

-The current economy and number of empty homes make it more affordable to buy a house than to build one.

-The city’s building codes are some of the most strict in the Mid-West.

-The average lot size in the city is too small to build on according to current codes.

The current rate of demolition in Saginaw will in a very few years dramatically decrease the number of housing units in the city and create a massive number of empty lots that will need to be addressed as well as making it more possible to acquire several connected lots to offer a larger building site.

We will one day perhaps be able to see interesting comtemporary structures popping up in our inner-city, but a major concern between now and then is the fact that so few of the buildings being demolished are being properly salvaged. Habitat for Humanity is granted deconstruction rights to a very few properties (two at the present out of hundreds being leveled over the next year.)

These two homes out of hundreds being deconstructed by Habitat contained very little historic or architectural detail that could be reused and – interesting point to consider – the lumber being salvaged is not permitted for building use in the city because it is not graded. (Or so I have been told.) Said lumber may be virgin-growth timber of a superior quality to that being sold in today’s lumber yards, but since it is not graded/approved, it cannot be used to build a new home. So why salvage it? To build an amazing rose arbor or dog house?

Seven homes in the last 30 days were demolished in my immediate neighborheed. Each one is now just a scarred piece of land studded with wood splinters or fragments of brick where homes once stood for 80 to 100 years and these scars leave a vaguely uneasy feeling as one walks or drives past them.

Among these was a very charming black-and-butterscotch-painted house on the corner of Thompson and Weadock that was structurally sound but in need of all mechanical systems. The home was torn down while the dangerous, partially burned structure next to it on Thompson still stands due to its taxes being semi-current. Nothing was salvaged from this home prior to demolition.

A properly boarded (translation: not dangerous to the public) house on Hoyt near Weadock associated with the family of Jesse Hoyt (red and white carpenter gothic built mid-late 19th century) that - again – needed new heating, wiring, plumbing, etc., was torn down when a home several blocks away on Owen standing wide open with a collapsing roof and no siding is left standing. Nothing was salvaged from the Hoyt home prior to demolition.

One lot over from the Hoyt home (on Hoyt) stood a massive, brown Dutch Colonial home whose roof and foundation were failing (the back corner of the home was being held up by the tree that had destroyed the foundation). The home had a large porch whose roof was supported by sets of slender turned columns and wonderfully detailed windows were set into the front of the house. Inside were heavy moldings, built-in cabinets and a very detailed stairway reminiscent of the one so prominently featured in the film “Grey Gardens.” Nothing was salvaged from this home prior to demolition.

These are but three examples among many that have prompted reactions ranging from bewilderment to anger from area residents that more is not being done to make these architectural elements available to home owners in the area instead of crushing them and dumping them in a landfill.

The city has multiple programs to assist rehabilitation of historic homes, but it is interesting to note that even a rough estimate of the cash value of the architectural details being treated as trash by the city’s demolition program could easily equal the grant dollars available for home repair. We do not seem to be coming out monetarily ahead when these programs are pitted in opposing columns.

The owner of 519 Millard had to spend thousands of dollars on new porch elements. My own home was purchased whilestill missing multiple detailed windows, a fireplace mantle, vestibule door and other features that will have to be tracked down and bought or remade a great expense. All over the city homeowners are actively hunting for items and purchasing from warehouses as far away as Grass Lake and Detroit architectural elements whose manufacture today is cost prohibitive.

The city is throwing such elements away faster than they can be documented when in most cases a single afternoon of volunteer effort (by volunteers who are more than willing to sign any needed indemnity agreement for the city’s peace of mind) could make these details available affordably to homeowners in Saginaw that need them through Neighborhood Renewal Services or Habitat For Humanity’s Re-Store.

Is it possible that some of these resources could be used in new ways to help address some the city’s rapidly increasing inventory of empty lots? Could creative compact housing or studios be built of said materials at some point in the near future? Would the city be interested in partnering with an architectural school to see a text project begun? Could some of these materials somehow be made available to residents in need of specific details in a way that could assist in offsetting demolition costs or that could support the overhead of a salvage warehouse in Saginaw such as the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit (a wonderful not-for-profit to check out)?

The situation begs questions that will have to be voiced respectfully by many individuals to the proper city authorities if a solution is to be reached before these resources are gone forever and the subsequent empty lots become the result of a decision to be questioned by a new generation who were not here for the deliberating but will not hesitate to ask why those who were present in the now did not do more while there was still time.


(House formerly on corner of Thompson and Weadock)

(Dutch Colonial that was demolished without salvaging)

(To see the original story that was posted on Facebook and prompted these thoughts, go to NPR’s site and look for “In Japaz, Living Large In Really Tiny Houses” by Lucy Craft)