Third Story

They had just started framing the third floor of the house next door at the end of last week. They seemed to have mostly finished today. Yup, it’s a third story all right.

They do seem to have pushed back just a tad from the façade on the front. That was about all we could hope for, I suppose. Still, it’s a travesty, what they’re doing. There was an Associated Press story about such things the other day, and you can find it, “Communities Fight ‘Tear-Down Phenomenon’,” on one of the many sites that carry the AP.

2 thoughts on “Third Story

  1. Boy, can I relate to this post. I live in a beautiful neighborhood in Nashville called Richland-West End. Richland was the first street developed in the grid. It was originally a suburb on the west side of town which was later incorporated into the city. Interestingly enough, my brother Andrew used to live in an old house in Richmond which was also originally in the suburbs, but later incorporated. Guess that’s how cities grow.

    The land underneath these houses was once a farm belonging to the Craighead family, who lived in a fine red-brick Federal-style home. Amazingly, the Craighead home still stands, and the guys who own it gave Andrew and me a tour of the property once. They’re good neighbors. That home dates back to the early 19th century. The current owners have all kinds of cool sculptures in their yard, in and around the flower beds.

    The story goes that when the heirs of the original Craighead family decided to sell the land the original intent was to develop it into a cemetery. Gradually, around 1910 or so, the powers that be decided to develop the land into a neighborhood instead, and a really cool, distinctive neighborhood, at that. Every single house is different from each other. No cookie-cutter neighborhood here. There are big four-squares (so-named because each floor has four same-sized rooms) and also smaller bungalows, like the one we bought. Ours is on Central Avenue, the second street to be developed. The builders started building off of the main street out of downtown, West End Avenue, and moved in parallel fashion back toward the Craighead House.

    I mention all of this because it is so wonderful and unique that such a beautiful neighborhood is still extant. There are no blocks of 1920s houses in the Arlington of my youth. Some forward-thinking neighbors banded together and preserved the neighborhood from the wrecking ball. But how did they do it?

    Neighborhoods go through cycles. (As George Harrison said in “Crackerbox Palace,” “Some times are good, sometimes are bad — it’s all a part of life…”) Thus it is with neighborhoods. Our house was built in 1920. By the 1960s and 1970s the original owners were dying off and the neighborhood was falling into disrepair. Many of the stately old homes were being divided up into apartments to rent to students from Vanderbilt, who, being college kids, didn’t treat the houses all that well.

    By the late 1970s or early 1980s I’m told that you could get one of these houses for next to nothing. I’ve heard that one neighbor got an amazing house here — we’re talking about a big brick mansion — for under $100 grand. And she was one of the concerned neighbors who banded together with other like-minded citizens and arranged to get a type of zoning for the neighborhood called a historic overlay. This means that you can’t rip the houses down and you have to get approval from the historic zoning commission before you make changes to these houses. The point is to retain the flavor of the 1920s. It’s a unique and beautiful thing. (One visitor told me that he thought he’d just entered Mayberry — although Mayberry’s houses were mostly made of wood, and ours are mostly brick with beautiful bases/skirts made of limestone.)

    The zoning basically means that you can build out in the back of your house if you choose, but you are cautioned against building any addition which might change the elevation from the front. For that reason we cannot pop the top on our house and build a second story. (You can see a few poorly-build additions that were added to the tops of houses in the ’70s before the rules took effect. They stick out like sore thumbs.)

    These rules really are no hardship. As I said, most people build out in their backyards. (We are getting ready to tear off an old lean-to addition on the back of our kitchen and add a nice screen porch this summer. I should state that we are not going to do the work, a la Ed and Dawn, but we are contracting with someone to do it.)

    The problem is that builders and some neighbors are unscrupulous. They don’t give a hoot that we are trying to preserve a jem of a neighborhood. On rare occasions the zoning commission allows a neighbor to tear down an existing property, but only if, for instance, the person’s grandma lived there for 50 years and the place is so far-gone that it’s a menace or some-such. If such a tear-down happens, (and it shouldn’t, but sometimes it does) the owner and builder have strict requirements about what they are allowed, and not allowed to do. They can’t build a place that is too large. They can’t build too close to a neighbor’s property, or too close to the street. There are codes about windows and building design, so the new building won’t look out of place.

    But what you find is that these neighbors and builders go to the commission with their plans, agree to the rules, then proceed to build what they want. The neighbors proceed to go crazy about it, but then the builder claims that it’s all an honest mistake, and they claim “hardship” if they are required to tear their work down. Evil people. They know what they are doing. This is how we have recently gotten a few houses with huge, ugly additions towering over the rooftops of the original, quaint houses. It looks awful. It’s an eyesore, and it makes me mad. They don’t care about the art of the thing.

    Which brings me to another point — scale. It seems that the bungalow aesthetic, the idea, was to build the house that you need, not the house that you think you need. A bunglaow is a comfortable home that allows you to open the front door right into the living area. It has a kitchen, dining room and a couple of bedrooms, and that’s it. Ours is 1,500 square feet and we think that part of that is a later addition of a bedroom, from around the late 1920s or 1930s. Aside from lack of storage space for stuff that should be sold in a yard sale anyway, it’s really all that we need.

    Why do modern middle-class people feel that they need gigantic houses? I suppose that’s a can of worms to open on another day.

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