America’s love of housing – a property restorer’s perspective

America’s love of housing – a property restorer’s perspective

It would be easy for somebody who lives in a carefully restored 1923 property to become precious about development, but one thing that recreating Erehwon Retreat has taught me is that complacency is unhelpful. My choices: to drive a nineteen-year-old Subaru, to own a 48-year-old sloop and to have restored a 1923 sloop might make me unusual but they are underpinned by a consideration none of us can afford to ignore. I believe that our planet cannot endlessly support our throwaway American lifestyle. In Florida, a vacation capital for people from around the world, our dependence on aquifer water to protect strawberries during cold weather could- one day – lead to a drought we cannot solve and often creates sinkholes today.

Two strands came together to give me a deep interest in conservation and sustainability:

  • Back in 2010 my consulting firm was involved with the Creativity World Forum in Oklahoma City – a prescient event given the hot topics of world trade today
  • My restoration of the vacation rental properties at Erehwon Retreat gave me an abiding interest in local history.

So what?

Well, during that Forum in 2010 I learned that 308 million Americans produce $14 trillion of the world’s $60 trillion GDP.  In other words, 5% of the world’s population controls 20% of the world’s economy.  I’ve also read that if the more than seven billion people in the world lived like Europeans the planet could only sustainably support two billion of them – and that the average American consume twice as much as the average European. The conclusion must be that if everybody lived like an American the planet could only support one billion.

When I began to research Tampa, FL, I discovered the city’s impressive growth after the Civil War. From the 1880s with the construction of the first railroad and Plant Railroad which linked the town to the cigar and phosphate industries that fueled Tampa’s success, though to 1930, Tampa increased in size by 1405%, much of which growth was Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, and a handful of other immigrants, all of them required for the two major employers to succeed. From what had been a typical small southern town, Tampa became a bustling international center – which most people believe only happened when air travel and Florida vacations became essential to happiness.

It just goes to show how long we’ve been stretching our resources.

America, as a nation, has not been given to the introspection that other cultures indulge in, and many see that as being to America’s credit, our state system also allows for development and change to happen at the pace of the local community, rather than having a centralized approach to planning. The downside though, is that there is little or no focus on the effect that expanding energy, resources and land use had on the environment. The McMansion phenomenon, a large ostentatious modern house – often seen as lacking in architectural integrity – has been a piecemeal development, but its effect on each city, state and the nation as a whole has probably disproportionately affected the planet.

And again, so what?

Each of us has to form our own opinions on this subject. I can’t deny that mine will have been shaped by living colonial Boston, Philadelphia and Annapolis, postwar Minneapolis and Cincinnati. Growing up in Manhattan’s apartment culture, I was handed powerful historic narratives about resisting the “tear down” housing, and clear ideas of what affordable, friendly neighborhoods should look like.

We might have unrealistic expectations of the way older housing was constructed – for example, that historic builders were ethical and modest, worked with long-lasting materials like wood and were frugal with their designs. This last might be true – just compare the small closets in 1920s homes built to hold work clothes and one set of Sunday best, with today’s electrified walk-ins, with air conditioning and rotating shoe racks! Such historic values can simply dismiss new developments as gaudy, disruptive, wasteful and ‘walled-off cul de sacs’ both in reality and in the way, they become architectural dead ends.

This is no new concept – when I set out to restore my vacation rental properties, I read articles complaining that the bungalow was breaking down Victorian traditions, was ugly, and destroying the social fabric of city life by replacing rooming houses and apartments with single family homes, urban sprawl and the need for car ownership. Creating Erewhon Retreat was a stunning reminder that everything, even the 90-year galvanized pipes, were once new … and today’s replacement, PVC pipes, are only guaranteed for twenty years!

It’s certainly true that bungalows tended to be much larger (1600 sq. feet) when the average home at the time was closer to 1,000 sq. feet.  Also, by 1920, one in every two American families had a car. A walk through Seminole Heights reveals this proportion is much higher in bungalow communities as show by the number of porte-cochères, built large enough for a Model T.

In Modern Housing for America Gail Radford writes that bungalows often represented luxury housing for their day.  To put that in perspective – our recent housing crisis, back at the turn of the century featured a period in which the overall cost of living increased by a factor of two between the 1890’s and 1920’s but the cost of an entry level home in the period to 1927 had increased by a factor of five and a half. Way back then, Florida was seeing a growing foreclosure crisis, suggesting housing costs were too high for the incomes for many families.

Everybody who was part of the turn of the century change is gone – only history buffs and dedicated restorers like me know that in 1926 the streets of Seminole Heights were paved by raising a $3 million Tampa Bond issue, and nobody remembers what existed before the bungalow craze. Who knows what future generations will think of our current developments?