“We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.”
So said Bob Ross, who—through The Joy of Painting—taught techniques and positive thinking. His work was never muddled; his paintings were a balance of light and color and nature and, of course, “happy little trees.”
When it comes to architecture, “happy accidents” typically aren’t desired. Not when things are so calculated, so precise, so deliberately designed. One cannot easily drag a brush across an empty lot and paint a structurally sound house. Renovations and additions require thought as well. Will they be economical in the long run? How will they benefit me/the family? Can I fully afford what needs to be done? What will the finished work look like?
Unfortunately, not every individual takes time to answer each of these questions. What’s more, not every individual has the financial means to properly reconstruct an architectural element. If that be the case, quick fixes and inexpensive materials are often used, despite the materials’ inability to complement existing features. And, sometimes, contrasting styles are made to weld together. Even more often, vinyl is laid atop ancient brick or wood. Ultimately, the muddling of styles, materials, and colors can be jarring.
“Muddling,” when applied to architecture, refers to a building that undergoes so many modifications that the original structure or historic aesthetics are no longer distinguishable. Fullerton Heritage, a California not-for-profit corporation dedicated to preserving historic architectural resources, defines muddling as “misguided attempts to ‘improve’ a building.” They add that “marring a building’s original architectural style often adversely affects the resale value.”
During my time in Indianapolis, my eyes have grown accustomed to abandoned homes. While driving, they scan for plywood, for overgrown grass. Of course, there are many more things—both the beautiful and the cringe-worthy—that can catch one’s eye as well. The latter, as we know, are often featured on WTH Wednesdays.
WTH Wednesdays are a take on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Yikes feature, which shares photos of “insensitive renovations.” In fact, some of the photos included here are from former WTH features. In the past, WTH has been scrutinized, and has even been accused of mocking homeowners. On the contrary, WTH is a tool; it’s a satire on building alterations. It teaches us what not to do. It shows us what aged, peeling, or missing brick veneer panels look like years into the future. It encourages us to do better, and to try to respect a historic home’s dignity.
What I noticed most on my latest outing was the presence of vinyl: vinyl siding, vinyl windows. I also noticed that many a home has walled in its front porch. While I understand the need for more usable square footage, I do wish that the materials used to do so would blend more easily. Flow from one element to the next. Make you think, Hmm. That house is a nice size. I wonder if they renovated? rather than, Hmm. They lost themselves a porch on that one.
A remodel can often turn into a “remuddle” if careful thought isn’t given to the style of the home, or the relation of the home to the rest of the neighborhood’s architecture. A mismatched façade could appear uninviting, for example. Anything trendy will, at some point, go out of style. And, as HGTV’s Don’t Sweat It host Steve Watson said, “You bought that Spanish home or that Craftsman home for a reason, because you liked that style. So keep your new design, your new build projects in that style.”
Part of Historic Indianapolis’s mission is to “create conversation” and “inspire for the future.” It’s important to discuss and discover different ways to remedy muddling. And, of course, if we pinpoint how to avoid an architectural blasphemy—vinyl on top of brick veneer on top of actual brick—we can avoid muddling in the future. We can all be preservationists dedicated to maintaining functional, comfortable homes with historic curb appeal. And if anyone happens to have a “happy accident,” I hope it involves the planting of a “happy little tree” in the front yard.
So, what say ye? What is your stance on vinyl versus historic windows? What is the most creative addition you’ve seen built onto a home? Would you ever consider peeling away the outer shell of a home to reveal its inner, original exterior? Do you have an opinion on how the more modern-looking homes in the city fit into their surrounding neighborhoods? (One example is the home at Fletcher and Shelby.)