October 12, 2018
All Images © Union Studio
How a Cottage Can Make Community
As I was saying, the question was why This Old House? How does a single, carefully crafted, energy-efficient cottage fit into our mission of making community?
Well, one obvious answer is that neighborhoods are made up of individual buildings. To the extent that each one contributes a little to the whole, every single home is a chance to connect to and extend the community.
But I’m not talking solely about the physical dimensions of the place; I mean also the psychic and cultural reach of the community. An important goal for us at Union Studio was to embed this home in the local traditions that are recognizably of Jamestown, thereby strengthening and extending them. Working within an established tradition – in this case the patterns of the Jamestown shingled bungalow with its simple one-story roof, shed dormers, and cedar shingled walls – offers a framework for us as architects to say something about those traditions, affirming them and strengthening them. For those who know and love the place but may not have consciously registered that Jamestown has a “look”, restating that look in a new building gives the pleasure of suddenly recognizing an old friend in a crowd. “Ah, I know you!”
For others, who are more tuned in to what makes Jamestown, Jamestown, this fresh take on the cottage form gives the pleasure of surprise as they see a new interpretation that carefully and knowingly tweaks what they may have unconsciously considered settled and complete. So, when we faithfully continue the local pattern of the simple, one-story, low-eaved roof reaching out over a porch on the street, we are repeating and reinforcing the idea of the familiar Jamestown tradition. But when we break that roof line with an over-scaled, monumental picture window with its own strongly projecting cornice, we are offering an architectural surprise. That surprise – a giant window right where you’d least expect it – works in reverse, making a comment on how expected and prevalent the simple, unbroken bungalow eave is in the village. Until that perceived rule was broken, you may not have even been aware of it. This single architectural conceit on a single home manages, we hope, to convey something about the whole neighborhood and to root it firmly in the history of the place.
Likewise, the cribbing of the porch column detail from one of the grand, Shingle-style homes on well-heeled Shoreby Hill is both an affirmation of local patterns and a challenge to them. The paired columns of the 1899 Governor David R. Francis Cottage with their gentle flair are ‘high’ architecture and a wonderful example of the inventiveness of the Shingle style in which many society architects of that era worked.
Our homage to them is the sincerest form of flattery. Finding such a careful and difficult to build detail on a Jamestown bungalow whose very nature speaks of simplicity and frugality is surprising. In using them we are making a statement that the humble Jamestown bungalow can have stature, too; that it can stand confidently alongside ‘high’ architecture; and in doing so, we hope to make the claim not just for our house, but for all the cottages in the village.
So, part of the answer to why a community-focused firm would spend so much effort on a single, old bungalow is that a house is not just a house. It’s statement to the community and an offering to the neighbors. The best places are not just physical constructs. They feel “right” because they are recognizably rooted in history and speak with a vocabulary that reinforces that elusive sense of place. With this house we are seeking to connect to the essence of Jamestown, to respectfully fit in, and also to contribute, surprise, and delight.