In the early 1960s, I lived next door to a man who worked in a shoe factory. Day after day, he sewed the same seam over and over, then passed the leather on to the next person on the assembly line. My brother, his wife, and I were astounded when he told us one night he’d set his all-time record for the number of pieces sewn in one day. We were all in graduate school, and I’m sure we studied harder that night. As far as I know he never saw the finished shoes that came out of this process, but they all looked alike. A century after the Industrial Revolution, he was caught in its trap. Before that, he would have hand-crafted each complete shoe, and no two would have been quite the same.
It’s not as big a leap as it may seem from shoes to houses. In this day of tract housing, when all suburban houses for blocks and blocks look the same, it’s no wonder there’s a return to the inner city with its old houses. And there’s an emphasis on the charming Craftsman houses from the first thirty years of the twentieth century.
The Craftsman movement grew out of revolt against the disappearance of the individual craftsman in the assembly lines of that Industrial Revolution. Many architects, artists, and others believed that the Industrial Revolution devalued nature and the human touch in favor of progress and production, the result being second-rate mass-produced objects. The movement encompassed architecture, furniture, landscape, almost all areas of design, and was tied to a lifestyle philosophy. Gustav Stickley, born in Germany but brought to this country as a youngster, is one of the men most prominently associated with the Craftsman movement, which probably got its name from the magazine, The Craftsman, that he established in 1901. Stickley was a designer, furniture maker, and editor. Today, original Stickley furniture is rare and highly collectible.
In the Victorian era, Queen Anne and other styles of houses were built for families with servants. The kitchen for instance, was separated from the family living areas. With the rise of the middle class at the turn of the twentieth century, Stickley and others focused on the housewife who did not have servants, who kept house and also kept an eye on the children. So floor plans were open. The walled-off pantry was replaced by built-in sideboards. Kitchens opened into dining and living areas, often separated not by doors but by arches. With the innovation of the breakfast nook, the kitchen became part of the family living area. Consistent with the emphasis on natural materials and on craftsmanship, there was an exuberant use of dark, natural wood, no longer hidden under plaster and ornament. Built-in bookcases and cupboards were fronted with leaded and sometimes stained glass. Exterior windows were often paned, letting the outdoor light flood in but still giving a distinctive touch to the house. And in most Craftsman houses, a fireplace, often tiled, was central. Decorative tiles frequently adorned the front of the fireplace.
Mixed materials were another hallmark of Craftsman homes, and exteriors were generally wood or shingle with frequent use of stone. Gabled or hipped low-pitched roof lines sloped gently down to the exterior walls. Encircling front porches were large and generally covered by an extension of the main roof of the house. These porches and often the interior sported open rafters and brackets. Tapered square columns supporting the roof at the front of the porch were common.
Stickley declared the bungalow to be a house “reduced to its simplified form,” and the bungalow is the most common Craftsman house. The Craftsman provided floor plans and pattern books, sometimes offering ads for pre-cut lumber with instructions, and many students if Craftsman architecture claim that the true Craftsman house came from Stickley’s plans and magazine. .
Several other architectural styles were closely aligned to the Craftsman style—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, Mission Style– n many cases, the name of the style is associated with a particular region of the country. California is noted for Craftsman bungalows, but Texas had—and has—them. Wright’s Prairie Style contributed the four-square, a plain, boxy, two-story version of the Craftsman. Wright believed the horizontal lines of the four-square more suited the prairie’s from which the style sprung, but it too has spread across the country. These houses had little exterior ornamentation, but shared many features with the bungalows—beamed ceilings, wainscoting, heavy use of wood, exterior shingles and wooden siding, large roofed porches.
Gardens followed the concept of individuality and creative craftsmanship, with an abundance of plantings left to grow naturally, curving walkways, often of stone, and a sense of nature dominating.
Today some original Craftsman homes have undergone “unfortunate” upgrades—wood gutters replaced with metal, houses covered with siding, exposed rafters and shingles hidden, and front porches enclosed to become sunrooms. Many of these houses are being renovated back to their original state, and there is also an interest in new homes built according to the Craftsman model. Floor plans for bungalows and four-squares are available from a variety of sources, although one would do well to check for authenticity.
Why am I so interested in Craftsman style? For one thing, I love old houses and live in one built in 1922 which, although brick, has some slight Craftsman touches such as the roofed porch, built-in bookcases, and central tile fireplace. But beyond that, the heroine of my Kelly O’Connell Mysteries (Skeleton in a Dead Space and No Neighborhood for Old Women) is a realtor who specializes in renovating Craftsman house in the Fairmount Historic District of Fort Worth, Texas. She can spot a gem and knows what needs to be done to restore it. The neighborhood, which has more Craftsman than any other area of the city, becomes a character in the book. It’s just that while she’s renovating houses, Kelly stumbles over skeletons and follows the trail of a serial killer who preys on old women. A harried, hassled, and loving single mom of two young girls, she often unwittingly puts her children, her mom, and herself in danger and almost derails her love life. Visit her website http://firstname.lastname@example.org