A month ago I visited my friends in San Francisco. While I was there, I enjoyed admiring and analyzing the splendid Painted Ladies and marveled at the Victorian Era architecture. These homes were the epitome of style when they were built and are still breath takingly beautiful today. They are detailed to perfection and I can’t help but feel jealous of those who occupy them….house envy is a real thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Crow’s Nest. But the Crow’s Nest is rather the Plain Jane compared to the Painted Ladies of San Francisco. I suppose I will always prefer the Belle of the Ball to the wallflower when it comes to historic homes. But this trip got me thinking….
What did my house look like when it was built? The Crow’s Nest didn’t always look like it does today. I have one photo of the house from the 1960s and recently a member of the original family sent me a photo of the house from 1999. The 1960’s photo is grainy, but it shows the house with clapboard siding like we have on the front porch, simple window trim with a little detail trim on top and the carriage house has its original swing doors. I cannot tell if the house had corbels or if its shadows at the roof line. I secretly hope it had corbels…
What did the house look like in 1893? What did Johann Mertes plan? Was the porch always this size or a 1920s addition? Was it more detailed? Johann Mertes was a home builder and he would want to show off his skills. But could the house also be a case of Johann Mertes reserving his best work for his job and built the house with leftovers? We know he used spare material to finish the second floor and the carriage house. The Crow’s Nest would have been the first house you saw when you drove across the bridge into Johnsburg, as Chapel Hill Road originally did not meet Johnsburg Road, instead the road turned onto what is now Fairview Avenue (then Church St) and intersected Johnsburg Road.
It occurred to me that there are other homes that I know Johann Mertes built and I could look at them for information, even if Johann Mertes was not an Architect but a contractor of sorts (thus he probably didn’t design the homes but you never know). There are other buildings in the area that are from the time period that I can also look at for reference. I am an Architect in Training and Historian after all. I could draw and recreate what our home may have looked like in 1893 since no photographs exist. It just took research and imagination; both things I excel at.
Thus, began my mental quandary. I long to tear off the aluminum siding of the house to peak at what is underneath but I can’t because we can’t afford to replace the siding it at the moment. (According to Ashley her grandfather was tired of painting it and put the siding which means that I may have perfectly wood siding underneath!). I climbed under the porch to look to see if I could find any clues. No such luck. So, I will use my imagination and work my magic that my 5 years of School prepared me for. I always start off with a base sketch with some detailed fast sketches to think my way through a design. I usually don’t spend more than 5-8 minutes per sketch and do it freehand. At times my sketches look comical and messy, much like my brain. My sketch book is a disaster that I hope no one ever looks at as it is a mess of ideas, paint notes, pricing for house materials, to do lists, project schedules, historical terms and perspectives, and possible design alternatives.
After consulting with my friend, Jonathon, we managed to deduce a few things based off of what we knew about the time period. There would have been no corbels at the roofline. This went out of style by the mid-1880s and would have been more Italianate then folk Victorian. Johnathon also said it was also unlikely to have the second pediment on the porch. Oh well, no such dreams of grandeur for me. The columns on the porch could have been square or turned with some molding and corbels. Yay! For now, I am assuming the railing would have been simple since I have no evidence otherwise. The railing would be lower than the railings we have today and only go to about the windowsill height. The front door is varnished wood and has never been painted, however there would have been a wooden screen door in front of it in 1893.
What colors would have been used? In the 1940s the house was white with green trim, I think. The Schaefer children, now adults, say they always remember the house being white. But the Victorian color palette is never so simple. Some Victorian homes would have been white but most were actually colorful and had used at least 3-6 colors and sometimes up to 10. Three tone color pallets were the norm for most middle-class homes.
There would have been a sash color for the windows and doors (the darkest color), a color for the trim, a field color for the siding, and maybe 1-3 accent colors. But what colors would the Mertes’ have chosen? In the 1890’s you could go with more neutral natural tones that was popular with the craftsman style or I could go with bold colors which were more popular in the 1880s but was still done in 1893. I decided to be a glutton for punishment and do 3 versions of the house. Design #1: A darker color palette with a blue base color, cream trim to contrast, light blue accent color, and a deep red/black for the window sashes and some details. Design #2: An analogous color palette based off of more natural craftsman style colors that were popular at the time. This would be an olive base color, taupe trim, cream details, cranberry red accent, and dark green window sashes. Lastly I never finished a Design #3 because it was rather drab but I used grey with green trim. Going back I would honestly use watercolor paper as my water color pencils did not work out well and with the virus going around the art store was closed and my printer could not handle the thickness of water color paper.
I will say one thing about this exercise. It gave me an understanding of John Mertes that I did not have before. Through space and time, I had to understand his thought process and his choices for building his family home. He had the ability to put in nice detailed elements but kept everything simple in form. There is a modesty to the house that I didn’t see before with a scale and proportion that is appropriate for its surroundings. The house was and never will be a ‘Painted Lady’ but it has always been a functional family home. In the end I think I would rather have the family functional home that I wont have to be constantly be fixing.