There is always a friction between preservation and progression. It is a challenge for any lover of history. Living in a vintage house, I am always aware of this contrast. I see this conflict in any legendary house, even when the preservationists win. But it is most apparent in the evolution of humble everyday homes.
On the one hand, renovation makes a dwelling more comfortable, and visually intriguing. On the other hand, the integrity of the building, along with a general history, can be lost through remodeling. This dichotomy is one of my life’s themes. Time edits, but we also make the decisions of what to keep and what to change—and how to best make the past and present work together. Creativity is more challenged by integrating value from the past versus replacing it.
What happens when the change is so great, even if preserving the old within, that the new becomes completely different? The personality of the dwelling is transformed. The best examples are in very old homes—by Illinois standards, circa 1840.
One my state’s oldest sits by the Mississippi River. A forgotten gem, the Baumert House is tiny and modest compared to its more famous, and well-preserved neighbors. (For a small town, Nauvoo has a very active and rich mid-19th century history with a healthy tourist trade.) They are beautifully maintained versus transformed.
Faced with a simple one-story tin-roofed structure built in 1840, at first, I didn’t really know what I was looking at. I thought it would be a fast drawing to do! But at least half the time in life, looks are deceiving. It is the details that reveal the true nature of buildings (as well as with people). To cultivate unbiased observation skill is essential for developing an understanding of what the details mean.
Though there are no photographs (as yet found) for how this modest brick house must have looked when built, I examined historic evidence and comparative buildings of the time. The more I studied the house while drawing it, the more strange clues to its original kept appearing—a sunken doorway, a covered window, a hidden gable.
The drawing became a journey, uncovering a history by peeling away decades of layers. So I have drawn an estimate for what it may have looked like, including logical lost elements, based on the technology of its builder.
This transformation encloses the original house in front and back additions. The grade of the street was altered, thus lowering the first floor, and making the side entrance door sink into a “window well” that could accommodate stairs. It is possible that this was the original front.
A humble little house in the impressively historic town of Nauvoo, it is not one that would stop a sight-seer in her tracks. It is not on the walking tour maps. But it is one of the oldest houses in the state of Illinois. It represents a time of paddle wheel boats along the Mississippi River, white washed picket fences, carriages and wagons, with a Tom Sawyer lifestyle. It has seen carriages and wagons to model T cars, to SUVs, wood heat to air-conditioning, gas light to electricity. This house represents not grandparents, but great-grandparents now just outside living memory.
Please enjoy my other illustrations that express architectural transformations:
“Drawing Backwards in Time” Although a building may have endured many changes since built, hints of its original form exists. Sometimes old photographs show how a house looked, but most often, there are no images. Illustration can fill the gap. I have always wondered what my house was like in 1888 when new. It certainly does not look the same now! With an enclosed front porch, room additions, siding, and decorative shutters, its character is totally transformed. So I went to City Hall, researched the permits and historic records, and concluded with this interpretation.
“Spirit of Place: Creation versus Preservation” examines a life-long dilemma of balance. There is a trend in Allendorf to plaster over the original half-timber skeletons. From an American point-of-view, these wooden patterns offer a warmth, coziness, and charm. But, it may be that to the residents, that makes an area appear old-fashioned or out of date. These homes, though hundreds of years old, are very much within date! The plaster lends a geometry, simplicity, and unity, while following the shapes and design. Taking an illustration that I did of Obergasse 7 in Allendorf, I imagine what it must have looked like when my ancestors lived there. Most of the homes that I have drawn would be familiar to them.
Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.