The Building of Dream Houses

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If I may go
back aways, I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday drives my mother used to
like to take back in the late 1930s and early 40s to look at the
great houses at Newport, RI, or the massive summer cottages of the
rich on Cape Cod or the mansions on the shore north of Boston. My
older brothers hated the whole idea of such gawking, so I was her
driver. I still like driving around looking at what is going up
in the better neighborhoods. You may ask, what about the ordinary
neighborhoods, the less well off, or even the poor ones? The answer:
nothing's going up, so no need to look. There are, indeed, some
pretty glitzy doctors' offices appearing in numbers in the increasingly
medical, central (and poorish), part of town, but they are not dream
houses, they are places of business meant to impress the halt and
the lame, and no doubt do so.

I chose to
concentrate (meaning "major") in architecture my second
year at Harvard and had an eye-opening time of it, because the Harvard
School of Design had just been given over to the Bauhaus
folks, who had recently fled Germany. I was among the earliest undergraduates
to benefit from their disciplines, or lack thereof. I was a babe
in the woods for sure, but you have to start somewhere. By my junior
year I had shifted to engineering to get a year's deferment from
my draft board, which they gave because I was my widowed mother's
third son; the other two were already in the Navy. This was 1942.
I finally went off to the Navy myself in January 1944.

Of all the
classes I took at Harvard in my three years there (because of the
war that's what it took me to graduate), the architecture classes
have most tended to stick in my mind as a meaningful and cohesive
experience. The rest of my Harvard days were a sort of intellectual
grab bag, a term first used to characterize Harvard as an educational
resource by George Santayana, who had been a professor there for
many years around the turn of the 20th century.

Odessa (Texas),
where I live now, is having a boom at present, and I understand
that housing prices have started finally to rise — this just as
they are beginning to fall in the "hot" U.S. markets.
All apartments are full, and there is plenty of building going on
where builders are offering sites in "good neighborhoods."

You can see
from this picture of a house only a couple of years old that the
Bauhaus and its stripped down rigorous modernism have had strikingly
little impact here on people with money enough to build something
like this. As for Mies van der Rohe's gnomic statement that "less
is more," forget about it. This pocket-castle sits on a couple
of acres but looks rather as if it ought to be in a park of 20 acres,
surrounded by a couple of hundred or even thousands of acres plentifully
peopled with merry peasants treading out the grapes now that the
harvest is here.

I worry that
this next house that I have dubbed the "House of 77 Gables"
may be in some distress. Work seems to have been stopped for quite
a while, a chain-link fence has been put up to fend off vandals
or perhaps just nosey parkers like myself, and a sign declares this
a private property to be kept out of. It is presently a bit of a
mystery and needs some watching by us dedicated house mavens.

For the last
15 years at least, the kind of house well-off people have put up
hereabouts has been something I call "Dallas Style," although
I can't prove Dallas is to blame for it. Its chief feature is a
strong preference for showy two-story entranceways and multi-level
steep-pitch roofs. Pitched roofs are thought entirely appropriate
for places where much snow falls. The pitch of the roof allows the
snow to slide off and the ice crust that often forms closest to
the roof and clings to it will melt in the sun and quickly run off,
again thanks to the pitch. All more or less true but, prithee, how
does that account for the extraordinary prevalence of pitched roofs
where very little snow ever falls? Another mystery.

Lately another
trend: builders buy a sizeable chunk of former ranch land on the
east side of Odessa, the side nearest to Midland, give it a classy-sounding,
Englishy name like "Emerald Forest" or "Stony Ridge
Manor," etc., etc., parcel the land up into a number of house
sites, say a couple of dozen. (Not, to be sure, a zillion sites;
these are not Levittowns
for hoi polloi.)
In some cases much the same thing is accomplished by some investors,
who decide on a builder whom they will back to do all the houses
so as to get some uniformity of — not design, exactly, but "feel"
and "look" — so that, while the houses are quite disparate
in design, they will all seem related as to — how to say it? — social
status or at least social aspiration.

What's sought
is a kind of homogeneity of costliness, at a pretty high level.
Lately such pocket communities — gated communities they would be
if one put a locked gate at the often quite ornamental entrance
ways to them — have been more and more employing sites for houses
that will take up to 80% or even more of the entire site for house
and garages, leaving only a tiny area for lawn and garden. This
seems to be what older, well-off couples and widows want: minimum
yard maintenance, and within the house quite high-tech living that
means a further easing of work, even if a maid is brought in a day
a week, as one often is for such houses. Here is a recently finished
example. Note that it is hardly set back at all from the paved street.

 

The metal roof,
stuccoed exterior, and slender wooden columns supporting a roof
overhang are "Santa Fe" touches, I'm told. Santa Fe itself
has apparently become one of those places where ordinary people
can mostly no longer afford to live.

My enthusiasm
for this sort of thing began when I was in high school and living
in a 1920s apartment house in Arlington, Massachusetts. We had a
wonderful library in town named for the wealthy Robbins
Family, which supplied me with all kinds of reading. In particular,
I got onto Frank
Lloyd Wright
, not just pictures of his buildings, which seemed
to me spectacularly right and beautiful, but his writings, which
were more or less in the Whitman-Emerson tradition, with all that
upstanding democratic thinking applied to architecture. I remember
well how Wright fulminated against what he called "grandomaniac"
designs: everything symmetrical, heavy, and utterly inappropriate
for a people dedicated (so they said) to a shoulder-to-shoulder
advance into the brave new world that was certainly coming. Wright's
marvelous prairie
houses
were getting famous; Weimar Germany had already written
about them; even if American beaux-arts
architects were a little slow in appreciating the buildings and
teachings of the pushy but brilliant chap from Wisconsin. My impression
was that the Bauhausers respected no architect in America but Wright,
but viewed themselves as a little nearer than he to the Pierian
spring of right thinking about any art.

I've now gone
on much too long. If "events" hold off, as I hope they
do, I may continue this look (Part II) at Odessa's dream houses.
I perhaps should begin where I here leave off, with some more talk
of Wright's influence or lack of it out here on the Ultimate Prairie,
or the Held-back Desert, however you want to call our West Texas
surround.

This
is an unusually hilly section of the Monahans Sandhills State Park
near Odessa, a quite magical place where I set a little novel about
West Texas that I intended to be a sort of salute to this whole
region, which I have come to love.

October
10, 2006

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003),
and the newly-published Lost
in the Texas Desert
.

Tom
White Archives

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