The Wood Houses of New York County

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After living in New York City for fifteen years I’ve become a big fan of apartment living. It’s sensible and ecologically sound. We accumulate fewer things, leave a reduced footprint, and free up space around us for parks and plazas.

Yet my Dream Home has always been a wood frame house. This might be a memory of my childhood house, a tidy split-level on a cul-de-sac in Connecticut. And it might reflect my New England upbringing. I love the simple, taut volumes of colonial homes, broken only by small windows and doors. My Dream Home is a saltbox with a stubby brick chimney and a red door. Sometimes I imagine my Dream Home beachside on a grassy field dotted wit hydrangea bushes, and sometimes I imagine it on a square lawn sheltered by maple trees and a low stone fence

It’s illegal to build a wood frame structure now in New York City. But a handful of nineteenth-century wood houses were carefully maintained, have survived, and are grandfathered into the building code. There are a few in my neighborhood and each time I pass one it conjures up the Dream Home.

This house, on East 92nd Street, is at the end of a year-long restoration. Just the other day it received a final coat of white paint. For many years it had seemed a bit haunted, with shuttered first floor windows, peeling blue paint, and empty planters. The rickety wood porch and shutters sagged badly and the whole structure looked as if it were ready to collapse, as if it were being propped up by the two large brick buildings to either side. Its owners have done a great job fixing the facade, restoring the original wood trim and siding, and adding a low stone patio in front. I can only wonder what work they’ve done inside.

As an architect one of the loveliest things to see is a wood house go up. There’s something magical about the way the frame emerges from a haze of 2×4’s, and something reassuring about the way men build it so simply and quickly with hammers and nails. Maybe technological advances will give us a way to construct a wood frame that’s less vulnerable to the elements, and we can fill empty spots all over the city with small wood houses again.

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