For Love of the Old Houses

Most people assume I live in a house that I designed and built, but I don’t. I live in a house in 12South that was built in 1928. And it still has its original windows.

Old house door

This morning when I opened my blinds I could feel cold air blowing through. My windows weren’t open; that’s just how “ventilated” they keep the place. But to me it’s kind of romantic. When I was a kid, everyone in my world wanted an old house. Now for some reason, we don’t want to live in old houses. We want all things new and flawless. But here’s the truth: new and flawless is only going to be new and flawless for about two years. After that things are going to start happening. Today, homeownership for Americans under the age of 35 is at an all-time low, but it’s been my experience that those Millennials who do purchase a home prefer to purchase a new one. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about what my Marathon Village neighbor Mike Wolfe (of American Pickers fame) is aiming for with his new HGTV show in the works, Nashville Flipped, which would “tell the story of each renovated home, including through historical research, by delving into the surrounding neighborhood, and through stories told by past residents.”

Old houses

An old house is all I ever wanted. To think that no one wants them anymore, and that throughout Nashville we’re discarding them quickly and thoughtlessly, would affirm a sad trend of not valuing our country’s history. If we don’t keep something, there will be nothing. They’re not doing this in Europe, I promise. My No. 1 objective in the new year is to try to save some old houses in Nashville. Unfortunately, we’ve become a throwaway society, and it’s become no big deal anymore to just bulldoze an old house. Bynum Design has been guilty of it too and has torn down a few houses. But you better believe that the houses we’ve demolished were in terrible shape and weren’t contributing to the neighborhood.

I’m not saying everyone should live in an old house. I want a new house, too. Well, that’s not exactly true; I’m working on a concept to keep the old house I have—a smallish Tudor that I’ve lived in forever—by salvaging the exterior and adding on to it to make it into the house I want. I think that’s where we should go as designers and builders in Nashville. We should respect what’s there and enhance it—make it better and make it live bigger and give people the things they want in a new house in an old house. This is more important now than ever, when empty lots are becoming more and more scarce, and we’re more often faced with the decision of whether or not to keep the dilapidated house that came on the lot we just bought or to just scrap it and avoid the headache of figuring out what to do with it.

Old house porch railing

What I am calling for is more renovations and less bulldozers. The house we renovated on Lawrence Avenue (see photo below), we renovated extravagantly—even taking off the roof and adding lots of height, not to mention a courtyard, two-car garage, and pool in the back—all while keeping its 1935 façade. That was a respectful response to that house and its history. (Speaking of old house history, I love to think of the house as it was being built. Poet T. E. Hulme wrote, “Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling.”) The result: the flow of that lane through 12South isn’t interrupted. If you’re in an old neighborhood, you at least should make the house you’re renovating or building speak to the houses around it (even if six months later all those houses are gone because someone tore them down).

903 Lawrence Avenue

I understand that renovating is more intimidating than building to most of us. But just because it’s intimidating—and costly and time-consuming—doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. And builders have a great opportunity to show people how well this can be done. You really can make a fabulous new old house. Here’s how:

Typically, these houses have eight-foot ceilings, and no one wants that anymore, so you have to take the roof off. And the floor system off. And make the walls taller. And figure out a way to raise the exterior but keep it tight. No big deal, right? People don’t want to live in little rooms. They want “open plan.” There’s a trend to make your house feel like a loft, and it’s a great look. We do it. You can do that in an old house, too. You have to do serious things to it, and it’s hard work. I get it. But it’s well worth it. (It’s also worth noting that old homes don’t always have to go bigger. Mike Wolfe showed that with this reimagining of a 1932 home in East Nashville’s Cleveland Park, where he kept its original 1,300ish square feet). I hope that East Nashville can get some overlays in place and avoid what’s happened in 12South. Because 12South is almost gone in a way. There are so few remaining original houses.

Old house

Maybe, like I said, it’s just that no one wants old houses anymore—but I really hope that’s not true. If it is, I think we’re going to look back and regret some things. We won’t be able to see our history anymore, and the new history we’ve built for ourselves so quickly and so shoddily may represent who we’ve become. Just as we have to give older people more grace—and use our imagination a bit to see them as they once were: young and strong and beautiful—the same courtesy should be extended to old houses. Louisiana author Grace King wrote: “We wander through old streets, and pause before the age stricken houses; and, strange to say, the magic past lights them up.”

If you live in Nashville and are interested in doing a thoughtful, dramatic, quality renovation in 2015, I hope you will consider hiring Bynum Design.

One thought on “For Love of the Old Houses

  1. Pingback: Introducing: Our Newest Old House Project | bynum design blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *