Sunday, March 7, 2010

It Pays to Look Up: Typical House Gables in Syracuse

It Pays to Look Up: Typical House Gables in Syracuse

One of the best arguments for the creation and protection of neighborhood conservation and preservation districts in cities such as Syracuse is to maintain something of the variety in texture, shape and form that creates a visually rich and stimulating environment for walking and living. In modest neighborhoods like the late 19th and early 20th century "streetcar suburbs" around where I live on the Eastside (similar neighborhoods can be found in other parts of the city) visual variety was obtained - and has been maintained - in a few ways. For those that could afford it there were individualized houses, and in Syracuse these include the many Arts & Crafts styles houses building in the teens and 20s of the last century.

Most people, however, built or bought pattern-made houses with ready made parts available from the many building supply companies that produced house catalogs from which patrons and builders could chose. The result was that on a given street and in a given neighborhood there was a limited number of basic forms for houses built at a particular time, but almost infinite detail in the selection and arrangement of details including windows size, type and placement; siding materials and size; location of bays, doors and other openings; and the detailing of rooflines, eaves, dormers and gables.

In a city like Syracuse, where snow and rain are always an issue, pitched roofs and good gables are essential (and those modern and contemporary architects how have opted for flat roofs have caused much anguish in the last half-century to building owners). High pitched roofs also provide ample attics, and these attics often get decorative windows.

The result is a visually rich experience for any neighborhood walker who bothers to look. Changes in houses over almost a century have created additional variations - some good, but unfortunately in recent years - mostly bad. Details have been stripped off, vinyl siding has often covered the original varied patterns of clapboards and shingles, and standardized windows have replaced more detailed originals. Still, there is much to see.

Yesterday was a sunny winter day and I decided to walk from my house on Clarke Street off Westcott Street down to the new Center of Excellence, which was hosting tours and an open house. I had my camera and along the way I photographed many of the house gables I passed on the east side of Westcott Street and Columbus Avenue, and the north side of East Fayette and East Genesee Streets.

None of these streets are in historic districts and none benefit from protective design overlays. These neighborhoods would be described as mostly poor or lower middle class, and not all the houses are well maintained. But many are, and others have been rehabbed in recent years by housing not-for-profits. Some of these projects have maintained original buildings features, others have stripped them away with gusto.

My message is that when the ice and snow on the pavements are shoveled and you to look up instead of where you are walking - do so. The gables around Syracuse are one of the many features that contribute to our livable neighborhoods. My neighborhood is celebrated for its economic, racial and ethnic diversity. It is also an attractive place for its visual diversity - and that is something we must maintain. Its usually not an issue of cost - but of awareness and sensitivity. Typically people homeowners who live in the neighborhood do their best to keep them looking nice and to protect the building details. But its the absentee landlords - of whom there are many - that strip away the beauty and variety of our neighborhoods - and our city. The big urban good can come from paying attention to little urban details.

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