Monday, March 11, 2013

There's a Staircase in My Window!

William Howard Taft National Historic Site
Cincinnati, Ohio

While travelling in Ohio recently, my husband and I visited the William Howard Taft National Historic Site located in Cincinnati.  One of the reasons we thought it would be fun to visit is because my husband and I met at William Howard Taft High School in Chicago, IL.  I remember thinking "who is this man that our school is named after?" when I first attended.  I don't think anyone quite ever gave me that answer so when we saw that his boyhood home was nearby we just had to visit.  What a pleasant surprise to find a Greek Revival home as this is the same architectural style of the National and Local Historic Landmark Dunham-Hunt House--which the City of St. Charles had recently contracted with me to market and sell--in St. Charles, IL.  Having done an extensive house historiography as part of my marketing for the Dunham-Hunt House, I have grown to be very intrigued with the Greek Revival style home. Its styling represents the sentiment of connecting with democracy and even more interestingly, its architectural components of room placement actually reflect what was going on in family dynamics and the public vs. private life of families during the mid-1800s into the early 1900s.  (I'll save that for another time.)  Even more exciting was to discover a little architectural quirk that is definitely attached to Greek Revival architecture that reopens the discussion surrounding the Dunham-Hunt house and some mysterious "windows" on the side of the house that have shutters with bricks behind them.

Historic Dunham-Hunt House with shuttered "windows"
St. Charles, IL

Essential to Greek Revival architecture is symmetry.  Symmetry is so important to a Greek Revival style home that the placement of windows oftentimes remained identical on all points of the structure even if it was not architecturally or functionally suited to the interior lay-out of the home.  So exterior symmetry at all costs!

At the Dunham-Hunt House in St. Charles, IL,  discussion surrounded the shuttered and bricked "window" placement on the exterior of the property. The question of whether or not real windows were ever in place or whether the home was built with false windows to stay true to the symmetry was thought to have been answered by the fact that the interior stairs run along this same wall with the "bricked in" windows. The discussion centered around the "fact" that no one would ever put a window with a stair case running through it. Therefore this was proof that the windows were never real but only replicated on the outside in order to maintain architectural integrity of the Greek Revival architecture. Perhaps that reasoning would have sufficed except for the recent visit to the historic birthplace and boyhood home of President William Howard Taft in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Historic William Howard Taft Home side view showing addition
Cincinnati, OH
As can be seen by the side view of both these Greek Revival style homes, window placement is done symmetrically even in additions that were added at a later date.  In the pictures below of the interior of the William Howard Taft home, the stairs referenced are the ones placed in the addition along the side of the house shown here. Symmetry on the exterior of the home prevailed over architecturally and functionally correct lay-out of the interior of the home.

Historic William Howard Taft Home
Interior Stairs of Greek Revival Addition
Evidence that even staircases would not interfere with "proper" exterior placement of windows in Greek Revival architecture was found in the Historic Home of President William Howard Taft in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Above you can see how close the edge of the window comes to the bottom step--but look up the staircase and you'll see the corner of a window peeking out of the stairway!  Below, you can see that the staircase clearly cuts through the window.  No doubt about it--exterior aesthetic superseded functionality in staying true to the elements of symmetry in Greek Revival architecture.

Historic William Howard Taft House
Exterior Window Placement Overrides Aesthetic and Function 

I also thought it was interesting to see that the stairs in the original portion of the home of the William Howard Taft home below hold a similarity to the ones in the Dunham-Hunt House.  This reflects common interior elements of Greek Revival styling.  These stairs however sit on an interior wall so no windows to block in their making.  Note the newel post in both homes flairs out towards the bottom.  Flaring of the newel post is styling indicative of homes built before 1860.  

William Howard Taft National Historic Site
Cincinnati, OH--Interior Stairs Original Portion of House

The picture below is the staircase in the Dunham-Hunt House that runs along an exterior wall.  The wall along the staircase could have originally had windows in it with the staircase running through a portion of them as the exterior has bricked in windows with shutters. 

National and Local Historic Landmark Dunham-Hunt House
St. Charles, IL--Interior Stairs Original Portion of House

Of course, to discover if the exterior windows are "fake" or real would be easily answered by taking a look behind the wallpaper on the wall that runs along these very stairs. Perhaps during the renovation by the new owner the mystery will be solved.  

I guess all we can do is wait and see...

Special thanks to the National Park Service ranger who kindly 
let me in to take pictures of the interior of the home.  

Marian Boveri, Real Estate Consultant
Specializing in Historic Homes

Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
(An Old Irish blessing)