Seeing a house with a face

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on July 7, 2016.

American Legion Building (Source: 1931 Semi-Centenniel Booklet)

American Legion Building
(Source: 1931 Semi-Centenniel Booklet)

Ever notice how some houses look like people? If yes, you’re not alone. It’s an idea that has largely been popularized by Robert Campbell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Boston Globe. Explains Campbell: “[B]uildings are humanoid: windows suggest, as eyes do, intelligences behind them looking out; buildings have tops and bottoms like hats and boots. Lined up and jostling one another like seniors at their class portrait, they smile and frown across the street space.” The result? “Face makes the city more social, more alive.”

Of course, he’s writing about urban areas, especially those rich with history and character. But it certainly can be applied to less dense communities. Drive through parts of Wellesley and you’ll find numerous houses that, if you tilt your head and use your imagination a bit, you might see someone looking right back at you.

Take, for instance, the American Legion building on Washington Street. For what it’s worth, this house is no more. It was demolished in 2009; the site is now being redeveloped into the Tolles Parsons Center. But its demise is irrelevant here (although it’s still a shame).

What matters is the building’s facade. The face, if you will, is framed by two sets of quoins and a dentilled cornice. The shuttered double-hung windows on the second floor are the eyes, complete with eyelids and lashes. The painted double-entry door, the mouth. A shutterless window to each side, the dimples. And what Victorian-era face would be complete without facial hair: the role of a wispy moustache being played by the porch overhang.

But one could argue the mansard roof — the hat — is what really gives this home its personification. Rich in detail. Visually distinct. Perfectly proportioned with the rest of the house. Even the chimney acts as a feather in the cap. Altogether, the roof proves valid the notion that a hat can accentuate your face and instill deep character on your persona. Without the roof, this house would be but a humdrum pedestrian standing on the side of the road. Instead, it’s a sophisticate who has travelled far — to Second Empire France, perhaps — and has thus gained much experience and wisdom.

This roof serves an additional purpose: it gives the house a date of birth. The mansard roof is a very specific roof, popular for only a short period of time within this country — the late 1860s through the 1870s. Indeed, the American Legion building was constructed in 1868 for Rev. Elihu Marvin, a pastor from Medford who settled in sleepy Wellesley to live out his retirement. (Nine years later, it was acquired by Augustus Buck, a Professor of Greek at Boston University. The house was sold to Isaac Sprague following Buck’s death and donated in 1922 to the Wellesley Post of the American Legion for use as its headquarters.)

The consequence of the facade’s architecture is that the American Legion building is quite inviting. It makes you want to open the front door and walk inside. With such an exterior personality, there must then be loads of charm and richness awaiting you inside the house.

If only all new construction today were just as inviting. Sure, some of them are. But many are what we could call — pardon the colloquialness — architectural sneezes: a hodgepodge of gables, dormers, windows, and garage bays thrown together without much rhyme or reason. There’s definitely a lack of face, and with it, a lack of warmth and character. This can easily translate to a neighborhood if enough such houses are clustered together. We see this not just in Wellesley but throughout the entire country.

The question that remains, of course, is whether the design of new houses will ever re-embrace similar principles to those that helped give new construction so much charm and distinction a century ago. If not, then communities rich in history may lose their character and the value that goes with it.