Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Let's Keep Old Town Old, Even When Building Something New

The Old Town neighborhoods have something that none of the rest of Fort Collins has -- a high density of old houses. Sure, in other parts of Fort Collins there's a farm house here or a... well, another farm house there. But in Old Town we have streets that are chock full of history with 100 year old houses next to 95 year old houses next to 110 year old houses. Sometimes it's easy to take all this history for granted. We grow used to the Victorian gingerbread or the lines of the Craftsman bungalow. It's not until an old house is scraped to the ground and a new, very different looking one put in its place that we seem to wake up and notice what we have... and what we're losing.

But new building doesn't have to be a shock to our system. There are some new houses on these streets that fit right in with the existing structures. The 200 block of North Whitcomb is a great example of what works and what doesn't.

205 N. Whitcomb, built in 1951, is a classic example of post World War II infill. Built in what used to be the back yard of 602 W. Mountain, it features a simple modernist style, but is similar in scale (overall size) to the rest of the houses along Whitcomb. Compared to nearby Victorian and Craftsman houses, this house might look rather boring, but that was exactly the look modernists were going for - simplicity of form and attention to function (with the added thrill of prefabricated parts, which was a big deal at the time). This house has 796 square feet of living space on one level.

211 N. Whitcomb, built in 1898, shows the geometry of many of our Old Town homes. Though bungalows come in different shapes and sizes, they have some similar characteristics. A gabled or hipped, low pitched roof (think "triangle on top") and a large (think "rectangular" or "horizontal") front porch often feature prominently on these older homes. This house has 1028 square feet of living space on one level.

215 N. Whitcomb, built in 1987, does a passable job of mimicking the architecture of the surrounding homes with a prominent gable (the triangle part) at the top of the house and a large front porch (though it looks a bit more like a patio than a traditional porch). This house also looks wider than most of the older houses. But it's comparable in terms of height. This house has 1146 square feet of living space on one level.
This house replaced a house that had been built in 1898 (see photo below).

217 N. Whitcomb was built in 1898. Note that it has a hipped roof similar to 211 N. Whitcomb. And the porches on both 217 and 211 are wide, but do not extend to the entire width of the house as does the porch on the newer house at 215. They're similar, but different. This house has 1120 square feet of living space on one level.

221 N. Whitcomb is the newest house on the block, having been built in 2007. Though the house doesn't have a front porch that extends the width of the building, and even though it has two small gables compared to the older hipped roofs, because of the overall size (one-story), the gabling which provides a triangular shape on top, and the front porch, this house still fits in fairly well with the surrounding older houses. This house has 1594 square feet of living space on the main level and another 1508 square feet of living space in the basement for a total of 3102 square feet of livable space. There is no house listed at this address prior to 2007 in the tax assessor photos, although other assessor records indicate there was a house at this location.

223 N. Whitcomb was built in 1901. This house has both a hipped roof and a gable as well as a wide front porch. It also has a little bit of "gingerbread" at the top of the front gable, which is generally associated more with fancy Victorians. But property tax photos from as far back as 1948 show the gingerbread detail, so it's likely that it's original. This house has 1659 square feet of living space on one level with 120 square feet of basement (enough for a laundry room, perhaps).

225 N. Whitcomb is a little anomaly in the middle of the block. Built in 1951 in a more "Plain Jane" Modern style, it appears to be the result of post WWII infill. There are no tax photos of a house in this location before 1951. (Tax photos only go back to 1948, but there was apparently no house here at that point.) This house has 975 square feet of living space on one level which makes it larger than the other post WWII infill at 205 N. Whitcomb, despite the fact that from the front, the house looks smaller. The very small gable over the entrance is a nod to the older structures on the street.

227 N. Whitcomb was originally another example of post WWII infill, having been built in 1947. In 2002, however, it was remodeled with the new house essentially built right on top of the old. The facade that is shown here is all new, as is the second story. But if you look at the side of the house you can see where the older house is still hidden inside. This house has 1836 square feet of living space on one level. There is apparently no basement. This house, like 221 N. Whitcomb, the other most recent build on the block, both have double gables rather than a hipped roof. But they still have that characteristic triangular shape on top which means that stylistically, this house still fits in with the character of the block. As the only two-story house on the block however, it stands out as immediately uncharacteristic. And ironically, the added height doesn't mean that this house provides the most livable square footage of all the houses on the block. 221 N. Whitcomb has 1266 more square feet and yet fits in better in terms of massing (the amount of house that you're confronted with when you look at it) than this house.

For decades, it was probably 231 N. Whitcomb that stuck out as most noticeable to people as they walked down this street. It is the only duplex and according to county assessor records, it has 1466 square feet of living space on the main level and another 637 square feet in the basement. The assessor doesn't divide out how much of that space is in each half of the duplex. The south side living unit is now shaded in winter by the two-story addition that was put on at 227 N. Whitcomb. The duplex was built in 1908.

235 N. Whitcomb looks like it's had its original porch shifted to the side and framed in, which gives it a fairly different feel than the rest of the houses. But it still has the characteristic gable and hipped roof of the duplex and some of the other houses on the block. This house was also built in 1908. The county tax photo from 1948 shows the porch as it is here, except there were three windows to the left of the front door and one window on the porch to the right of the door. See old photo here.

237 N. Whitcomb was built in 1913 and has 864 square feet of living space. It has a hipped roof and large front porch which typify the older houses on this block.

Summary: If you look just at the original houses on this block, those built between 1898 and 1913, the chief characteristics are: one-story, hipped roof, and a wide (but not the full width of the house) front porch. Wood framing and a slightly off-center doorway also seem to be fairly consistent. 

The post World War II infill tends to have very low pitched gabled roof (with the gables on the side of the house, not the front). Though these houses fit in well in terms of overall scale, the flat rooflines stand out, and the width of 205 N. Whitcomb also seems somewhat odd compared to the other houses. The stucco exteriors also set these houses apart from the others. The differences are notable, but not overly offensive.

The house built in 1987 does a good job of keeping the overall sense of character for the block, though the front gable on the house does stand out more than the hipped roofs. And the patio, rather than a porch, makes for a slightly plainer feel. Again, the differences are notable, but not overly offensive.

The two houses built in the 2000s are similar in style to each other (dual gables, partial porch (or entranceway that mimics an enclosed porch in look)) while differing greatly in their massing. The 2007 house does a great job of maximizing livable space while keeping massing within characteristic limits for the block. Like the other infill and remodels already mentions, though different, this house does not detract from the surrounding houses. The 2002 remodel draws too much attention to itself because of it's size, which detracts from the overall character of the block.

Moral of the Story: Creative architecture and a willingness to expand into a basement area can provide the maximum amount of liveable area while still enabling a structure that blends well with the character of the other houses on the block. If the 2002 remodel had preserved the facade of the original house and added space down instead of up, it might fit better with the neighborhood.

The original 215 N. Whitcomb, as seen in this 1979 tax photo. (Although the dormer on the neighboring house could be 223 N. Whitcomb, which would make this house the original 221 N. Whitcomb. The problem with using tax assessor photos is that they're not always labeled correctly.) 

Source information: All square footage numbers were taken from the Larimer County Tax Assessor website. The above photo is from the Fort Collins History Connection

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