Monthly Archives: January 2012

Keeping an Eye Out

There is something eye-like about this cyclopean porthole that draws our own eyes to it – we stare, it stares back – as if the house were wearing a monocle. Yet, it’s not easy to see. In fact, you have to be walking past a certain downtown church, and gaze across its parking lot, because this place can best be seen from the lot; the house hovers above it, and just beyond it, separated by a tiny street. There is a sense of unreality about it, as if it were one of the trompe l’oeil murals that are painted over old building walls.

Not exactly the rose window at Chartres Cathedral, but similar, at least in scale, this circular light is the dominating feature of a renovation made to the back of a mid-1800s rowhouse. The entire building was converted from one- to four-family in 1951, creating a separate unit in the rear of the building which architect John C. Kohlhas, in the late 1980s, altered from one story to two – presumably adding the window at that time. The structure sticks out like a lighthouse, or like a castle tower sitting high on a hill, overlooking its domain … which happens to be churchgoers’ cars.

It is graphic, planar, vectored: the deck above with horizontal railing, the slashing angles, the notches. The roof lines seem to be at opposite angles to the railing but the rail almost seems to hold the pieced house together, finding a balance, a rhythm. It’s a lesson in geometry. Much of the hipness, besides the design in general, is that it didn’t have to be done – there was no need to have made a huge porthole at the back of a house, in a location where very few people would see it. It is gratuitous, it is eccentric. It is cockeyed. And it is appreciated.

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Greek-out

Somewhere along the way this typical, circa 1810 three-story brick vernacular rowhouse became a pocket postmodern-ish Parthenon, transformed by a shorthand or CliffsNotes version of Classical motifs. With a tongue-in-cheek playfulness, the elements adorning the building are architecturally and culturally familiar ones – the Aegean blue and white motif that recalls not just Greece but Greek restaurants and takeout coffee cups, the octagonal transom window, the entablature’s cornice supported by a chorus line of miniature Doric columns, the referential touches of faux pediments above the second-story windows. Meanwhile, there’s something vaguely nautical about the place, and fittingly so, it being close to the river; it even resembles somebody’s idea of what the stateside office of a Greek shipping line would have looked like maybe a century ago. It is cleverly composed with symbolism from a Mediterranean culture that gave us our western architectural style.

Whatever, it’s a Greek Revival style of a very unusual sort, and a unique and welcome vision of someone’s imaginative and yearning mind. New owners have since broken the spell by whitewashing out its color-scheme. But as captured here, it is a Trojan Horse of a different color.

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