At the eager age of 29, I bought my first Victorian on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C. Described by the real estate agent as a “livable shell,” the end-unit rowhouse needed a lot of work—even for an architect. Always a lover and student of old houses, I was thrilled to actually own one. But little did I know how much there was to learn and to do!
Sadly, or so it seemed, nothing remained of the original interior, which had been gutted during the 1950s, so it was easy for me to reconfigure spaces (guilt-free) and remodel as needed. Fortunately, enough of the exterior remained to provide clues as to what had once been.
With an abundance of architectural history books for late-night reading, advice from the D.C. historic preservation office, and plenty of examples of similar houses not as re-muddled as mine around Capitol Hill, I was able to figure out what the old house had looked like when it was built.
Flat-front Italianate was the diagnosis; wood and clapboard construction, built in 1872 for Asbury N. Thompson, a clerk to the assistant secretary of the War Department. Mr. Thompson paid $1,200 for this prime example of a middle-class home, where he resided for nine years.
During the 1950s, the house was covered in an inexpensive siding, and I spent many weekends removing it to reveal the original cedar clapboard with its 6-inch exposure. Where the old boards were occasionally too damaged to restore, I replaced them with new ones milled to match. Corner boards and all window and door trim were also cut to match the original.
Unlike newer homes, which use platform framing, this 1872 Italianate was constructed using economical balloon framing, where the wall framing studs are continuous for two floors and floor joists are attached to the vertical studs. Clapboard nailed directly to the wall framing without wall sheathing provided a minimalistic use of materials and labor.
As the slipcover siding of the 1950s came off, the original openings for doors and windows were revealed in the profile cuts of the old cedar clapboard. “Ghost marks,” as they’re called by architectural historians—the outlines of windows, window sills, and decorative window hoods—became visible.
The puzzle started to take on some clarity as I began to look more closely at the other Italianate houses in the area. A kind neighbor, with a house of the same vintage and style, let me put a ladder up to his porch to measure, draw, and photograph the decorative window hoods and brackets. With a bit of analysis of what existed and what could be created, I prepared drawings for fabricating door and window hoods like those original to the house.
I owned my Italianate for 25 years and then handed it over to younger and equally appreciative new owners in 2005. To this day, Italianates remain one of my favored residential architectural styles; an efficient, boxy structure with a touch of elegant ornamentation; an example of their time.