Binnie Klein’s memoir, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010) is available here. Here’s a 2 minute fun trailer. She hosts a weekly music and interview show on WPKN-FM. You can hear some of her radio interviews here. She’s working on a concept for Public Radio on the psychological meanings of our homes. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
When was the last time, if ever, you used the word “enchanting?” It’s a term that connotes a dreamy, whisked-away to a never-neverland adventure, with hummingbirds that speak to you in profound haikus as you skip into a fresh, virginal future, the world drenched in a soft glow, like a big orange creamsicle.
When you think of the Tudor era, with its bellowing monarchs, betrayals, lack of indoor plumbing, and yes, beheadings, do you think “enchanting?” When you think of medieval times, do you think “charming?” Do you think “creamsicles?”
Google Image Search is a quick Rorschach test. Try “Medieval.” I don’t see “enchanting,” I see, um, dead people. That is, armies, armor, horses, fighting, swords, castles, shields, skeletons, moats, men, lots of men, and more men, weapons, crowns, battles, feasts, stiff collars, public births, religious icons, maps, more men– anything remotely “charming” or “enchanting?” Tudor image search is a little better – more people, less horses, kings, queens (more women now), and buildings reaching to the heavens like cathedrals.
But would you say these look enchanting?
These are Tudor Revival houses.
Chances are you’ve seen pictures of buildings like this, and they have been described as romantic, charming, storybook, fairy-tale, elegant, enchanting, cottage-y, historic, or special, and you’ve imagined yourself inside sitting by an imposing fireplace inlaid with pictorial tiles that tell the story of your ancestors (aunts and uncles appearing shockingly beautiful and important), warming yourself with a mug of steeping hot cider bigger than your head.
For many of us outside of England, we may have only seen “Tudor Revival” structures, and in fact, although the name “Tudor” originally described certain houses and manors built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in England, during the Tudor Dynasty, in architecture today the term “Tudor” refers to a style popularized in the United States during the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The style itself also uses decorative elements from earlier centuries (which is why you sometimes see the term “Medieval Revival”). Sometimes the style is called “English Cottage,” sometimes “Tudorbethan.” (For a thorough-going and historically reverent exploration of Tudor architecture and Revivals there are many excellent resources elsewhere, like this National Geographic Documentary of Tudor Buildings.)
Why I’m Predisposed to See Tudor Revivals as Enchanting
What do you think when you see this picture of author Philip Roth’s childhood home,
a 2 & 1/2 family apartment building? I show you this because I grew up in apartments in Newark that were quite similar. Most buildings on my street were all clapboard or vinyl-sided non-descript structures, aggressively unadorned. Squirrels gnawed on chain link fences. Grass grew wild and high, as if it were the main natural attraction; I don’t recall any flower gardens. We had the convenience of living behind the high school and grade school, but it was of little value to me that I had, with that proximity, the joy of sleeping until the first bell.
I grew up in that young country, America, and I had a limited sense of architecture. Styles? Chimneys? Manicured Lawns? Beckoning entryways? They existed in my imagination, or even further away, in the suburbs, glimpsed on the occasional Sunday Drive of Longing.
When I walked far enough down Vassar Avenue, past Parkview Terrace, and onto Keer Avenue, I’d stand mesmerized by a house that stood out amongst the rest; The Tudor house. I knew that stylistic name, and that name only. There were a few in an adjoining neighborhood, and certainly more in the suburbs. What could possibly go on behind the dark, wooden-arched door, with its tantalizing little windows? Serious life, surely, with a library and a fireplace. Constance Mitchell, writing for the Wall Street Journal, bought herself a Tudor-revival because it reminded her “of the homes owned by nice middle-class families in old novels and black and white movies from the 1950s.” Inside she imagined “refined couples with the clever and well-mannered children.”
I shared her fantasy, and more. A Tudor revival house was the portal to a fairy-tale. With their steeped roofs, leaded-glass windows, and elaborate entrances, these houses meant one thing: these people must be rich. And there was one other detail that hummed like a sub-frequency on an alien transmission: these houses are dark inside. It may have been something I heard my parents say on the Sunday Drives of Longing.
Writer June Edelstein, who grew up in a Tudor-style house in a planned neighborhood chockfull of historical revivals in Syracuse, New York, confirms that her house WAS dark, although she never heard the same claim while living in it. She attributes it to the smaller windows, the dark wood inside, and being surrounded by trees. But dark or not, she absolutely loved her house (and her childhood), and she always knew it was called a “Tudor.” “I made no connection between the style name and the actual Tudors,” she said, “but remembered being inside the house reading books about Anne Boleyn which were “right up my teen-girl alley. Betrayal! Romance! More Betrayal!” I see her curled up on a window seat, under a patchwork quilt, reading about the notorious queen from a hard-cover book with illustrations.
Just The Facts, Ma’am
Usually there were four defining features of the original Tudor houses:
Half-timbering — This is what creates the distinctive black and white Tudor. Yummy, like a big Black and White Cookie.
They were constructed using a frame of hand-cut lattice beams (the dark part), then the gaps between the beams were filled with a mixture of clay, sand, straw, and sticks. After drying, it was painted white. The beams were coated with black tar to prevent rot.
Chimneys — Tended to be built out of brick, were tall, narrow, often with intricate carved designs.
Jetties — The advent of chimneys meant you could control indoor smoke, so a large, full-sized second floor could be built and kept warm. Tudor buildings often have a second floor that juts out over the street below and the buttresses that support these overhangs are called “jetties.”
If you listen to this kids’ radio show from England about Tudor houses you will be charmed (and possibly enchanted), as they tell you, in their lovely and innocent voices, a secret about those second floors. (Be patient; it’s in there.)
Windows — Before the advent of pre-industrial glassblowing technologies, glass was only created in tiny panes. That’s why we see the latticed casement windows in Tudors, with dozens of small panes.
Ever Wonder Where YOU Would have Lived in Tudor Times?
Here’s a game to help you find out (it will help if you are a carpenter, weaver, or cordwainer).
If you’d like to peek inside a Tudor Revival, perky decorator Meghan Carter will lead you on an enthusiastic journey. She will excitedly tell you that the interior of Tudors can be dark and warm all at the same time! She interviews a serious expert with a notebook who tells her the message of the Tudor Revival was, “we’re older, we’re established, we’re not the new immigrants coming in.”
So why are we so fascinated with all this “old world charm?”
“Each one desireth to set his house aloft on the hill, to be seen afar off, and cast forth his beams of stately and curious workmanship into every quarter of the country” (William Harrison, 1577).
We love to belly up to the Heritage Bar. We want legacy. And if you don’t come by your gravitas via genetic legacy, if you build it, it will come. At least that’s the hope.
“We built our capital, DC, on a Francophile Empiricist Vision, with buildings trying to evoke, Greece, Rome and hubris, says author/architect Duo Dickinson. “Most look back,” he says, “not forward when it comes to claiming gravitas in built form.” We may be inventing the ancestry, but so what! Dickinson: “Legacy is accrued by hundreds of years of evolving tradition and history.” But sometimes, he says, “families grasp at architectural straws to let those around them know how much they are worth – not just monetarily but in the greater social sense.”
Why did the Tudor style become so enormously popular in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States? With their expansive entryways, “great rooms” and high ceilings, the Tudor Revivals evoked wealth. The style was often called “Stockbroker Tudor,” as financiers began to put their wealth into their houses. They wanted homes that would stand out. The Stockbroker Tudors were an attempt to separate and distinguish the newly wealthy from the immigrant populations, with their overflowing pushcarts and street-life.
But over time, the styling took on a variety of forms; some elaborate mansions, some more modest suburban homes with mock masonry veneers.
Want to Build a Tudor-Revival House?
If you want one, you’ll need a useful course in the Tudor’s distinguishing features and a good set of blueprints, one that houseplans.com offers. But be forewarned. You’ll want skilled architects and contractors, because as Dickinson says, “it’s a bitch to build if you do it ‘right.’ Building a heavy timber frame (like a barn) with a brick/masonry infill is excruciatingly arduous and expensive involving multiple skillsets.”
Want to Buy a Tudor-Revival House?
Actress Andie McDowell’s Tudor House, offered for sale in 2011, was described as a “magnificent four-story, storybook Tudor with Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts influences” in Asheville, North Carolina.
There are many available. Here’s the interior of one in New Hope, Pennsylvania, available for over one million. Built as a hunting lodge for “a prominent early-American from the area” it has a great-room fireplace that depicts the story of Rip Van Winkle.
Need a Few More Tudor Goodies?
Here’s an Assortment of Tudor Houses to drool over, like a box of chocolates.
Here’s the story of two really old landmark Tudor Houses that were restored, one from the 1660s, restored in the 1960s. The second Tudor is Crispin House, in St. Albans, built in 1480.
My days of longing for living in a Tudor Revival may have passed, but I have found something else to fantasize about. There are endless varieties of dollhouses, doghouses, playhouses, and hobbyist villages with details that send you squealing with glee. That could be me at the playhouse– watering chrysanthemums. These Tudor facsimiles may not represent centuries of wealth, but to me they are perhaps even more enchanting.
So would Anne Boleyn have enjoyed a Tudor Revival? Unfortunately, she didn’t live another 400 years to see if she’d prefer something more Frank Lloyd Wright. Maybe she’d enjoy the freedoms and cache of an industrial loft in Brooklyn. But with a Tudor Revival, she’d have the familiar Old World Charm (although it wouldn’t be “Old World” to her), some prestige, a larger bedroom than the one of her childhood, and she’d have indoor plumbing.