What We Can Learn from Historical Homes: The Tiny House Movement and the Historical Home

Those who know me, know I love small homes. I like small spaces because it forces human contact; you are either living on top of your spouse or you leave you house a lot more. Which brings me to the second reason to love tiny homes: your housing costs will drop, you can afford to go out. The cost to heat and cool a home that is less than 1,000 square feet it is much cheaper than the usual American 4k square foot behemoth. The building cost, land rental, cleaning cost, upkeep all drop, not to mention that you can’t buy more stuff than your house and shed can hold. It forces you into a cheaper way of living and makes you to think about your purchases in terms of what you need and what you want, and why. It is a great self-reflection. The third reason to love a tiny home is thoughtful construction. Because construction companies are slow to pick up the tiny house movement many people are building their own homes. This means they are given the opportunity to put thought into home construction. I have been in many homes, in real life and virtually (thank you Zillow.com) that are basically boxes filled with boxes, filled with crap, and I have also been in 18th century homes that are constructed to let the most light in and to keep homes cool without air conditioning. The tiny house movement gives people the opportunity to think about how their home works, how it functions within the environment and their lives. This leads us to reason four, environmental sustainability. If more people began building with n their and the environment’s means, and living within those means we can begin seriously walking down the path of environmentally sustainability.

Tumbleweed is one of my favorite tiny house builders. They encourage creativity and offer classes. This is there “Cypress” model.
from: http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com

While reason 1 & 2 are great, today I am going to talk about reason 3 “thoughtful construction” (& eventually #4) and how historical homes can help develop the tiny house movement and put us on a path to sustainably. When house museums began popping up across the country in the late 19th and early 20th c they had two basic goals, first to function as a shrine to X or Y historical person and second to illustrate the life styles (in a strictly material sense) of the colonial and antebellum elite. Today, as my previous post called for, we need new and innovative ways to narrate house museums. One of those ways is by developing an educational program that focuses on the possibility of building contemporary homes in the same fashion. This is not a call for a revival of colonial-revival, I am calling for something much more structural, “walls not wall paper”. Now, accepting the fact that we cannot make contemporary homes out of the same materials due to climate change and unfixable damage we have done to the environment, we can still learn to adopt 18th century practices for today’s use.

2 years ago I joined my professor on a field trip with his Archaeology field school students in Maryland. As the sun became unbearable we eventually took refuge in recreated ordinary. While there we had the pleasure of hearing a number of tour guides come through and explain the site to fussy and excitable school children, as they left, group by group, we discussed how each narrative was different, how each tour guide employed different objects in the ordinary to tell various details from the same master narrative, which was essential “What is an ordinary?.” After a while we realized that each narrative made the ordinary sound barbaric and impossible for contemporary people to handle. “Not, true!” we thought, it is this ostracizing of the past that we are so use to in our “progressive” focus narrative that allows us to forget or ignore the valuable lessons from the past.

Less than two years ago I read an article with my professor and a young visiting professor by Mark Levin. Levin asked historians how they would function at the end of times. My professor brought up the idea that historical sites can teach people things they can then use in their lives; telling us a story about his French buddies learning how to make a lathe that they then implemented on their property. After a spell the young professor asked if this was cultural appropriation. The answer is no, it is not cultural appropriation in the way that young women at electronic music concerts wear feather head dresses and take peyote. Adopting the information at a historical site, like how to build a lathe or a how to build a home that works within the environment, does not necessitate that you believe you are becoming closer to or gaining a better understanding of that culture. You can understand the logic and utility of the thing (for lack of a better word), but your understanding of its necessity will be slightly different than an 18thc person.

What can be done?

1#: In Virginia on the Battle of Wilderness site there is a home called “Historic Elwood.” This house museum is one of my favorites, (its wall paper is my background), it is lovely, it is informative, it talks about slaves and recognizes that they we skilled craftsmen and it has a cutaway wall that exposes what the house is made of! We need more of this, guests are tried of seeing perfectly recreated interior décor (I like it, but there is more than can be done), it is time historical homes talk more about their construction; the material, the processes and the home’s upkeep. Naturally this will be a narrative that focuses on the work of slaves, I believe there is great value in celebrating the craftsmanship of enslaved peoples. Yes, slavery is awful, soul destroying, and wrong, but we do not need to ignore the skill and art created by these enslaved people (& lets be real, what was NOT a product of slavery in our slave society?). If we talk about the houses in terms of their construction and upkeep and speak truthfully about how it can be recreated today, the historical house museums becomes a place of inspiration for the diy tiny home builder and sustainability conscious person. Why not host a tiny-home build, (Many of them are on wheels now-a-days), invite interested parties to learn about how 18thc home construction can influence contemporary builders beyond wall paper and color schemes.

Ellwood Manor/Historic Ellwood. I couldn’t find a photo of the cutaway, but this is the wall opposite it. From: http://www.fowb.org/index.php/ellwood-manor/the-visitors-experience/ellwood-room/. They also have cool restoration photos, check them out: http://www.fowb.org/index.php/ellwood-manor/ellwood-restoration-album/2008-2009/

#2 Build your site.
It is not uncommon for historical sites to have an archaeological excavation to find the location of old buildings and homes, and it is not uncommon for them to build a recreation of the home on the same or adjacent site, and it is not my original idea to build the house in the same manor it was when first built, by costumed professionals. At (beloved) Kenmore, they had painters paint the walls with period paint in the period style, very cool. There is an idea to have costumed builders construct historical homes with the same idea in mind, which is great, but I want to add a bit more Bob Vila to the mix. I would like to turn this into a learning experience, (admittedly, hands-on might get too dangerous) but there is a value in having the builders, historians, historical architects, and archaeologists make themselves available to discuss the build with idea that is it doable today in mind.


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