Capitol Hill’s topography, lush plantings, and relative density result in a great diversity of building types and landscapes that offer the urban explorer many interesting and intimate places to explore. One of my favorite recent discoveries is a cluster of eight cottages tightly arranged on what appears to be a typical (Capitol Hill), 5000 square foot lot. Built in 1920, these eight lovely homes, lying somewhere west of Broadway, are real gems, should you be lucky enough to happen upon them.
To set the record straight, I am, as a former professor called me, a dyed in the wool modernist. Clean lines, cubic forms, and glass and steel are where my passions lie — these cottages have anything but those qualities — yet I find them compelling in the spatial and tectonic lessons they offer.
A central promenade bisects the depth of the site, with four homes on each side. Each home is roughly the same size, and large enough for one bedroom.
Stylistically, they are all loosely based on the NW Craftsman aesthetic; however, the romantic qualities of this approach are pursued with greater verve than in your typical bungalow.
All of the homes have a combination of lap siding and shingles, with the shingles being detailed in a different way on each cottage. Bay windows add a bit of breathing space in their compact arrangements.
If I remember correctly, each has a small front porch with either a side or frontal approach to the walk.
The variety of shingle patterning leads me to believe that these homes were designed by the carpenters who built them — who might of also been the developers as well; not unlike the Anhalts on Capitol Hill.
Okay, these are cute, and the patina of time has been favorable to them; however, it is not that which I find the most appealing. The close clustering of these homes, and the rich, native landscape that envelopes them, make them a compelling model for those who want to live densely, yet still in a detached dwelling.
And while each may have a front porch, each front porch is unique. The rubble wall here is especially, well, dare I say it again — cute. Alright, I said it . . .
Could this project be built today? It would be difficult, for several reasons. Today’s mass-produced, uniform building materials (nothing wrong here) do not lend themselves to the informality and casualness that is one of this community’s charms. You just could not do this in Hardie panel or metal siding . . . . plus, the skill in design and execution is, I am afraid to say, beyond the grasp of most architects and builders today whose skills are learned in a different environment. And finally, the cost would most likely be prohibitive, at least for a speculative venture. If it were a cohousing community or a similar gathering of like-minded individuals who choose to live in such close proximity to one anther and were willing to tackle the communal and financial challenges a project such as this would pose today, then a project such as this likely could be realized.
John Feit is an architect on Capitol Hill, and works at Schemata Workshop. He blogs frequently on design and urbanism, with a focus on how they relate to and effect the Capitol Hill community.