Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”
Like many people right now, I’ve ritualized neighborhood walks. My girlfriend Kendra moved back to Grand Rapids just weeks before everything shut down, to a neighborhood just outside our usual bubbles. We try to walk down a “new” street every time, and we comment on bits of each home we pass.
Designing homes must be terrifying. Construction is so expensive and so permanent. At the same time, style is so subjective to trends, taste, and time period. Architecture, from what I understand, is still fashion, just on a scale a few stories above perception. And that’s just the artistic dimension—limitations of engineering set every rule, all while minimizing cost. I can’t hit send on an email before re-reading it ten times, so I can’t imagine the self-assuredness needed for an architect to stop looking at their blueprints and send them off to become a real structure that will enclose and anchor a family, that won’t get mocked or literally give way.
Because homes are artifacts of their style and circumstance with outsized durability, they’re uniquely suited for big storytelling. This stressed me out because I don’t know anything about architecture, construction, home improvement, or urbanism. I have only vague timelines of redlining, white flight, and gentrification in this city. I want to know the big histories of both style and legislation that have shaped homes and neighborhoods. I want to know the small histories of homeowners making it work.
On one of our last untrodden alleys, we spotted a second-story door opening to nothing (315 Benson NE, pictured below). A street away, a garage roof is lined with a railing but is inaccessible. We joked that the components for a perfect block of precisely measured homes are all here, they’re just shuffled around. There are no miscalculations or extraneous details—things are only borrowed or loaned between neighbors.
And besides, I have to forgive the little warts—they pull my attention to the latent stories, big and small, behind every house and every block. They make the outside world feel abundant when walking in the neighborhood is the only responsible way to go out. Here are ten features that made me go “huh.”
A board, painted to look like dark windows, is screwed into an attic dormer. “Dormer” is a fun word I learned while writing this.
2. 706 Fountain NE
A drainpipe camouflaged as part of a decorative shutter.
3. 156 Eastern NE
One of a few stairways to sealed nothings. (I’m especially curious about the history and logistics of converting and separating a big home into little apartments with patches like these.)
4. 648 Innes NE
At some point a contractor said “I guess tilt the window flush with the roof then.” What’s this look like from the inside? I hope it’s a bedroom.
5. 617 Crescent NE
One of many improvised fire escapes/smoking perches for movie protagonists.
6. 315 Benson NE
Every good house has a doorknob with a sticky note reading “DON’T OPEN.”
7. 230 Fountain NE
Ornate garage turret (for Christmas tree storage).
This door is maybe a foot and a half wide. Skinny protagonists only on this smoking and gazing perch.
Kendra calls this the big dollhouse, and I really hope the flattened turret has a little trap door (for smoking and gazing and perching).
Sidewalk Narnia access. (I checked and there isn’t pavement under the shrubbery—it really just steps up to grass.)
- A database of Heritage Hill properties, most including scans of ownership records. They describe each home’s history of use and alteration, tell anecdotes of its owners, and include an “importance to neighborhood” score.
- An interactive map of Grand Rapids neighborhoods drawn post-Great Depression, referenced by banks to evaluate mortgage security. Here’s an explanation of how it was made, used, and what it still affects today. Spoiler: borders are justified and bad neighborhoods are prescribed consistently and explicitly by racial “infiltration.”
- McMansion Hell, a very fun architectural education/roast blog.
- American Foursquare by Denison Whitmer, a beautiful folk album named after a plain-spoken architectural style which emphasizes familial function.