As Halloween approaches, everyone starts to shiver as they think about the proverbial “haunted house.” The house is always old, it’s always gloomy and it is always unkempt. But is it necessarily a certain architectural style? I started to think about how each successive generation deems a past architectural style as scary and haunted. Then time marches on and suddenly that same style is redeemed and revered.
Let’s take a look at some iconic “scary” houses.
One of the first scary American homes is The House of the Seven Gables. In 1851 Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his gothic tale about a witchcraft-cursed, 17th Century home. Today the inspiration for the story is a house museum in Salem. Does the actual structure look scary to our modern eyes? It is a somber, dark color and its windows are small so the interior must be gloomy. But honestly, I respect early American homes so much that I can easily celebrate the house’s simplicity and craftsmanship. And who doesn’t love a picturesque cottage garden? I am not willing to say a 17th Century home looks “haunted” just because the builders didn’t have access to Benjamin Moore colors! But to 19th Century eyes, these antique homes looked shabby and neglected. Hawthorne wrote “The House of the Seven Gables” at the beginning of the Victorian era, which saw new homes that were spacious and flooded with light through large bay windows.
But by the 20th Century, it was the Victorian-era homes that took the brunt of haunting taunting. Movies and TV helped spread the image. Jimmy Stewart and his bride in the 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” take a chance on rehabilitating the neighborhood’s abandoned Granville House. “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” TV shows both housed ghoulish families in enormous Victorian homes. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that Victorians were redeemed – think of the cheerful beauty of San Francisco’s “painted ladies.”
Early 20th Century Arts and Crafts architecture aimed to clean up Victorian excesses. But movies spooked out that style too. The Gamble House, designed by Greene and Greene, is now considered to be the crown jewel of American Arts and Crafts architecture. But look for this “ultimate bungalow” as the setting for the crazed inventor in the 1985 movie, “Back to the Future” and as a weird, spooky spaceship in 2005’s “Zathura." Not the cozy family settings that Arts and Crafts architects envisioned.
What about the charming Dutch Colonial-revival style? Who could be frightened by a lovely, center entrance home with side chimney and quaint semi-circular stair windows? Perhaps the buyers of “The Amityville Horror?” (Note to timid homebuyers: that story has now been proven to be a hoax!)
Is no style immune to the label of “haunted?” I’m beginning to think not. The common thread is that all of these home styles passed through a period where they were old but not yet appreciated by fresh eyes. Some examples became unkempt or neglected. So the lesson to us current homeowners: keep up your maintenance over the next 30 years. The idea of a haunted McMansion is truly frightening!