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Review> Sui Generis
The Vintage House: A Guide to Successful Renovations and Additions by Mark Alan Hewitt and Gordon Block.
House in Guilford, CT.
Courtesy W.W. Norton

The Vintage House: A Guide to Successful Renovations and Additions
Mark Alan Hewitt and Gordon Block
W.W. Norton & Co., $50

In their new volume the co-authors bring to bear long complementary expertise in historic preservation to advocate for an architecture of place and continuity of style as the foremost guiding philosophies for successful contemporary design intervention. In this vision, renovations (and additions when called for) are intertwined seamlessly across vocabularies. The chapter “Additions that Stay in Tune” sums up the binding theme. Illustrated examples range from English Georgian (Sir John Soane’s House accreting from 1796 to its 1837 tripartite unity) to mid-century American modern (Stern & Bucek’s beautiful restoration of the 1960 Frame/Harper House by Neuhaus & Taylor in Houston) even as the overwhelming focus is on traditional and vernacular examples. The message returns to the continuum of classical expression and the paramount worth of existing fabric and its component materials and craft methods.

Greek revival house, Camden NJ.

What distinguishes the book is its gentle yet unabashed, unapologetic call for connoisseurship as a base of design departure. Stewardship means knowledge and the values it spawns; only exacting historical reflection can lead to lasting success, with original intent leading the way. Hewitt and Gordon bring to mind Lutyens’s oft-quoted chestnut, “There will never be great architects or great architecture without great patrons.” In sum, this book is not aimed at the DIYers or contractor wannabes. Instead it squarely if tacitly reveals that any well-intentioned client with sufficient means and good sense needs to engage an architect and team of building pros whether for a new HVAC system, a modern (albeit, between these covers, always sympathetic) kitchen, or artisanal ornamentation. Those who dream of such domestic upgrades done right will also appreciate this essential appeal to patron sophistication.

The prose along with sensible images of all the parts of a well-functioning house and legible blueprints add up to an eager guiding hand for those ready for the connoisseurship challenge; it is straightforward and condescension free. The sprinkling of sidebars—one-part glossaries; other parts helpful hints—graphically distinguished in tawny blocks, come along intuitively without pomp just as the reader needs them.

For architects or designers concerned above all with contextual continuity, the book constitutes an ideal introduction to the tasks at hand. It is a perfect gift for a prospective client, especially among those for whom starting from the ground up is neither an interest nor an option. Once one understands and loves the essential qualities of what is about to be changed, then lasting improvement can result. In short, it would be a mistake to pour the Romanee Conti into the New Year’s Eve punch.

Paul Guther

Paul Guther is the president of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in New York City.