America's love affair with older homes. We're a nation of fixer-uppers, says author Clifford Clark

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``I wanted to know why middle-class Americans loved romancing older house styles and why they spent so much time and energy fixing them up once they moved in,'' said Clifford Edward Clark Jr., author of the book ``The American Family Home 1800-1960'' (University of North Carolina Press, $29.95, $14.95 paper). Dr. Clark, director of the American Studies Program at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., spent several years researching this fascinating study of the single-family home and how its design has been modified over the years to reflect basic changes in the nature of American family life.

He discovered that people remodel old houses in order to ``individualize'' them, make them feel like home, and better fit their family's needs.

This year alone, it is projected, Americans will spend $88 billion on both do-it-yourself and professional remodeling, enclosing porches, squeezing additional living space out of attics and basements, enlarging kitchens and bathrooms, and adding windows and skylights.

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Clark counts himself and his family (wife Grace and three children ranging in age from 8 to 18) a typical example of what is happening in small-town America.

When they arrived in Minnesota in 1971, they bought a story-and-a-half bungalow-type house built in 1917 for about $26,000. It had a nice sense of solidity and comfort, a plentiful supply of old oak woodwork, three bedrooms and a bath upstairs, a small bedroom downstairs, and an enclosed front porch that went all the way across the front of the house.

Clark said that his bruised thumbs and nicked fingers testified to his personal struggle to attain that ``ideal American family home'' that he writes about so fluently.

Over the years, they have remodeled the kitchen and upstairs bathroom, converted the basement into a family recreation room with an adjacent bathroom, and made the first-floor bedroom into an office.

Clark has done most of the work himself, having learned carpentry from two uncles who were in the building trades, and by helping his family build a house in Vermont when he was growing up. He is also a hobbyist woodworker, who enjoys making furniture, especially copying 18th-century antiques.

``We have rewired, replumbed, and repainted the house, and managed to recycle a handsome door with beveled glass from the old Odd Fellows Home when it was torn down,'' he said. ``We also salvaged some bricks from that site and laid them in our patio.... I also built the white picket fence around the place, and we have spent a lot of time and thought on improving the grounds.''

He credits his wife, who is an occupational therapist, with being the ``ideas person'' behind all the renovation work, as well as ``my sidewalk superintendent and quality-control inspector. She makes me do it over if I get it wrong. And if I get too carried away with a weekend painting project, she reminds me gently that we really hadn't been planning to spend the entire weekend painting that side of the house.''

Professor Clark reckons that he has invested about $9,000 in supplies and materials for the renovation work, which does not count the endless hours of labor he has devoted to the various tasks. The improved house has increased in value to about $80,000. ``The house has met our need,'' he says. ``It has given us a sense of place, and space, and privacy. We have made it fit us.''

Clark's book sheds light on the whereofs and whys of the development of successive building styles. Since he thinks we are now in a historical revival of all styles, whether they be Mission, Victorian, Cape Cod, 1940s Levittown, or 1950s low-slung ranch houses, he feels home buyers have an ever increasing interest in the background of style development.

``People are eager to know more about our common, everyday homes and the social eras which produced them and in which they were created,'' he says. His book on ``The American Family Home'' is both intriguing and informative as it spells out the many influences that have created the modification of the house, and the part played by advice manuals, plan books, housing magazines, and commercial advertising.

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