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On Exhibit: the fine art of home improvement

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Take a ride through Hegewisch or the southwest side and you'll see colorful siding, striped awnings, vivid window trim, extra porches, added dormers, tidy little fences, and maybe plastic deer or a Virgin Mary in the yard. Every house looks different. Many passersby would just dismiss them as kitsch. But to Camilo Vergara, a photographer with a background in sociology, the art of personalizing those modest working-class homes is an unjustly overlooked branch of American architecture.

When Vergara found himself in Amsterdam a few years back, he didn't think a whole lot of the architecture there. The sturdy, well-kept patrician brick houses that most visitors find so quaint and endearing just didn't impress him. There was, he says today, "a certain monotony to the housing style. Even though it's pretty, it sort of drove me crazy; the proportions are controlled, the colors are controlled." It bothered him that Amsterdam residents view the exteriors of private houses as public spaces, that home owners are not allowed to redesign their houses.

Vergara went for relief not to Paris or Florence or some other center of classic architecture but to Jersey City, which he calls "the antithesis of [Amsterdam]. People were doing almost anything they wanted to their houses." What was especially refreshing, he says, was that people showed no "sacred respect for symmetry." A less tolerant observer might say that the Jersey City homes that so moved Vergara just lacked good taste.

After his stay in Jersey City, Vergara traveled through about a dozen American cities over four years, mostly in the northeast and midwest, photographing houses that showed just how far owners could go in altering the original designs of their homes. The result was Transformed Houses, a traveling exhibition of Vergara's photos coupled with text by Kenneth Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University.

The kinds of houses that interest Vergara are all over the southeast side and Bridgeport and other working-class parts of Chicago and the suburbs. Most of them were built to house burgeoning immigrant populations between the turn of the century and World War II. Some are two-flats, others single-family bungalows. Most were built using cheap frame construction. Most of them looked just like all the other houses on the block when they were built. And Chicago provided Vergara with one particularly garish example of a redesigned home: a cottage on the south side whose frame exterior was re-covered in red and white fake stone siding, its windows shaded by striped aluminum awnings, and its porch enclosed by a twisted iron grille. Even the sidewalk out front was painted red and white.

In defense of such ornamental overkill, Vergara notes that the home owners he interviewed never said, "'This is the most beautiful house the world has ever seen,' but they said it was the best they could do with their limited resources." Indeed, many modifications are economically motivated. Home owners add insulation or aluminum siding to save on energy costs or maintenance. They also adapt their older houses because it's too expensive to build anew. "People added to the back of these houses because they wanted a room to eat in next to their tiny kitchens," said a Baltimore housewife interviewed in the course of Vergara's research.

But what's most interesting about Transformed Houses is that renovators are often motivated by more than pure practicality. "The ways in which ordinary people can make a mark on their environment are very limited," says Vergara, so loud color schemes, fake stone siding, and elaborate ornamentation provide at least "some degree of personal expression."

Then, too, the philosophy of Vergara's home owners is diametrically opposed to that of the gentrifiers active today in many wealthy urban neighborhoods: for his proud residents, modernization is a sign of progress, of healthy economic status. Says one of Vergara's interviewees: "Thirty years ago, you would have wanted your house to look modern; today the trend is to preserve it. I still think if something is old, you should get rid of it and go towards the future. Time has to go on; we had to modernize our house."

These infusions of siding and shingles hardly result in a blandly modern neighborhood. Rather, since the redecorating is done by individual owners, at different times, each house changes in an almost organic way. What was once a sterile subdivision is now a unique and colorful streetscape. And even if individual homes--like the candy-colored Chicago cottage--are a bit tacky, a street of such homes viewed en masse has, well, character. It's the very opposite of an Amsterdam street, where homes that are individually attractive form monotonous streetscapes.

And Vergara points out that transformed houses are more than just ornaments on the face of the modern city: the care that owners lavish on their homes can foster pride in a community--an important factor in urban neighborhoods threatened by decay. "Transformed houses," he writes, "are a visible and tangible sign that our neighborhoods and cities do not lack families willing to improve their environment and to fight for the continued viability of their blocks."

Vergara last staged an exhibition in Chicago two years ago at the ArchiCenter, also in collaboration with Kenneth Jackson: titled Ruins and Revivals: The Architecture of Urban Devastation, it dealt with urban ghettos. With the aid of a grant from Chicago's Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, they're now working on a book based on that exhibition. The pair are also looking at the way ordinary Americans die: next year, Princeton Architectural Press will publish American Cemeteries: The Trumpet Will Sound, a look at the vernacular monuments of working-class graveyards (Vergara's Chicago-area favorite is the Bohemian National Cemetery).

Camilo Vergara will be lecturing at the Graham Foundation, 4 W. Burton, at 8 PM on Wednesday, December 2, as part of the opening of Transformed Houses, which will run through January 7. Admission is free. The Graham Foundation is open 9-4 Monday through Thursday; for more information call 787-4071.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Camilo Vergara.

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