Family of Four Houses

Bright sun, stiff tailwind and smooth pavement are bicycling delights. The last piece of the pleasure for me last April was a little architectural delicacy to savor. More than a few candidates stepped into my twenty mile per hour view as I traveled south on California’s Highway One, south of Mendocino. Downtown Manchester, all five buildings worth, presented a modest little group of houses that seemed to have been friends since their early years on this lonely stretch of coast. Vacation moments like this are ripe for a little dreaming. I imagined their beginning.

The drawings were spare, comprised of two sheets, 18 x 24, a plan, four elevations and two structural plans; foundation and roof framing. Drawn with an F lead on vellum, the lettering and line work were sharp and clean. The instructions to the designer had been to keep the cost down yet still he managed to articulate the form and place the windows with a taut control that added up to a tough and lively little group of buildings.

The day they dug the footings in 1952 was a sweet moment of promise for the crew, knowing that once they got through the foundation stage, the reward of framing awaited. With sill plates bolted and rim joists nailed down, soon the floor joists were being placed and nailed. It was three men on this project, working one building at a time and taking turns with cutting and nailing. Normally the sawing is set up close to the building so that measurements can easily be called out and it is a simple fluid motion to pass the cut material over to the ones who place and nail. A sixteen penny nail is pulled from the leather pouch with the left hand as the hammer in the right readies for a quick tap to set the nail and then three firm strokes to send it home. Douglas fir, no doubt milled nearby, smells great when freshly sawn. The electric circular saw was relatively new to construction and these carpenters reveled in the ease as they remembered the days of hand sawing.

There is a fussy part when they frame the walls with that little pooch-up at the front of the house. The angle of the sloping parapet return has to be measured just right and the studs are angle cut to hit the top plate flush. The designer is not there to take the ribbing from these journeymen as they wonder about the flat roof in this waterlogged climate. Once one house is framed, its brother or sister is next in line. With each successive sibling, the process smooths out and the pride of a craftsman knowing just the right move to cut or place or nail is sublime.

Once the framing is complete much of the stucco and plaster is complete on the first house and the carpenters switch to smaller hammers for the finish work. By the time eight months rolls by, the family of four is pretty much complete and ready for people to fill them up. A nice day for the crew when they see people settling in.

How I would love to know the whole story of these buildings. They seem to have held up to the elements fairly well and doubtless hold a lot of memories both real and imagined.


5 Responses to “Family of Four Houses”

  1. 1 e moore
    January 23, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    I was once told in a crit that my design was something only an architect could find beauty in (a 12×12, 3 story concrete tube building); but again there is something charming in this group of five. Particularly catching is the ramped parapets, obviously designed to hide mechanical on a budget (?). This quirkiness couple with straightforwardness of the rest of the structure, an exceptional exception…

    Throw out the rule book.

  2. January 23, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    “Only an architect can find beauty in” Wow! Words to go in to battle with. These buildings will definitely not make the cover of Sunset or Home Beautiful. Also the siting has such a bare, in your face quality. I think the parapets were just decorative, hierarchical elements to say this is the front but they could be shielding something. Thanks

    Saxon Sigerson AIA

    Check out my architecture blog https://saxonsangles.wordpress.com

    Sigerson Architects 7940 California Avenue, Suite 4 Fair Oaks, CA 95628 T (916) 863-6470 F (916) 966-3948 saxon@sigersonarchitects.com http://sigersonarchitects.com/

  3. 3 Brad Friederichs
    February 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I’ve always wondered about them–they are so different. The little stair off the side is funny too. Why do they need that?

  4. February 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks for looking so closely Brad. I assume they are raised floor foundation buildings and need the stair to get from the floor level down to grade.

  5. 5 Richard Deutsch
    November 24, 2013 at 8:56 am

    Architecture inspired by Route 66 motor inns: El Vado and De Anza in Albuquerque for example?

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The Architectural Adventures Of Saxon Sigerson

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