• Ann Duchene

So Much Drama

Q: Aside from being classic creepy reads, what do Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Frankenstein all have in common?

A: They were written during the Gothic Revival - an era that celebrated and sentimentalized bygone dark, mysterious, and ghoulish environments.

Whenever an idea gets traction, it starts affecting style all over the place. For example, it's no accident that in the 1970's, massive segments of the population simultaneously fell in love with eating lentils, wearing flowery brown shirts and decorating with wallpaper that looked exactly like said flowery brown shirts. We all love a certain amount of visual drama, even if it takes the form of Shaggy from Scooby Doo.

It had a very different look, but people in the 1800's were much the same way - really into the dramatic. Think seances, bustles, curly moustaches, smelling salts, and you'll get the picture. Everyone seemed especially crazy about ghostly, crumbling castles and gargoyle-infested buildings like Notre Dame. In love with all things ancient and mysterious, homeowners around the 1830's started asking architects to build that moody style into their homes. Thus, "American Gothic Revival" was born.

I put together a small picture collage that shows some architectural detail from that time so you can see what I'm talking about - lots of arched windows, steep rooflines, and mysterious-looking woodwork. Note the house behind the farmers in the painting just below. I know you've seen this art piece before, but did you know it's actually titled American Gothic? I suggest that the artist was better with paint than with creative names...

Where am I going with this? We bought an old church building for our hotel, Rabbit and Mitten, that was built in 1874 - during the American Gothic Revival heyday.

And guess what?! True to its Gothic Revival style, some of the neighborhood kids are convinced the church we bought is haunted! Out of curiosity, a couple of them stopped by one day and were especially interested in learning about how we deal with the ghosts we encounter. The original architect would be proud.

One of the challenges I have in the design process is in figuring out how to honor the history of the building while transforming it into a current and relevant place where people love to spend time. Because as cool as it is to understand history, no one I'm acquainted with fantasizes about spending the night sleeping in a museum, surrounded by artifacts. When we arrange a get-away, we want to relax in a beautiful, comfortable, and (perhaps) high-tech environment, right? With that said, there is a sense of rightness when we feel connected to our history, and that connection piques the imagination.

As an interior designer, this is just the kind of challenge I love. I thought it might be interesting to share a snapshot of the how-to process when building a bridge between a building's aging story and our bustling, high-tech world. You can learn the skill of re-appropriating a space, while still celebrating its origin! (Let me know what you think in the comments The more feedback I get, the more I know what people enjoy reading.)

Who knows? Maybe you own an old house and will find this helpful. So here's how it works:

1) Take a good look at your house. Pretend you're seeing it for the first time. Walk around, inside and out with a little notebook and play detective. Make notes about questions or observations you have regarding the age of your home. (For example, you might wonder when builders switched from finishing walls with plaster, as opposed to drywall.) Check your title and purchasing paperwork to see if you can discover when it was built. Sometimes you might even find a date stamped or carved into the foundation somewhere. I'll link a detailed article here with helpful tips on locating the age of your home for reference if your house is putting up a fight.

2) Next, using a book like A Field Guide to American Houses or a website such as (most popular home styles from the 1800 and 1900's are in a column on the left-hand side), scour the pages. Pay special attention to anything that reminds you of your own place.

Using our place as an example, below is a photo of the church we're converting into the Rabbit and Mitten hotel. Notice the arched windows, in-your-face bell tower, and fancy brickwork toward the top of the building. See how they resemble some of the features in the photo board?

3) Now we come to the starting point (yes, all of that was context work). We will eventually hone in on what we're going to save to preserve the history of our building, versus what we want to change. But we can't do any of this before we ask the million dollar question:

How do I want to feel like when I am home (or in this space)?

This question is pivotal in making future decisions, so you need to camp out here for a while. Talk to the other people who live in your house too, and compile a list together - room by room. How do you want to feel when you're in the kitchen? Your bedroom? The basement (if you're lucky enough to have one with livable space)?

The three steps outlined shouldn't take days, but they might take a couple of hours.

I aim to keep these posts at something readable in about three minutes, so am going to leave this one here and will post again in two weeks.

To be continued...

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