Housing America — Classic American Foursquare architecture in Holland

This is the first in a three-part series on architecture in the Holland area.
Dale Wyngarden
The house a few doors down from us is an American Foursquare style. It is a simple full two-story box, very likely thirty feet by thirty feet, or 1,800 square feet. The square design readily lends itself to kitchen, dining and living rooms downstairs and four bedrooms upstairs, with minimal wasted hall space. A simple hip roof and the absence of frills made construction economical. 

The popularity of this design ran from the 1890s into the 1930s, replaced by modern and ranch styles in the middle of the past century. In its day, the Foursquare was a basic, attractive, affordable family home. The central city neighborhoods of Holland and other lakeshore communities are still filled with them a century later. 

Our neighborhood house was sold this year to a family. It’s good to see toys in the yard. For the prior forty years, there were two owners, each a single person. A whole lot of house was devoted to sheltering one person during those years. And more than any other style in the history of housing, the Foursquare was a prime candidate for conversion to a two-family home. In fact, many of them throughout town have been converted in that way. As current housing shortages loom and family size is shrinking, why not more? Reasons are complex and interwoven. 

American abundance

My single neighbors for the past forty years were clearly content with an abundance of space. Not everyone living large is eager to downsize. In fact, Americans are a people who celebrate bigness. Big cars, big boats, big houses, walk-in closets, islands in our kitchens, and multiple bathrooms — with two sinks. We are living in an age of relatively cheap natural gas and electricity. The cost of heating or cooling a big space isn’t prohibitive. As the cheap energy era ends, our fascination with overabundance will fade. We’re moving in that direction, but slowly. 

Some of the past conversions from single-family to multi-family homes were a response to housing shortages in a time of national crisis. World War II saw shortages of building material coupled with urgent demands for increased housing in urban areas where industries re-tooled for wartime production. Converting from single to two-family was patriotic. Today, a housing crisis in Michigan is more likely to be caused by another foreign country proposing yet another massive battery plant. The tug of patriotism is gone. 

We have also grown more cynical about housing crises related to manufacturing. We live in a region once known as the furniture capital of the country, only to have seen a mass manufacturing exodus first to North Carolina, then to a variety of Asian countries. In 1950, Detroit was the wealthiest city in the nation, with a population of 1.85 million. Today, the city houses 640,000 residents. Last year, it demolished more than 2,000 houses, and still has 50,000 more vacant or abandoned homes to contend with. Decisions in remote corporate boardrooms can turn today’s troubling shortage into tomorrow’s troubling surplus. Any belief in immunity is foolhardy.

Then there’s the obstacle course of local regulations. In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld the right of local communities to regulate land use by designating districts and defining what could or could not be built in them.

Zoning and NIMBY

The earliest zoning ordinances divided communities into simple residential, commercial and industrial zones. But complexity crept in as residential zones were further nuanced into hierarchies of exclusively single family districts, and others that allowed duplexes or apartments of varying densities. 

Residents of single family zones often adopt a NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude toward increasing density by adding additional housing units. This may be triggered less by the number of residents than the number of cars, especially on smaller inner city lots with narrow driveways and homes in close proximity. And in reality, there may be hints of snobbery or prejudice among some single family owners who equate rental with lower economic class or ethnic or racial minorities. Reluctant to admit prejudice, opponents of increased density often embrace neighborhood parking issues and increased traffic congestion as they battle change. 

Government’s track record in building and managing housing is dismal. Nonprofits do good, but usually just one or a few units at a time. So how does a community respond when a massive expansion or brand new industry brings hundreds or even thousands of new jobs to an area? Granny flats, mother-in-law apartments and well planned conversion of large homes to additional units are part of the answer. They are certainly symbolic of an overdue repudiation of the rigid compartmentalization of overly zealous zoning. Planners willing to advocate in the face of inevitable public resistance are deserving of our support and gratitude. But these are droplets when a thousand new jobs call for a downpour. 

We’re seeing the private sector in West Michigan meet the challenge, or more correctly, seize the opportunity, as one cornfield after another on the urban fringe is plowed under to make way for another few hundred boxy treeless apartments. This may be a short term answer to regional housing shortages, but for reasons that are a whole other story, it may be the long-term answer as well. Prosperity often comes with a price, and one area it’s showing up is in the increasing shortage, escalating cost, and declining aesthetic character of housing. The response isn’t our grandpa’s community, but for now, we might as well acknowledge it’s our new normal.

Dale Wyngarden worked for the city of Holland for three decades, much of that time overseeing the Planning and Development Department during the revitalization of the downtown. Now happily retired, he spends his time writing and gardening.
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