Housing America — housing styles that stand the test of time

This is the second in a three-part series on architecture in the Holland area.

Dale Wyngarden
World travelers or National Geographic readers might rightly conclude there are regions or nations where architectural styles haven’t changed for centuries Maybe even millennia. Local climates and available resources have produced a remarkable panoply of human creativity in the design and construction of our shelters and structures. Flat roofs, sloped roofs and peaked roofs. Red tiles, tan tiles, slate, thatched grass, woven leaves, shakes and shingles. Walls of logs, boards, brick, quarried stone, glass, metal, vinyl, sod, ice blocks, or animal skins. Adobe has been used to build structures for thousands of years. The very word “adobe” derives from a 4,000 year old Egyptian word for brick.

Use what you have

And then there’s us. Immigrants from around the world brought to the shores of our nation the culinary traditions, art, music, architecture, and building skills of their homelands. The first Dutch settlers in West Michigan knew less about forests, logging, and wood construction than they did about bricks and masonry. Settling in a state filled with great virgin forests, they soon learned about wood. But meanwhile, they built brick farmhouses throughout the Holland/Zeeland countryside that accent basic red brick exteriors with intricate designs of intermixed buff colored bricks.

We celebrate the Veneklaasen family that made the bricks, but we owe a shout out to the unnamed craftsmen who built these unique and enduringly attractive brick homes. 

Smorgasbord of style

As the early community prospered, residents of means were intrigued by the international smorgasbord of styles for new homes. Holland’s historic district is a delightful mix of French mansard, Colonial, Italianate, Queen Anne, Georgian, Tudor, Foursquare, Greek revival, c craftsman bungalow and Waverly stone styles. There’s even a hacienda in the mix. Even in more modest neighborhoods, homes display a great variety of individuality. When the housing boom in the middle of the previous century led to tract housing subdivisions in larger cities where near-identical floor plans and look-alike exteriors were the norm, West Michigan clung to its history of housing individuality. 
Holland first mayor owned a leather tannery that was once the city’s major employer. His historic home reflects Italianate design.

Local bricks, Michigan fieldstone and Dutch masonry skills came together in one of Holland’s historic homes that later served as the first community hospital, a college fraternity house, a museum, and most recently a bed and breakfast.
This home was used by the local pickle company to house migrant workers. It was lovingly restored to its full Georgian elegance by a former mayor and his wife, early leaders in the central city renaissance.

Full two story designs gave way around 1920 to a modified story and a half American carpenter style.

Still, there were national housing trends that local builders tended to follow. By the 1930s, full two-story homes had largely given way to the story-and-a-half Cape Cod or craftsman bungalow styles. Dormers often enhanced light and ventilation in upstairs rooms under slanted ceilings. Large front porches that connected residents to their neighborhood disappeared, sometimes replaced by little rain shelters at the front door barely suitable for keeping Amazon deliveries dry. Single-story ranch houses soon joined the mix. Front porches that drew social life toward the street were replaced by rear patios, accessed by the obligatory sliding glass doors that faced the backyard. 

For our first 125 years, single family homes dominated the housing landscape. Duplexes and apartments were rare exceptions. But not everyone is financially able, has the basic skills, or wants the spaciousness of a detached home. Since the 1970s, apartments have increasingly slipped into the mix. About the same time, developers saw the emerging bubble of retirees in search of middle ground between home ownership and apartment rental. Condominiums had gained popularity among seniors in Florida as multi-story high rises with balconies overlooking the bay. West Michigan retirees wanted ground floors, patios, shade trees, and a community
building for birthdays and anniversaries. Local developers responded, and today condominium options abound. Ultimately a few condo projects with upper stories were also developed, but mostly in proximity to downtown. 

Before the proliferation of cars, supermarkets, strip malls, big box stores, and mega churches, life in earlier eras was neighborhood-centered. People shopped at neighborhood grocery stores and walked to neighborhood churches. Kids attended neighborhood schools and played together in the neighborhood street under the watchful eye of parents on front porches. Swapping porches in front for patios in the back was just one of many trends that diminished neighborhood life in favor of isolated living. 

A new kind of plan

Forty years ago, a few bold planners in Florida envisioned building new communities that replicated or evoked some of the best of the past. Multi-story homes provided ample floor space on smaller lots. Narrower streets, reduced setbacks, sidewalks and the return of porches refocused residential life from the rear patio to the front yard. Designing for pedestrians took precedence over cars. In the past twenty years several new subdivisions in our area have adopted these new urbanism principles. We won’t see a full return to yesteryear. Neighborhood groceries and pharmacies won’t crop back to replace Meijer and Family Fare. Residents of today’s new development would probably rise in opposition if a dollar store was proposed on the corner of their block. Still, subdivisions that refocus on neighborhood living rather than clustered isolation have proven successful. 

In spite of Michigan’s declining population, Ottawa County businesses are witnessing explosive employment growth. Escalating rents and strong demand for new housing have drawn numerous apartment developers to the area. For the influx of new employees needing housing, this has been a boon. For communities where single family homes have long dominated the housing market, this is a change in community character. Traditional housing is not disappearing, but it is now sharing the urban fringe with apartment complexes that might be the wave of the future. 

So the next time your cruise ship passes a Greek island where every building is white stucco and every door is painted blue, or the next time you see a picture of a Croatian village where every roof is the same red tile, and you think these are exotic and wondrous places, think about the splendid variety of construction in our own home town. Our downtown has preserved its architectural history at its finest. So too have the neighborhoods of our central city. The craftsmanship and stylistic diversity of homes in Holland have weathered the test of time well. And we get to live here.

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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