From former suburban home to authentic home to be restored

What happens to suburban homes that were once on the outskirts of the big city? One writer describes the 1927 rowhouse she and her husband bought in Jackson Heights (part of Queens, New York City) and their plans to restore it:

Friends warn me this will be a lifelong endeavor. But my husband and I have always preferred houses with some history in them (this is our fifth, and maybe last, transaction). I suspect it’s a rejection of my New Jersey McMansion rearing.

To get a better sense of this house’s past, I turned to Daniel Karatzas, an agent with Beaudoin Realty Group and the local historian. He wrote the book, “Jackson Heights – A Garden in the City,” which sits on our coffee table. Well, it used to. Now it’s in storage.

Our house, Karatzas told me, was designed by Robert Tappan, “one of those unsung architects” who helped develop the neighborhood into a slice of suburbia just a few miles from midtown Manhattan.

“It wasn’t like Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Karatzas. “They were building traditional styles that would appeal to upper middle-class families. They used vernacular architecture. … Tudor, French, Georgian. That made it seem the houses had been there longer than they had.”

The houses on my block first sold for between $24,000 and $28,000. If he had to liken it to a modern-day phenomenon, Karatzas said, our 1920s house might have once been considered like “those McMansions in New Jersey.”

A couple parts of this stick out to me:

1. This neighborhood was once a suburb of New York City. While the home is now 80+ years old, it is still more of a suburban setting. According to this brief history of Jackson Heights, the community was built primarily after World War I, which would have been during a large wave of suburbanization.

Suburban homes generally get a bad name, both today and historically for being relatively cheaply made and looking all the same. Perhaps this is epitomized by the 1962 song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds – here are the opening lines:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And yet, with age, some suburban homes can become the sort of authentic homes that people desire. This house has history but it is suburban history. While the realtor suggests this home was probably like a McMansion of the 1920s, the writer is interested in restoring and rehabilitating this home, gold-metal cabinets in the kitchen and all.

2. The primary comparison made is between this new purchase and the McMansion the writer grew up in New Jersey. We don’t quite know why this writer disliked this New Jersey upbringing but it is clear that this new home has more character than that home did. She also suggests that her father is likely puzzled by her decision to move back to Jackson Heights: “Sometimes, I suspect my decision to settle in Jackson Heights puzzles him, since he worked so hard to get out and buy a house in the suburbs.” While one generation viewed a move to the suburbs as a good thing, some people in later generations see a move back to city life (though this is somewhere between city and suburban life) as desirable.

Does this mean that the sort of suburban homes that people now call McMansions may one day be authentic and the sorts of places that others will want to restore? This idea perhaps assumes that Americans will continue to move further and further out from the center of metropolitan regions and then the older suburban homes will age and no longer be on the fringes. What is the long-term fate of McMansions: will they fall apart? By co-opted for other uses (like perhaps being subdivided into multiple units)? Become desirable reminders of the past? Become teardowns themselves and the land put to other uses?

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