A blog about universal and accessible design

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Old Houses

It's been a while since I lived in a HOUSE -- a free-standing, non-attached building where I have free range of 2 (3 counting basement) stories. I'm in Newark, DE, for a couple of weeks for the second annual Public Engagement/Material Culture Institute, a part of an NEH-funded program to support graduate students in sharing their research with a broader public. I am renting a room in the top of a small, mid-century (my guess would be postwar) house on a cute leafy street very close to campus. The neighborhood has similar Cape Cods and other revival-ish single- or multi-family houses, many of which are chopped up into collegiate apartments.

Pictured at right: the house where I am staying, a beige-stuccoed house with a low gable and a small awning over the stoop to the left of the picture. Plants are overflowing in the Delaware sun.

Being in this house I am immediately aware of the dimensions of houses built in the mid 20th century. These are modest spaces compared to the "great rooms" of McMansions and even the roving open living/family areas of 60s ranch-style homes. And the doorways: small. 30" doorways -- 32" is the ADA-compliant minimum-- and similarly narrow, as well as steep stairway. It's just a different scale than recent construction.

In the 1940s through 60s, when this housing type was increasingly common, filling the middle-class suburbs of postwar America, people with physical disabilities and their families had to take some creative approaches to make do with cramped spaces and narrow passageways. The polio-generation magazine the Toomey J Gazette ran pictures of a lot of these home-fixing projects, like a ramp pinned to the side of a house, with a trap door so the non-wheelchair-using household members could still use the steps.

(image from Toomey J Gazette, Spring 1961: three shots of a modest, clapboard house with a wheelchair ramp attached to the front. Images show a man pushing a woman in a wheelchair down this ramp; in the others, the man demonstrates how the middle of the ramp can be raised or lowered, adding or removing access to the stoop.)

Back in Newark, across the street from the house where I am staying there is a pretty non-descript rental house with a brick front and porch with a balustrade-- but no handrail down the few steps leading up to it. Someone has added one, a bright red number made of pipe parts. No doubt someone -- a landlord or a resident -- decided this house should be kinder to the tired legs that might be climbing up those steps.

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