Classifying houses can be as hard as identifying animal phyla and subphyla.
The tops of hills in Highland Park hold many surprises for the eye, a high percentage of them appealing and, it turns out, difficult to capture in words.
There are vistas of hills and valleys in all directions, and along every street houses of character and individuality not commonly found in such concentrations. There are even surprises, such as the cute Cape Cod on a lot that narrows to a foot-wide sliver, thought to be the narrowest front yard in existence.
More than the usual number of houses will be pointed out, described and analyzed Saturday in the sixth annual Highland Park Heritage Trust’s house and walking tour, part of this weekend’s Highland Park Cultural Festival.
This year the tour will be in the hilltop area of Avenue 53 and Aldama Street. Specifically, it is the Hampton Terrace and Highland Heights subdivisions, “part of Lot 50 of the southern portion of the Montezuma tract,” according to the well-researched script of Anne Marie Wozniak.
The tour, leaving every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., will go inside six houses carefully selected to illustrate the vitality of the area’s early architecture. The tour will also avoid steep climbs.
Along the way, tour guides will offer commentary on 25 houses that illustrate styles from Dutch Colonial Revival to “Craftsman barn,” or so it has been decided they will be called.
The classification of houses can be as demanding as the phyla and subphyla of the animal kingdom, and far less exact. In a dress rehearsal for the tour guides last Saturday, the potential for misinterpretation and difference of opinion was evident.
Two of the six tour guides are architects, the others self-taught students of design. They used the rehearsal to add embellishments, such as Victorian curlicues, into the nuts and bolts script.
A thirtyish group in jeans and short sleeves, they clustered on the sidewalk in front of each house, picking it apart with their eyes and then picking apart one another’s knowledge.
They loved a small, pistachio green Craftsman house at Avenue 53 and Aldama Street, which struck them all as the epitome of the Craftsman bungalow.
“The arroyo stone . . . the flared roof . . . the rafters . . . the purlins . . . the multiple planes . . . the open lattice,” they chimed in.
Discord broke a few doors down outside a large, boxy house with shingles laid in two distinct patterns on its facade.
Richard Barron, one of the architects, identified the less regular of the patterns as random.
“It’s sort of an ordered shingle style at the bottom, I guess ordered random, and then it’s random, like very random at the top.”
“No, actually, there seems to be some order to the randomness on the top,” said Charlie Fisher, whose indefatigable research makes him the group’s authority on tract maps, building permits, contractors and architects for dozens of period houses, but not necessarily design. “I’m seeing a pattern repeating itself.”
“There is some sort of pattern to it,” Barron said, a little defensively. “But it’s a random order.”
The other architect, David Weaver, tried to mediate: “Why don’t we call it . . . picturesque style of shingle installation?” he asked.
Later, the group dallied about 30 minutes in front of a large, white and well-maintained house that was full of elusive architectural energy.
“Boy, there’s a lot of things going on here,” Weaver said.
A gambrel roof, cutaway bays, hanging brackets, radial spoke balustrades and window pediments suggested everything from Queen Anne to Colonial Revival.
Fisher thought the builder took an off-the-shelf plan and embellished it with his own flights of fancy. This showed most distinctly in the seven alternating bands of shingles covering the exterior wall.
“The shingle pattern is random and straight and random and straight again,” Weaver said. “Actually, you know what it is? It’s a Dutch pattern.”
“Staggered,” Barron added, thumbing through his copy of Virginia and Lee McAlester’s just published “A Field Guide to American Houses.” “This is called staggered. There it is, right there. Wouldn’t you call that staggered?”
“No,” Weaver said, “because it goes up on a diagonal.”
“Those are orderly staggered, aren’t they?” Fisher asked.
“I’d call it staggered more than random,” Barron said.
“You’re right. It’s not random,” Weaver conceded, in the spirit of compromise.
All agreed it could be called Dutch Colonial Revival with Queen Anne/Craftsman influence.
“OK,” Weaver summed up, “Colonial Revival, which is rare in Highland Park.”
Not so, Fisher said.
“Down on Roselawn Place we’ve got a whole row of them.”
“OK, we have a lot of them in Highland Park,” Weaver agreed.
And that’s the point of the Highland Park Heritage Trust. Whatever it might be called, there’s a lot of it in Highland Park. And it needs to be noticed, praised and even debated or it will wither and die.
A schedule for the Highland Park Cultural Festival is on J5.