Monday, May 13, 2013

The Round House

Round House
It is no small task to describe the entity that is "Camberville" - that serpentine Somerville-Cambridge city line with its mazes of pocket neighbourhoods, unkempt grapevines, mysterious alleys lined with crumpling garages, and grandiose structures tucked away on sleepy side streets. Wandering through a neighbourhood you think you know, it is not unusual to encounter something wholly unexpected - perhaps a sidewalk treehouse, an enchanted forest, a small castle, or a warehouse-sized artisan incubator

Round House
Very possibly I have cycled past the Round House before without taking much notice. The once-grand structure is not difficult to miss, now only a shadow of its former self. A lusciously overgrown garden torn out some years ago, a grass lot and chainlink fence now surround its bare walls, stripped of trim and embellishment. A thicket of condominiums stands in what was once an open space, blocking the house from view in certain directions. 

Round House
But on this ghostly-quiet afternoon, I noticed it straight away. It was one of those humid days when the air stands still and the scent of flowers is sickly sweet. The weekend's explosion of lilacs was making me lightheaded. I cycled up a steep hill, and as I turned the corner onto a tiny one-way street the house appeared like a hallucination - backlit by the waning sun and tilting slightly to the left. 

Round House
Stopping to have a look, I was distracted by the prominent signs discouraging trespassing. They struck me as so insincere as to almost be playful. 

Round House
I was intrigued further by the curious discrepancy between the siding - which appeared newly installed - and the foundation, which seemed on the verge of collapse.

Round House
And then there was the bulging wall. 

Round House
Strange to think that a Victorian-era locksmith is responsible for this cylindrical wonder. Inspired by the idea of octagonal houses floating around at the time, Somerville resident Enoch Robinson decided to take things one step further and build a round house. Constructed in 1856, the 3-story single family residence housed generations of Robinson's family. 

Round House
It is not clear why the Round House was vacated and stood empty for so long. But by the 1980s it had its windows and ornamentation removed, had suffered water damage and faced serious structural problems. There was talk of tearing it down, which, predictably, riled up residents who saw it as a landmark of historical value. Thankfully, it never came to that. Several years ago, the house was purchased by a developer with experience in historical preservation. He plans to restore the house and place it on the market as a single family home. 

Round House
The Round House was created on a whim, to satisfy a personal interest - possibly an obsession, judging by the limited information I found on its creator. Yet by virtue of existing in a publicly visible and visitable space, it is also a communal resource, and will continue to be as ownership changes hands. How will the new residents feel about that, I wondered, eying the awkward battlements that surround the top story. I hope they plant a nice garden. Maybe some lilacs, dogwood and pines, against that stark beige facade.

33 comments:

  1. Our previous house, built over two centuries ago, had a bulging wall and a slanted floor. Let me tell you, that lost its charm over the years!

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    1. I grew up in a neighbourhood of pre-20th century houses and this was pretty common, particularly in colonial style houses. Arranging furniture is always fun in a place like that. Also, kids love to roll stuff along the floor : )

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  2. Gotta love these weird houses. This one reminds me of a wedding cake, and I remember seeing something similar on a trip to Maine once. What would you call this architectural style anyway?

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    1. I would call the Round House neoclassical.

      In Maine - are you thinking of the Wedding Cake House? That one's Victorian Gothic.

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  3. <3 Camberville... and all it's oddities :D

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  4. I lived on 106th Street in NYC for many years, just down the block from the former New York Cancer Hospital on Central Park West between 105th and 106th Streets, built in 1887. In 1890, an addition was added: ... the hospital was expanded south, and in both sections Haight designed circular wards, about 40 feet in diameter, in part to facilitate better observation by a nurse at a central desk and in part because the design offered more space between the heads of the beds -- but mostly because corners were thought to harbor germs.

    I now find myself living a few blocks from another roundhouse. Since this was an old factory, I doubt it was built round to keep germs at bay, but who knows, maybe a hypochondriac factory owner...!

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    1. > living a few blocks from another roundhouse

      Oh that is a nice one!

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  5. A few years ago, shortly after the Robinson house was sold, I went by it to photograph it. Some guys were actually working there, and one of them told me I couldn't take the picture because of copyrights on the house. He was wrong, but I wasn't going to debate the nuance of section 102b of the copyright law with him. I just took my photo and left, feeling kind of sad that that the house seemed to be in the hands of an idiot. Given how far the restoration has gotten in the meanwhile, I guess the Big Plans haven't panned out yet.

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  6. I love my city and all its quirkiness! (I just don't love all the black swallow wart that people are allowing to take over the ecosystem).

    What's also fascinating to me is to discover how quickly the pre-20th century housing stock got built around our area-- basically the street layout as we know it got built within a 50 year period, and most of the housing stock was built between 1850 and 1900. A huge boom unlike anything we could fathom today. Developers would buy up entire undeveloped blocks and hire an architect to design houses for the block. This is why you will often see a run of a few houses with identical footprints-- these may have been identical when built, then over the years had modifications or modernizations which hide this fact. Funny how the concept of cookie-cutter developments is not really new.

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    1. I've seen people walking around and tearing out the black swallow wort. I think there is a local gvt-sanctioned task force officially responsible for doing this.

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    2. I'm one of those civilian BSW cops, my block seems to be Ground Zero for the stuff. I should check into that task force.

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  7. You hit on one of the many joys of cycling around a city as opposed to driving around. My town of St. Louis is very cycle friendly in that the roads and traffic are generally okay and even though the city is spread out all the neighborhoods are accessible. The architecture and history of these neighborhoods becomes alive via the pace and visibility of a bicycle. Conversations with folks at street corners are normal. Even invitations into homes, strangely, will occur if one is open....While giving tour to visitors, who wanted to drive, I was unable to evoke any of the visceral experiences of my previous encounters of each neighborhood or structure....They left, sadly, less impressed. Plus, as you show with your photographs, being able to just stop, w/o worries for parking, makes even the smallest whim possible.....I continue to hope more people catch on to this, amongst, all the other joys of bicycling.

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  8. Not much to add other that I love love love these posts especially on a slow grumpy Monday! Reading this inspires me to explore my own city, street by street, in search of hidden gems.

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  9. In my corner of the UK, you can cycle pass buildings going back several centuries on average ride and we do have castle in Lancaster which is own by the Duke of Lancaster(who other title is the Queen of England) You check out the Lancaster Castle website at this link http://www.lancastercastle.com/home.php

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  10. Visited a restored and converted to residence round barn in Wisconsin a few years back.

    In the right hands the shape lends itself to very creative living set up. With luck the deficiencies you point out are only supeficial, but they certainly do appear problematic.

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    1. My understanding is that once a house has "settled," a bulge like that does not necessarily pose a problem. They've been working on renovating this one for 6 years now, so I'm sure it's been structurally assessed as sound. But I am confused why they seem to be working on the siding before the foundation.

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  11. Great story. But I wonder what happened to the windows and fixtures... The house looks sterile without them.

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    1. I would bet those that are missing are being reproduced or being retrofitted for custom windows. Since the house has historical status, there are all sorts of local and Federal rules for how external changes may be performed. I've heard from some builder friends here in Santa Cruz that it is nearly impossible to put new windows (or refit a foundation; always a big deal in quake-prone CA) in a landmark house due to various state and federal regulations.
      That may be why the outside of the foundation looks like original- it may have all been redone inside, but the appearance is required to be the same as when built.

      Somerville looks like a really cool place to spend some time.

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  12. Still haven't found the tree library but I think I have been looking in the wrong place. This house is likely visible in Earth so maybe I'll find this one.

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    1. I'll email you the tree house location. Though sadly, last time I saw it, it was damaged post-winter.

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    2. Thanks! I'll take a respectful look at it.

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  13. Sorry, but this is driving me nuts! What is that bag I keep seeing on your Brompton?

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    1. It's a shopper basket made by Emily of Dill Pickle. Similar design as Brompton's own, but with some reflective strips and personal touches. Note that you will need to source the collapsible "skeleton" yourself, which is not especially easy.

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  14. "unkempt grape vines"

    So you have seen my backyard, then!

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    1. I have! As you know, I am a great fan of your grape vine : )

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    2. Unkempt as it is? It needs serious attention. Still learning how to do it.

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  15. It’s an awful piece of architecture but hopefully will be preserved. It’s old and has survived this long, and should be honored IMO, it contains generations of stories. You sure are right about the foundation, or maybe, hopefully, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. The structure appears to rest on a featureless lot and has the look of a Norman dovecote or pigeonaire, possibly inhabited by giant sandgrouse, or flying monkeys. Really needs landscaping and some mature trees/shrubs and wrought iron fence/gate to tie it in, and otherwise restrain it from launching to the moon. Round buildings always seem to have celestial possibilities. Might make a good steam punk museum someday. It may already serve as a portal to a labyrinth or contain a time machine in the basement. I’d keep an eye on this one.

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  16. Those may be monoliths surrounding the top story. For what purpose?

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    1. I've tried to find some explanation re what they were for, but couldn't. They strike me as discordant with the rest of the design, as well as with the purpose of the house.

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    2. I thought they were decorative battlements?

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    3. Yeah, sounds like it. Faux crenelations.

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  17. Do you know when the house was built?

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