Brown shingle (ca. 1895-ca. 1915)

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The spacious, two-story Craftsman house is called either Brown Shingle or Western Stick Style. Locally they are often called Berkeley Brown Shingles. These interchangeable names are as straightforward as the style itself. They are no-frill descriptions of the building’s trademarks: the redwood shingles, weathered to a raisin-brown, and the projecting structural members, elongated and exaggerated sticks. This frankness was hardly the case in the Victorian era when the houses were so decked-out that they earned pretentious names derived from European dignitaries.

A Craftsman house was once cleverly described as “looking more natural than nature itself.” The characteristics of the Brown Shingle style justify this quip. The shingles cover the entire house like bark on the trunk of a tree. They bend where the build-ing bends and bulge where the building bulges.

The shingles are typically two feet long and eight inches wide, paper thin at the leading edge and nearly half an inch thick at the base. Because they overlap to keep out the rain, the shingles look more like horizontal rectangles than vertical ones, once installed. Many Brown Shingle houses are shingled in a manner that looks as if each slat is a double image. In reality the broad and narrow bands are all the same size shingle, but the spacing varies to create the pattern.

Shingles change color with age and acquire a rich patina that is desirable, even sought after, but in some cases they do look shabby. To freshen up shingles, use stain, never paint. Paint harms natural shingles because it clogs the pores. Water collects with no way to evaporate, and accelerates decay.

The word “stick” was used in the 1880’s to describe the flat boards applied to the facade of Victorian houses to echo the structure underneath. Here, too, the stick work is a structural expression. While the Victorian stick style capitalized on the ornamental opportunity the stick work afforded, the Craftsman stick style emphasizes the structure itself. The tie beams, for example, are not concealed within the roof, but extend beyond the eaves into plain view. The protruding end of the beam is fin-ished with a simple diagonal cut, a set of notches, or a Swiss or Japanese motif. Braces are attached to the gabled end of the house to support the heavy rafters. Constructed like a right-triangle, each brace is finished with a slash, a notch, an Alpine cut-out, or an Oriental twist, like the beam itself. Between the braces and the broadly pitched roofline, a bargeboard is added, a sturdy two-by-twelve, from the days when lumber dimensions were literal, and “two inches” did not mean “one-and-five-eighths.”

Living and sleeping porches were an essential feature of the Brown Shingle style not only because they obscure the threshold between indoors and out, as the Craftsman credo commanded, but also because they provide another stage for stickwork. Porch posts often stand in pairs–two sticks are better than one–and the horizontal framing members project a foot or more beyond the posts. Many a veranda is covered by a trellis, and what is a trellis but the barest skeleton of structural form? Even the choice of wisteria as the vine most commonly trained over the trellis cooperates with the overall image. In warm seasons, wisteria may camouflage the trellis with its profuse foliage or upstage the stickwork with pendants of lavender blossoms, but as winter approaches the vines lose their leaves, and the structure prevails.

The incorporation of plants into the architectural form is but one way Craftsman style houses use natural materials extensively. Shingles and shake, rough stone and redwood were acceptable, trimmings were unnecessary, and oil paint generally frowned upon. According to the Hillside Club, early East Bay conservationists and arbiters of taste, “No colors are so soft, varied and harmonious as those of wood.” Despite this, or perhaps rising to the challenge, Bernard Maybeck developed his own palette of Pompeii red, blue-green, salmon and beige which were, in fact, soft, varied and harmonious with wood.

The chimney is made of clinker brick, a brick more coarsely textured than the conventional type because it has been overfired in the kiln. Originally discarded seconds, clinker bricks became so popular that correct overfiring became a craft in itself. Outside, the dark red clinker brick blends well with the grooved shingles and redwood grain; inside, the clinker brick fireplace is the visual focus of the living room and the symbolic focus of the home. Gustav Stickley, editor of The Craftsman Magazine a periodical that monitored craftsman-like lifestyles with a religious fervor from 1901-1916, wrote that the fireplace should “sound the keynote of comfort and hospitality.” The Craftsman movement had social as well as architectural standards to maintain.

The windows of the Brown Shingle house are typically casement or double-hung with pronounced wood frames. The upper segment may be cut into six, eight or even twenty-four smaller panes by wood partitions. The Hillside Club preferred hinged windows that swing outward for an unobstructed view, and French doors, the logical extension. However, Gustav Stickley’s recommendation of 1912 is a more fitting description for most Brown Shingle houses in Oakland: “Wherever possible, the windows should be grouped in two’s or three’s, thus emphasizing a necessary and attractive feature of the construction, avoiding useless cutting up of wall spaces, linking the interior more closely with the surrounding garden, and providing pleasant views and vistas beyond.”

The only curtains deemed suitable for the Crafts-man window were denim, burlap or cotton crepe, natural fabrics in an age which predated synthetics. Even now, polyester just wouldn’t look right with the wood grain that abounds on the interior. Boxed beams crisscross the ceiling, wainscoting covers the walls, oak constitutes the floorboards, and redwood molding surrounds the doors. The built-in china cabinet with leaded-glass doors, the built-in closet “for wraps” under the stairway, built-in bookcases, and built-in desk are handcrafted of redwood, or more commonly, fir. If there are built-in columns to boot, they will most likely have a plain Doric capital.

Consistent with the use of natural materials, the form of the Brown Shingle house is “organic.” That is, it appears to have grown of its own accord, rather than adhering to a formal floor plan. In one typical arrangement, two gables intersect at right angles to form a cross whose longer arm runs the length of the rectangular lot. From the cruciform, rooms project on an as-needed basis. An upstairs porch may capture a view, for example, or a five-sided bay may serve as breakfast nook, or an entire wing will serve as the master bedroom.

To accommodate the size and asymmetry, Brown Shingle houses are found on relatively large parcels. The yards are filled with big evergreens (Deodar cedar, Lawson cypress, redwood, even sequoia), trees which are in scale with the building and consistent with a philosophy revering nature. Many of these houses have been reorganized inside as apartment units or business offices, with the fortunate outcome that more people have the opportunity to enjoy the craftsmanship and quiet quality the Brown Shingle Style offers.

Excerpt from Rehab Right – How to Rehabilitate Your Oakland House Without Sacrificing Architectural Assets

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