A sunny update for a historic sunroom

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The name of the historic home at T.C. Steele State Historic Site is more poetic than accurate today, but when the house was built in 1907, breezes caused the screens enclosing the sleeping porch to sing — earning it the name The House of the Singing Winds.

Warmed by winter sunshine and fresh paint, this pleasant room is just waiting for furnishings to bring it alive.

As houses (and lifestyles) evolve, the use of space often changes, and so it did with T.C. and Selma’s Arts & Crafts style home. When the couple began staying on the windy hill year-round, the south-facing porch was converted to a sunny room for breakfast, napping and numerous flats of seedlings that would eventually find a home in Selma’s Gardens.

I imagined it was a hard choice to make in those pre-air conditioned days — sacrificing such a comfortable place to sleep in summer for a warm and welcoming room in winter. As it turns out, the Steeles had both.

Close inspection (and some head scratching) by site and regional Restoration Specialists concluded that someone had devised a clever system of seasonally rotating the window screens and storms — and storing them very close to home.

The wall cavity beneath each of the windows was designed to house the lowered window sash in summer. Both the top and bottom sash of the double hung units fit into the space, leaving the entire window area open. What makes this clever?

Usually with double hung windows, the lower sash is raised into position in front of the upper sash, so only half of the window area is open to accept any breezes wafting by. With the Steeles’ set up, when the screens were installed in summer, the entire opening provided ventilation — in effect turning it back into a porch for the season.

This discovery was made as plans were made to restore the space. It’s amazing how much research is necessary before the public gets to see the final product. Details, such as what species of wood were used for the architectural elements, determining color through chemical paint analysis and choosing appropriate furnishings all had to be researched.

Since the House of the Singing Winds was used for many years as a Caretaker’s Residence, a lot of restoration work involves undoing previous renovations. Historic site staff must be detectives as well as interpreters. Steele’s paintings, Selma’s letters and historic photos taken by Frank Hohenberger were consulted.

These recent photos illustrate some of the clues that helped inform an accurate representation of the house as it was when T.C. Steele was alive:

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The room isn’t quite ready for visitors yet, but you can still get a quick peek when touring the House of the Singing Winds. Stop by, whether the sun’s shining or not.

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