Two Homes Diverged on an Urban Street

Scouting for architectural twins

Just over a block from where I live in Oakland, California, there are two identical Edwardian cottages – well, almost identical. Their façades are covered in different materials; one has had its small front porch enclosed; one has been raised a few feet to make the basement into a (legally) usable level.

But if you take the time to look at their structure – it helps to walk instead of drive by – you see that they’re really the same house: same shallow bay windows on the front and right side; same low dormer on the hipped roof; same outline and orientation on their lots. They’re twins.

Between them is an empty lot, which goes from freshly mown to wildly weedy and back again in long rolling cycles of semi-neglect. Old maps and photographs show that this lot was once occupied by a third house, built just like those on either side of it. They were triplets once, but now there are only two, their middle sibling lost perhaps to fire or simply gradual decline leading to demolition. There’s something almost palpably sad in the air between the two that remain, as if they’re aware of the loss.

It isn’t that a house has died, of course, but that the city is alive. It’s changing all the time: buildings, people, vehicles, policies, flows of capital and information, all are dynamic, some pulses and breaths more visible than others. A static, stagnant city is a strange thing, and not the kind of place I want to live.

As cities — the good ones, anyway — live and evolve, they express changing human intentions and desires. They become concrete (and brick, wood, glass, and steel) manifestations of the collective and individual wills of those who make them. The pattern of our streets was set decades or centuries before we came around. The buildings most of us live in were assembled by strangers long before we filled them with our own books and furniture and families. We live within the realized intentions of builders, planners, and designers of the past, the marks they have left upon the world.

But as my wife is fond of saying — I think she means it as a warning — nothing lasts forever.

My neighborhood, other parts of Oakland, and lots of other neighborhoods of similar vintage all around the Bay Area and elsewhere are full of little clusters of these fundamentally identical houses. This is a different phenomenon than the frequently lampooned post-War suburban development full of identical ticky-tacky little boxes. The houses I’m referring to, the ones pictured in the photographs that accompany this essay, date from a time before the Levitts perfected the mass assembly of whole neighborhoods at a time.

These houses are the product of one of the major development patterns that predominated here (and in many other cities) from the 1870s through the 1920s. Very few investors or developers had the financial or organizational wherewithal to construct whole neighborhoods or even blocks all at once. Instead, builders often put up houses in pairs, triplets, or occasionally larger groupings, like San Francisco’s most famous “Painted Ladies” — six Victorian houses facing Alamo Square Park.

Some of these houses they built “on spec” — that is, speculatively, expecting to find a buyer during or after construction — others under contract with a property owner who’d already purchased several adjacent lots. Whether construction was speculative or contracted, most of the original owners of these houses had the same idea: to live in one and rent the others. In a time when very few Americans put money into financial instruments like stocks and bonds — only 1% of Americans owned any stocks at all in 1900 — this kind of small-scale real estate investment was a more accessible path for many people to turn their savings into both cash flow and some lasting security for their families.

Many of these pairs and trios of houses still stand as monuments to the tastes of their builders and original owners (and to financial expediency in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras). They present their identical structures clearly to anyone who takes the time to look. I live in one. From the street, my house is essentially indistinguishable from my neighbor’s, except for different paint colors.

But with many of these houses, it’s also obvious from the street how they’ve diverged from that initial sameness to take on characters of their own, as human twins do over their lives. Some have been maintained faithfully while their siblings have been neglected. Some have had major additions or renovations: a wing on the side, a partial second story rising from the rear. Some have been stripped of their intricate Victorian detailing and stuccoed (almost never an improvement) while right next door stands a second house that reminds us of how the first could have looked.

That process of divergence, of each house moving away from its designer’s plans and from sameness with its siblings, began in many cases as soon as they were built. Even if the same family owned them for decades after their construction, that family might have added on to their own house while leaving the rental twin in its original form. And certainly as soon as the houses’ ownership changed, the process would have accelerated.

Within the boundaries of the building code and local zoning, most property owners can do whatever they want to their houses. When no historic preservation codes or neighborhood covenants restrict it, the variety can be as wide — and as occasionally jarring — as that of human faces and bodies. Subsequent alterations have moved some of these once-identical houses so far apart that you can only see their common origins by consulting old building records, photographs, or historic maps. Spotting hidden twins has become a kind of sport for me as I travel around the city.

It’s not only the will of their owners that pulls these identical houses apart, but also the will of nature. Most houses, most buildings in general, are decidedly unnatural formations, and the world around them is always working to tear them apart and return them to a configuration it finds more acceptable. Often imperceptibly, but nonetheless implacably, structures decay. Entropy takes over. All that separates my house from the dirt beneath it is time and sustained force.

I don’t usually try to impose my sense of aesthetics — which is a kind of morality — on others. People have performed all manner of abominable surgeries on their houses, but that’s their right. I might cluck and shake my head regretfully as I walk by a stripped Victorian, but that’s about as far as I usually project my condemnation. Well, I suppose I’ve written it into this essay now.

My fascination with these twin and triplet houses doesn’t stem from a sense of what’s right or wrong about their designs or the propriety of how they’ve changed since construction. What keeps me looking for them and at them is the change itself — the inevitability of it, the variety of it — and what it seems to say about the work of living.

We work so hard, most of us, to write something on the world with our lives. Some people build houses. Others build software, or laws, or organizations. Lots of people build, so to speak, children. Whatever objects we spend our time constructing, what we’re actually assembling is a bundle of our intentions. We stack up our notions about how the world should be, and we nail those notions into structures that we hope, even if subconsciously, will continue to live after we die.

These once-identical houses are little meditations on impermanence. Houses, like whole cities, live and change with the times, with styles, with the altered finances of their residents. They move gradually away from the intentions of their designers. They evolve into what their environments and circumstances demand of them. The people who designed and built them left a mark, surely, but so have subsequent owners and the workings of nature and time. And others will do the same in the future, over a long enough time, erasing those that came before. Nothing lasts forever.

All photos by Abby Wilcox