The Common Council approved two new Landmark designations at their September 18 session. The approvals came, as usual, after review and approval of the nominations by the Landmarks Commission. The new Landmarks are adjacent houses on E. Gorham Street across from James Madison Park that are contributing buildings in the Fourth Lake Ridge federal historic district. 633 E. Gorham St. (built in 1856), and 627 E. Gorham St. (built in 1877) are currently owned by Joe Lusson and Aleen Tierney who sought the designation both for the honor of official recognition of their historically significant houses, and also to provide local historic zoning protection for the houses into the future. Being in a National Register Historic District provides no protection against demolition or compromising alterations, but does make the owners eligible for federal and state tax credits for repair and maintenance projects.
These houses may not strike you as typical historic Landmarks. They are not large or exceptional examples of a particular style. No significant events took place there. They are not on prominent lots, and were not the homes of prominent Madisonians. They were homes common to Madison’s middle-class residents in the late-nineteenth century. They were found to be eligible for Landmark designation under Criteria 1 of the Landmarks Ordinance which allows for recognition of places that “reflect the broad cultural and social history of the community.” These houses reflect trends of middle-class housing in Madison in the mid-nineteenth century. They are modest. They are located farther from the Capitol hill than the the Mansion Hill neighborhood where wealthier residents built their homes. They reflect the influence of architectural pattern books on American building at a time when formal architectural training was practically unavailable. And they have a high degree of historic integrity – their historic materials and original design is mostly intact.
The nominations for the two houses make the case for their significance as intact houses representative of those commonly built in Madison for middle class residents in the mid- and late-nineteenth century by local builders (or the owners themselves), without formally trained architects. This kind of building is studied as a category called “vernacular” building. The nominations raised a question among Landmarks Commissioners about what exactly is “vernacular” architecture. The argument gets very nerdy and centers on whether stylistic treatments like paired brackets, and window ornamentation disqualify a building from the definition. The Staff Report for 633 E. Gorham tried to clarify the issue “[The Italianate] stylistic influence suggests that the building is not “vernacular”, but should instead be considered “common.”” It’s a fair point – beginning in the 1840s, pattern books were published and distributed nationwide that demonstrated preferred treatment for “tasteful” building. These pattern books injected formal stylistic treatments into what were up to that point truly regional building methods based on cultural traditions and locally available materials – vernacular.
Despite the question of whether the houses are “vernacular” and/or “common,” the nominations make a convincing case for the significance of the houses as representative examples of late-nineteenth-century, middle-class homes, and the Landmarks Commission agreed that they meet the criteria.
These nominations are not ground-breaking. A series of Landmark nominations in 1977 (the Landmarks Ordinance was passed in 1971) resulted in the designation of three modest, “entrepreneurial-class” houses on the 700 block of Jenifer St. The houses represent an enclave of nineteenth-century German-speaking merchants, laborers, and craftsmen, and “a type of dwelling common all over nineteenth-century Madison, and particularly on the business- and craft-oriented East Side.”