Five Reasons Not to Hate Vinyl Siding
Vinyl siding: Love it or hate it?
Well, apparently pigs fly. Here’s a post I never thought I’d write. When I was in grad school for historic preservation, I would have balked at the idea of reading a post singing the praises of vinyl siding, let alone authoring one. Vinyl siding is the butt of many a preservation joke. It’s just so EASY. Covering your house in plastic? Seriously?
But I’ll admit, since starting the Wooden House Project I’ve developed a soft spot for the stuff, and with this post I offer my argument as to why it’s not as bad as everyone likes to think. I’m aware that this is a highly divisive topic, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we all go out and clad our houses in vinyl siding (or aluminum or asphalt, which I’m lumping in here as well). Why? Watch this. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be so quick to hate on it.
1) Because today we have wooden houses to restore
Wooden houses all over Brooklyn are getting facelifts
A few months ago, my favorite historian and tour guide Francis Morrone sent me an email. “Let’s meet for lunch. I’d love to tell you why we should be more forgiving of vinyl siding.” To which I replied, “Francis, I’ll buy you lunch if you can convince me to like vinyl siding.” Francis bought me lunch that day, but it was not because he had failed to convince me; it was because he’s such a nice person. In fact, within five minutes he had flipped all of my preservation grad school notions right on their stuck-up little heads.
“Imagine this,” said Francis, who went on to paint a colorful picture of less economically prosperous Brooklyn. Imagine that you live in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s. Everyone else has left, or is on their way out. But you won’t/can’t/don’t want to leave. Brooklyn is home. You are determined to stick it out, to ride through the hard times. Financing to fix up your house just isn’t available — times are tough. What do you do? You clad your house in vinyl siding and hope for better days.
I had to admit he had a point. A very good point. The nice thing about all these layers of siding is that in most cases they were placed over the original clapboard; they did not actually replace it. Underneath, the wood survives. Could it be that today’s abundance of wooden house fixer-uppers are here today in part because of vinyl siding? Makes me almost love the stuff.
2) Because of Keramos Hall
Keramos Hall (photo courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)
Greenpoint’s newest crown jewel is a case in point. What Francis described is exactly what happened to Bill Weidman, owner of Keramos Hall and recipient of the Landmarks Conservancy’s prestigious Lucy G. Moses Award last year for the restoration of his building. Bill purchased Keramos Hall in 1962 when Greenpoint was a much different place, and shortly thereafter found a photo of the building dating from 1910. “I just knew that if the building was brought back to its former Victorian splendor it would just be an outstanding structure… I just wanted something nice, I wanted to bring it back to life,” he recalls.
The building’s clapboard was exposed but in very poor condition when Bill purchased the building (it hadn’t been painted in decades). Because he didn’t have the funds to restore it right away, he covered the facade in asphalt shingles and set aside reserves for the next several decades in order to pay for the work. “I always said that as long I owned it, that I would bring it back,” he says. “Just after the millenium I started to think about doing it. I felt the time was right for it.”
In 2008, when Kamen Tall Architects finally began the award-winning restoration work, they removed the shingles and salvaged the original clapboard underneath, which had survived under the asphalt for 50 years. Most of the wood you see on Keramos Hall today is original to the building.
3) Because a fixer-upper beats a teardown anyday
Wooden houses on 11th Street about to be demolished for a new condo development
Restoring a clapboard facade is expensive. That said, it looks amazing. If you’re in the camp that can afford it, I beg you: Do it! But for the rest of us, sometimes a facade restoration is just too much to handle for the time being, and while it’s certainly a dream, fixing that leaky roof might take precedent for now. Many homeowners wait many years before tackling the facade, making the interior of their house livable before all else. The low maintenance of vinyl siding allows them the time and space to do this, while saving up to take the big plunge.
Nothing pains me more than seeing a building torn down because it’s just too expensive to restore, or because it’s been neglected. How many developers have made that claim? What we get in that case is another out-of-scale condo by a developer who lives nowhere near the neighborhood and cares little for its well-being. I’d take a row of vinyl-clad homes anyday. Bring on the fixer-uppers.
4) Because of 295 13th Street
Lydia Robertson’s house at 295 13th Street
I wanted to kiss homeowner Lydia Robertson the day I met her. To me, she embodies everything that is wonderful about the Wooden House Project. Why? Because she loves her house. She loves talking about her house. She loves inviting people into her house (those who took our Gingerbread Houses of the South Slope tour back in June got to peek inside). She hasn’t done a perfect, historically accurate restoration. But she’s done her perfect restoration. And we love it. So does the Park Slope Civic Council, who featured Lydia’s house on their annual house tour a few years ago.
No. 295 13th Street is as gingerbready as they come — bright blue, yellow and pink accents are all over the facade. The intention when Lydia purchased the house was to continue her family’s tradition of inviting temporary foster children inside. “I did the facade first, because I wanted it to be inviting. I wanted these children to feel happy and comfortable the moment they stepped through the door,” Lydia says.
The facade of Lydia’s house was clad in aluminum when she purchased it. It still is. With a creative paint job, Lydia was able to make a pretty magical renovation happen within a limited budget. And THAT is what the Wooden House Project is all about.
5) Because frankly, it’s a lot more interesting this way
Houses in Brooklyn are a clad in a variety of different materials
I am so lucky to live in a frame-heavy neighborhood in Brooklyn, where everyday a new original facade is revealed. It’s all about the discovery. What fun would this be if everything was already out in the open? And yet, some of the Wooden House Project’s most loyal supporters are proud owners of vinyl-clad homes. They’ll probably always be that way. And you know what? We think that’s just fine.