“But what will the neighbors think?”

My latest little journey has brought me to Peoria, Illinois, where my mother’s unexpected triple by-pass surgery prompted an unplanned family reunion.

Yesterday I went walking in search of the day’s final burst of sunshine that would take the chill off an early October breeze rustling across the prairie stubble. Downhill would lead me to the river and the recently restored riverfront landing. Uphill took me to the gentle bluffs and a sweeping view over the Illinois River valley.

There, standing at the summit, I discovered a small architectural treasure that illustrated just what the Arts & Crafts movement represented, not to historians and writers, but to homeowners and neighbors.

In a neighborhood of houses perched on the crest of the bluff stood some of the most magnificent Victorian homes I have ever seen. Built in the 1880’s, they had turrets with curved stained glass windows, wooden shingles and clapboards running in no fewer than five different patterns, fluted porch columns, turned spindles, gothic dormers, third-floor servants’ quarters, decorative stamped metal flashing, five-foot high brick foundations requiring an elaborate set of limestone steps, detailed paint schemes, and machine-carved trim over every window and doorway.

Each had been meticulously restored and was beautiful.

Among them — built on what once would have been a lush, green croquet court running between two of the most stately queens — squatted the runt: a modest, two-story, stuccoed bungalow.

Whereas the queens were tall and narrow, the runt was low and wide. The ornamental gingerbread had been replaced with simple, sturdy brackets under the eaves, not unlike the corbels under the arms of an Arts & Crafts Morris chair. Every architectural feature had been reduced to its simplest form – and if it had no function, it had no form.

What struck me as I stood there absorbing the jarring contrast in styles, a contrast separated by no more than thirty feet on either side, was a phrase my mother often used to keep her four small children in line: “what would the neighbors think?”

I could easily imagine what the neighbors must have thought in 1905 as they watched in disgust as the runt took shape. How it looked out of place (which it did), how it would ruin their property values (which it might have), how it looked more like their gardener’s shed than somebody’s home (not quite, but close).

As I looked around the neighborhood I could see that the runt was clearly out-numbered, literally surrounded by Victorian queens with permanent frowns etched upon their faces, looking as if someone had turned an unruly child loose in church.

I could not help but wonder what those original owners of the stuccoed bungalow must have been like: a young, rebellious couple with no intention of hiring live-in help — or a slightly middle-aged couple, their children raised and gone, who subscribed to such left-wing publications as The Craftsman or The Fra, voted for Teddy Roosevelt and read Sinclair Lewis?

Were they shunned – or just whispered about at bridge club?

And what about today’s owners of the Victorian queens? What are they saying behind their closed doors?

‘Yes, dear, I know the runt has been restored, but think how great our street would look if it just weren’t here….’

Until next Monday,

Bruce Johnson

PS – My mother is now doing fine.