On Saturdays, when the “House of the Week” beckons in the Providence Journal, my wife and I guess its asking price. Victoria is usually closer. This week, the house at 346 Claypool Dr., an appealing traditional house built in 2007 overlooking Greenwich Bay in Warwick, greets us from the front page of the Homes tabloid section of the Journal.
While I wait for Victoria to take her swing – I am guessing $799,000 – let me pick a bone with the paper’s headline writers. They take every opportunity they can to suggest that a house is “contemporary” or “modern,” in this case “Strikingly modern.” Now, let me congratulate them for using the word modern properly, albeit probably by accident. (The online version uses the word “contemporary” in its headline.)
“Modern” means up to date. Any house with plumbing, electricity, heating and cooling systems that meet current standards is a modern house, whether it looks traditional or modernist. I’d bet that every House of the Week since the feature was founded years and years ago has been, in that sense, modern.
“Contemporary” means built in the recent past. In practice, however, it is frequently used to suggest that a house is … well, modern(ist), or at any rate not traditional, though very often, as here, it is traditional. In architecture, modernist is the opposite of traditional. It is easy to tell which is which.
If the owner, who hired architect Peter Twombly to design it for him, thought he was getting a “contemporary New England cottage,” he had better look more closely. It has a very few modernist tics – a Corbusier-style nautical stair rail in the rear, for example – and its furniture and furnishings lean toward the modernist. Still, its exterior is very much that of a traditional house, and quite nice.
As for whether it is a “cottage,” it is either too large to be a cottage in the normal sense, and too small to be a cottage in the Newport sense. Its 3,046 square feet of living space is twice as much as Victoria, Billy, Gato and I live in. That does not qualify as a cottage in either sense. But calling a house a cottage does sound cool and warm. Go for it.
Maybe I am being a fussbudget for even bringing this up. Maybe I am too much a stickler for using words as they are traditionally used. Language changes, and since “Realtors” (as reporters are instructed to call real-estate agents) don’t think “modernist” is a word that sells very many houses, I expect to see modern and contemporary slightly twisted to make more houses seem about as hip as the headline writers want to be themselves.
(Victoria just now guessed $700,000, below her usual acuity and more than a million below the actual asking price.)