Destruction after the Great Hurricane of 1938.
1997 park map. Note orientation of short "face" of cottages consistently towards street.
Past architecture examples (likely sometime between the 30s and 60s)
Sums it all up.
Factors affecting cottage renovation in Laurel Park
Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building come to be loved.1 -Stewart Brand
In 1871 the 74 acres that would become Laurel Park were purchased for $7500.2 Dormitories and fifty or so family cottages went up the next year, including fourteen built by Methodist churches. By 1900, the total number of cottages reached 111 or so, where it remains today. The locations of the cottage sites have been largely unchanged by time, but the cottages on them have been shaped by a variety of factors.
The cottages were built with simple wood frames, uninsulated given their intended use as housing for a summer camp. Their small size meant efficient use of wood, for cheap- the cottages that went up in 1871 cost between $100 and $1000, or $1900 and $19,000 now. The cottages contained little in the way of facilities; no plumbing, and people ate at the dining hall instead of cooking individually. It is unknown if decoration was an immediate priority or if the fanciful trim we can still see on most of the cottages was added later. Some of the same trim is used on different houses across the site, but this indicates nothing more than likely only one convenient supplier. Community spirit came from the cottage's small size and close proximity, but some architectural decisions helped; namely, the choice of many cottages to have their primary gable proudly facing the street, and a front porch to add an intermediary public-private space. This layout was common at camp meeting sites.3
Some examples of trim matching across cottages. Original, reproduction, or repurposed?
When considering renovation, we must note that a significant proportion of the original cottages have not survived to the present. Records show that in the time span of 1871-1972, cottages on about thirty-five sites were burned or torn down.4 A fire in July 1905 took out four or five structures at once, while other cottages fell to weather like the hurricane in 1938 or heavy snow. More recently, between 2000 and 2017, at least nine cottages were demolished and replaced with new ones.5 A minimum of 30% of the cottages are not original construction.
Houses damaged in 1938 hurricane and 1947 winter.
Shifting patterns of use in the park brought change to the remaining cottages. Plumbing (around the 1900s) and electricity (in the 1930s) snaked their way into the houses. On a smaller scale of innovation, the community spent the 1960s and onwards slowly transitioning from summer homes to year-round residences. Very, very slowly- in 1982, only 37 of the 111 cottages were winterized. 6
The summer-home status quo was apparently maintained for a time by a ban on winterization from the Laurel Park Association that lifted in 19857. There are no records of how the ban was enforced, and in 1986 the Park had resigned itself to the process, the matter being called “out of [the residents’] hands.” Now in 2017 Laurel Park is majority year-round, although a house is still considered a summer cottage by default unless winterized, connected to water, and in receipt of a permanent certificate of occupancy from the City of Northampton8.
Making one of the original cottages, where it is occasionally possible to see sunlight through the walls, habitable in winter takes some doing. Insulation, plumbing and septic infrastructure need to be updated, and insulation particularly is a complex beast: making a house more heat-efficient may involve insulating the walls, fixing the roof, upgrading the windows, adding a new stove. A lot of architectural changes happened very quickly in the name of habitability.
Two holes in the exterior walls of #12, a non-winterized and unoccupied cottage.
Once a house is in use as a permanent residence, problems that may have been tolerable for a summer are much more noticeable and much more aggravating. Chief among these problems in Laurel Park: space. Cottages range from 400 to 1200 square feet, most falling around 900. While cottages may have been expanded earlier in Laurel Park’s history, by 1998 it had become an issue of such concern that Homeowners at Laurel Park put into place explicit restrictions on “erection or extension to any Unit, building or structure.” The Executive Committee, consisting of seven Laurel Park inhabitants elected by their fellows, would approve any potential expansion, major alteration, or major repair within the Park. Extending the ground floor beyond the boundaries of the current footprint is explicitly banned, and upwards expansion “either in height or width” requires not only Executive Committee approval but input from any affected neighbors and notification of all unit owners.9
These restrictions could be viewed as too little, too late. Any given cottage has already been altered. For some, even the footprint they are constrained to may not be original, as earlier expansion was grudgingly permitted if one bought the land expanded upon from the community. These policies also haven’t prevented gradual swellings of houses out to absorb porch space, or new dormers like mushrooms, or moving the front door somewhere else entirely (see gallery of current cottages). And that’s the external changes; meanwhile, anything could be going on inside.
On the other hand, though, it can be seen as impractical and unneighborly to crack down on these expansions. The changeability of these homes has no doubt contributed to their longevity, and their most unique physical aspects- their scale and intimate arrangement- remain.10
#93 in 2017 and pre-1930 (on right). Note roof expansion to porch and absence of stairs.
Note also lack of trim on old #93 but trim- still the same today- on its neighbor.
Today, if you’re shopping for a house in Laurel Park, renovations are everywhere. “Totally renovated, from the studs in, in 2006.” “Many energy improvements have been made to the foundation and insulation over the years.” “Everything has been done!” Any contrasting selling points? “Modernize and earn instant equity.” (Not to mention, “Well maintained. Vinyl siding.”)11
The pressures of a living community rub roughly against preservation. Laurel Park is certainly not the Methodist summer camp it was in 1880 through to perhaps the 1930s; the details of its houses reflect that. But they maintain an unique community charm nevertheless, and that is likely more valuable.
How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand, Viking Press, 1994.
Meadow City Milestones, by Alice Manning, 1957. Newspaper article in care of Historic Northampton.
Cottage Communities - The American Camp Meeting Movement: a Study in Lean Urbanism, Sara N. Hines, Hines Art Press, 2015.
Card catalog box “Cottagers- Laurel Park (1871--1972)”, tab Houses Torn Down or Burned, in care of HALP, converted to spreadsheet viewable online here.
Building permits from https://www.geotmsweb.com.
110th Anniversary, Debra Bradley, 1982. Newspaper article in care of Historic Northampton.
Laurel Park Condos? by Paul Oh, April 12, 1986. Newspaper article in care of Historic Northampton.
Homeowners at Laurel Park 2016 Bylaws page 19.
Homeowners at Laurel Park 2016 Bylaws page 20-21.
Minus that 3-story one.
All quotes from Zillow.
All present-day pictures on this page taken by Zoe Zandbergen, April 2017. The header image is another photo from the hurricane of 1938.