News & Politics

Why I Love Unusual Houses

By David Kidd.  To see the slideshows of the homes that Kidd photographed, click here

With little time, and less money, my wife and I find amusement where we can. A few years ago our youngest child hit that magic age where we could leave him alone, guilt free, for an hour or two on a weekend morning. We began a weekly ritual of stopping for coffee at the local drive-thru and roaming the neighborhoods to look at houses.

We made note of the tasteful additions and laughed at the banal, shoddy, and grotesque. What were they thinking? And every once in a while we would chance upon something really different. Sometimes it was love at first sight. Sometimes not. But all provided the pleasure of discovery, followed by admiration. Who would dare to build or buy something so out of step with his neighbors?

I have been taking pictures of houses of the rich and/or famous for the Washingtonian for a few years and was growing tired of the same few architectural styles. Washington is not a place where people feel free to take chances with their home. The brick colonial is king, and a bloated McMansion with columns and a two-story foyer is the mark of success or wealthy parents. The idea crept up on me slowly: convince my friends at the Washingtonian that it would be fun to focus on the houses and people that you’d never find in the pages of Martha Stewart Living and CQ. Shine a spotlight on the unusual, atypical; those that dare to be different.

While I was anxious to focus my camera on the exteriors, I was just as interested in seeing who, and what, was inside. Every homeowner whose door I knocked on was very welcoming and I like to think I made several new friends. Often, I did not make initial contact alone. My kids played with their kids. And dogs. My wife broke the ice by speaking German to half of one couple. Before I started knocking on doors, I expected to meet a lot of eccentric people, but in fact they were just like you and me.

There was a familiar pattern with most of these houses: The home is built or remodeled. The neighbors are aghast. The neighbors move, die, or slowly warm up to the idea of sharing a street with them. The neighbors take pride in their proximity to individuality.

A Neighborly Renovation
This house was so easy to photograph. The way the different colors and textures come together makes for some beautiful pictures. I was amused to see that the small outbuilding behind the house is the standard issue shed that you could find in any suburban backyard. The backyard also contains a bunch of kids, a toad (the day I was there), and a big, sloppy dog.

Believe It or Not
This house is famous, as houses go. It is included on a tour of Old Town and was even featured in one of Oprah’s venues. Every time I went to this house, I’d see tourists taking pictures of it. When I tell people about it, they inevitably ask, “What about the bedroom?” There is room for a bed but not much else. It would be hard to be mad at your spouse; there’s no place to go.

The President’s Second Home
There are actually two White House replicas in Northern Virginia. I did a Google search for one I knew of but found this one, which I think is much better. It’s a big house owned by a very modest man. All alone, in the center of the oval room below what would be the Truman Balcony, is a small, skirted table. On the table sits a model of a building he hopes to build someday—his next project. He is shopping for land.

No Place Like Home
This is a (heavily) remodeled split level, which is easy to see when you look at the houses around it, which have changed little since the  1960s. For a while, I affectionately referred to this house as the Safeway House, or the Harris Teeter House.

Monument to the Mexicans
This house is really and truly unlike any other. It reminded me of the cover of the first issue of Life magazine, which featured a picture of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, photographed by Margaret Bourke-White. The thing I like most about this house is the front door. On sunny afternoons it is the exact color of the sky. When I asked the owner to come outside and see for herself, she said she’d never noticed. It looks as if you are able to walk through the door and right into the sky.

The Green Mushroom
I thought this would be the easiest one to photograph but it turned out to be the most difficult. I came up with the idea of shooting it at dusk, in the rain, trying to capture that woodsy, troll look. I waited for weeks for the perfect amount of drizzle and fog, but it has been a very dry summer. I ended up shooting at dusk, with a few lights on, looking for an otherworldly effect.

On the Moor
There are so many interesting things about this place—not the least of which that a departed mother’s ashes are mixed into the driveway mosaic. A little Scottie dog seems to be the lord of the castle. His ancestors are all buried on the property. And there is a near-permanent corner of the house where the builder has set up shop with a makeshift desk and plans all over the place. They are going through a long-term renovation and addition. The plans are drawn on paper, with a pencil. No computer generated drawings here.

David Kidd is a freelance photographer and graphic designer who lives in a spruced up rambler built in 1952.