Julia Barber grew up in an old house – you know the kind – with an ongoing list of DIY repairs and marks on the wood trim from previous inhabitants. Reflecting, she says that with all its “nooks and crannies”, her childhood home felt like a time capsule just for her to explore. Today she makes her home in a little triangle-shaped garret in the Mount Hope section of Providence. An art and architecture historian, self-proclaimed consummate nerd, and photographer who still loves scouting old houses, she earned her PhD in the history of photography from Brown University in 2018, and says that ever since she’s been brainstorming ways to make that education accessible to a wider audience.
“So much of our cultural history – good and bad – is built into these structures, including systemic racism, class divides, and xenophobia, so for me, it’s not just about the beauty of the houses I find. In many ways, architecture is a useful lens to learn more about our history on a very personal level,” says Barber.
While at Brown, Barber explains that she craved a creative outlet outside of academics and began taking long walks around the city to clear her head. “I began to notice door knobs and knockers and then broadened my focus to the many other details that tell the story of a house.” She created an Instagram account and named it Sea of Steps after a 1903 photograph by Frederick H. Evans of a stone staircase in England. “Other people seemed to appreciate my photographs and before long I was hooked on searching for and sharing the beauty around me.” At last count, “other people” numbered close to 16,000 followers: an engaged group that enjoys regular posts like #MansardMonday and #TriangleTuesday along with near-daily uploads of colorful properties captioned with historical tidbits, information about features like gables and turrets, and her own musings.
Favorite haunts for spotting architecture include Broadway, Atwells, and the Elmwood neighborhoods in Providence; the North End Historic District in Woonsocket; and the stretch of 114 running through Warren and Bristol; along with Fall River and New Bedford in nearby Massachusetts which Barber describes as being “saturated with jaw-dropping old homes.” When she’s not traversing Southern New England, Barber is busy at work writing a guide to old homes titled How to Read a House. “The historian in me loves a perfectly preserved old house; the realist in me appreciates that old houses have to live in the present. These buildings are often prohibitively expensive to maintain to historic standards, and I’d always rather see a house lived in and loved than standing empty. At a time when our country is facing an unprecedented housing crisis, it is imperative that we invest in adaptive reuse strategies that allow old houses to serve the needs of today’s communities.”
Structural issues aside, when it comes to aesthetics, Barber loves “an outrageous Queen Anne house: towers, decorative woodwork, stained glass, and a paint color scheme that shows off all the intricate details.” She is also drawn to houses mid-renovation where passersby can witness a homeowner thoughtfully restoring the structure one part at a time. “Bonus points if it looks obviously haunted,” she says with a smile.
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