There were a lot of impressive things to see and take in during my first onsite visit to 212 St. Asaph St. in downtown Alexandria, VA. It was a drop-dead gorgeous three story townhouse located right behind the courthouse. It was on a double lot, a very big deal to residents of that area. It had some phenomenal pattern floors that I knew would be stunning when properly restored. But what really caught my attention was the reference to the house being a “flounder house.” Huh? This was a new term to me. For a while, it was stumping the band until Regina Brewer (as in Regina Brewer, Preservation Planner for the city of Decatur, GA) whipped out her iPhone during a meal with some die-hard preservationists one night. We were soon enlightened.
What is a Flounder House: A sensible House Built like a Fish
As it turns out,what a flounder house is is a simple house with a shed roof that typically does not face the road. The most well known examples are in the river towns of St. Louis, Mo. and Alexandria, Virginia. Exactly how it comes by its name depends on whom you ask. Some say it is because it is split down the middle much like the fish that also bears its name. As a part-time fisherman, I would like to toss out that since the bulk of its openings (eyes and doors) are mainly on one side, this also ties it to the fish.
But why this particular, very plebian design in areas that were being developed with the knowledge they would only appreciate in value and increase in demand? Why not something more appropriate or elaborate?
The explanations that made the most sense usually involved time and money. One version has it that property owners were taxed on the number of windows or glass facing the street. In an attempt to minimize this tax, they turned the houses to face the lot and placed doors and windows on these sides. Another version has it that anyone buying a lot had to have a residence on it within two years or the property reverted back to the city. Another version of “use it, or lose it.”
As a result, the initial flounder structure was built further back from the road and would allow for a more attractive structure to be added on at a later day that would face the road and more closely resemble the finer homes surrounding it. This seems to fit with 212 St. Asaph as the flounder structure dated to 1815 and the three-story townhome addition was built in 1850.
We completed the restoration on the handsome floors in March 2012. It was a great project and hopefully there will be more flounder houses in our future!