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View is good from Hyde Park sidewalks

Why so many uncurtained windows? We uncover some explanations for this surprising phenomenon.

By TAYLOR WARD
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2002


HYDE PARK -- Sometimes you just can't keep yourself from looking.

And why should you? Walking the streets of Hyde Park after dark is a domestic voyeur's dream.

Bathed in the golden glow of lamplight are vivid tableaux worthy of a Pottery Barn centerfold.

Just-so arrangements of tasteful furniture grouped beneath dramatic modern paintings. Polished wood and brass gleaming amid heirloom prints.

All completely visible through large windows bereft of curtains, blinds, shutters or drapes.

It's a surprising phenomenon in a city (and nation) that largely curtains itself.

Just try gawking into Davis Islands' collection of Mediterranean palazzos and mid-century ranchers -- all you'll get is an eyeful of drapes. Likewise in Culbreath Bayou or Palma Ceia, where the colonials and Tudors are swagged into privacy.

So what gives in Hyde Park, where nearly half the houses on certain streets offer such enticing interior displays?

Is it a sociologically significant behavior with complex psychological underpinnings?

"We just like the view and the trees, and we don't want to cover it up," offers Herb Gold, who lives with his wife in a ground-floor condo in the Old Hyde Park Village. "In the evenings, you do see people walking by and looking in, but we don't care if anyone's looking in."

"I like a lot of light," says Ellen Hogan, whose 1922 Airplane Bungalow (the kind with the cockpit on top) has remained partly uncurtained during the 13 years she and her family have lived in the neighborhood.

"And I love the way the old rolled glass acts like a prism. The colors of the light are so pretty -- you'd miss all that with curtains."

Decorator Keith Bucklew, who has done numerous homes in Hyde Park and on Bayshore -- where there are also a number of uncurtained houses -- says he discourages owners of Hyde Park bungalows from using window treatments.

"The woodwork and the casings in those old houses are so attractive that you don't want to cover them up," Bucklew says. "If people really need to cover them, I tell them to use shutters so the woodwork isn't hidden."

Another explanation for rooms with views: The expansive porches gracing most Hyde Park houses offer an extra layer of shade and privacy.

Of course, these direct and simple reasons are good ones.

But if you're the sort of person who spends time pondering why people in certain tony neighborhoods don't use curtains, you may need to e-mail a sociologist. Luckily for us, there is one intrigued enough by the subject of uncurtained windows to have thought a little about it over the years.

Ron Roizen, an Idaho-based consultant who previously lived in Berkeley, Calif., noticed many homes in his old neighborhood with no window treatments, and even wrote a novella in the late '70s with a character who walks the streets of Berkeley enjoying the unimpeded view.

Roizen offers many explanations for the phenomenon:

Heavy drapes exude a Victorian air, so perhaps uncovered windows are a statement of less prudish sensibilities.

Unimpeded prospects may be symbolically associated with power.

A touch of "conspicuous consumption" -- first described by social scientist Thorstein Veblen -- may enter the picture.

Love of light and use of sunlight could play a role.

The openness may be associated with a willingness to participate in community.

Or, people without drapes could simply be copying their neighbors.

Back in Hyde Park, not everyone is crazy about bare windows.

At least one resident -- understandably unwilling to be identified -- suggests that some of her neighbors should get curtains.

"I've noticed for several years that this person has had framed pictures stacked against the wall of the living room, and I keep thinking, "When are you going to hang those up?' "

The same resident says she fears that so much openness may invite criminals.

And what happens, she wonders, when you need to scurry down to the laundry room while wrapped in a towel?

As it turns out, the answer lies in the floor plan. Ellen Hogan's stairs lead to the back of her bungalow, where her laundry and kitchen areas are and where her family tends to hang out.

She sees the front rooms of her house as public, and enjoys having dinner parties that are visible to the street, almost as a way of sharing hospitality with the whole neighborhood.

She feels that this is part of the community-oriented appeal of the old bungalows, and part of their community-based safety as well.

Besides, Hogan says with a laugh, she enjoys walking in the evenings and casually looking into the homes of her neighbors, so it's only fair that she offers something comparable.

She has her own sociologically complicated explanation for bare windows, based on something she observed during a trip abroad.

"I was in the Netherlands a few years ago and noticed many of the homes don't have curtains. Our guide said it was a holdover from the Protestant Reformation. It was saying, "We're not doing anything we're ashamed of.' "

And if those explanations don't do it for you, Hogan says, there's always the bottom line: "We have 54 windows in our house. It's scary to think about the cost of that many window coverings."

-- Taylor Ward, a fourth-generation South Tampa resident, lives on Davis Islands in a 1950s rancher with bamboo blinds in every window.

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