The Georgian In America
( Originally Published 1910 )
HERE are certain basic forms of architectural decoration that seem spontaneous in all primitive people at certain stages of their development, and so in the pre-Aryan architecture of America these forms are found to be almost identical with those discovered on other continents. In addition to this, however, there are certain evident blood relationships which we should note before going on to a study of the transplantations of European styles, with which we are chiefly concerned.
The Spanish destroyers, who first swept into the tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas in their eagerness for souls and gold, found temples and palaces of considerable magnitude quite elaborately decorated in relief. Not only were the common primitive forms of the "fret" pattern used, but there were evidences of an ancient trans-fusion of Buddhistic symbolism and also of a tendency to interlace design on plain wall surfaces in the manner of the Northern barbarians of Europe before the world movement reached them from the Franks. The somewhat similar carvings of the Celtic cross and the characteristic interlaced bands of the Scandinavian and Slav ornament showed convincing evidence of Byzantine and Mongolian influences mysteriously transmitted by way of the Danube, that back door of Europe.
There are also decorative forms of undiluted Mongolian ancestry, confirming the historians who claim that Chinese and Japanese traders early crossed the Pacific and travelled down the coast to the regions where crops grew without labor, thus infusing a measure of their Asiatic culture.
Pre-Aryan architecture in America has, however, had no influence upon our development of styles, and is therefore of interest rather to the archeologist than to the student of growth in style.
The Spanish occupation of Mexico resulted in a distinctive subtype of ecclesiastical architecture. The Spaniards, in their zeal for native converts, built chapels and monasteries of rich and barbaric beauty, a sort of Spanish Renaissance strengthened and colored by the simplicity and vigor of local conditions.
The civic churches have the old classic moldings and the geometric patterns of Saracenic origin found in cruder and clumsier forms among the Danube barbarians and in the copied forms of the mother-country. There is here, however, a richness and an expression of power that is not Northern.
The domestic or plaster chapel or monastery of Mexico, Texas, and Lower California, which was used as a mission and is generally so-called, is familiar in southern Spain. Here and there on the hills of that beautiful country one finds delightfully picturesque groups of these buildings in white or yellow or richly weathered grays, with redtiled roofs that are heavily lined with whitish-yellow cement at the joints and overhanging eaves. The wood-work is often panelled in a geometric fashion suggesting Cairo and the Saracens.
The American prototypes of these monasteries are found in a country so like parts of Spain in their semi-tropical beauty that they seem hardly exotics, and they have been largely effective in inspiring a sporadic revival of Spanish Renaissance in domestic architecture, which, however, seems much more suited to the hot Southwest than to the cool North.
The simple craftsmanship of the Spanish-American monks resulted in the production of a few interesting and charming pieces of primitive furniture. They were so complete an expression of unstudied utilitarianism that, in the ensuing period of overelaboration and machine-made copies, they seemed inspired novelties.
A chair of this type found its way from a mission in California to the shop of a clever New York decorator of my acquaintance. It was a good, sound chair, beautiful in its strength and logical simplicity. This decorator called it the "mission chair," and began reproducing it. The style grew popular, and tables were designed to match the chairs. Soon scores of manufacturers were rushing out cheap "mission" furniture to catch a share of the fad's profits, and every conceivable object of household adornment was being "missionized," usually without rhyme, reason, or taste.
The "mission" aberration has a little to commend it. It has taught us something of the value of simplicity, and it has given rise to several refinements that are excellent when used with discrimination, but it is also a very present object-lesson of the depths to which style developments may descend when stimulated by injudicious de-sire for novelty, and unchecked by public discrimination and judgment. It is also an illustration of the transitory nature of unscientific expression.
A movement toward simplicity of a very similar nature broke out in England during the "haircloth" period. This was called "Eastlake." An honest effort at first, it was soon degraded from its high estate of chamfered edges and pinned and wedged frame-work showing honest construction into a glued-up and overornamented degradation.
The mission style is being followed by a more carefully considered and studied creation of interior treatment and furnishing, based on the many interesting translations of the joiner and cabinet man of the Georgian period. It seems possible that this scientific treatment of a style identical with our Colonial will drive the brutality of the pseudo-mission into the background. The careful re-production of old forms, even though it be "machine-made," is something of an advance.
American architecture really begins for us with the so-called Colonial, which is English Renaissance or Georgian, which, in turn, is a translation of the Italian, early Roman, or French Renaissance. There is much confusion in the terms applied to these styles, and a sad lack of knowledge as to what the terms include. That crude translation of the Napoleonic Empire style, for instance, which we have found in odd corners of the seaboard cities, as well as the Greek translations of the first quarter of the last century already mentioned, are often miscalled "Colonial."
In the territory east of the Alleghanies, to which the Colonial period belongs exclusively, there are five divisions showing markedly different influences.
To the north, in the Canadian province of Quebec, is the region of the French traders who came over without wives or families for the fur trade with the Indians, returning home as soon as they had made their fortunes.
Next below the French zone were the settlements of New England. These were made by Britons of the Puritan type—craftsmen, weavers, and small traders—humble but sturdy folk fleeing from religious or political persecution, and therefore destined to remain. These men brought their wives and children with their household goods, and for tools of trade, a loom, an axe, and a flint-lock.
Around New York came the Dutch settlers, agents of the East India Trading companies, small burghers and farmers, substantial, industrious, and plain, prototypes, in many ways, of the New-Englanders. These in turn gave way to the English when Charles II., late in the seventeenth century, calmly appropriated the colony. In this zone we may also include the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Swedish settlers of Maryland.
In the fourth zone—the Virginias and the adjoining States—the settlers were English cavaliers, the gentlemen adventurers who supported the Stuarts, and for whom England grew unpleasant when Cromwell became powerful. In this class there were education and class tradition. They reflected their home life when they began the building of manor-houses on large estates worked by slaves. Here for the first time in America was the seigniorial atmosphere of the Old World.
In the extreme South was another French and Spanish group, who, while developing the domestic styles in their homes, had little influence on the development of what is known to us as Colonial or Georgian. These men were adventurers, and in reality a foreign nation, with French, Spanish, and piratical affiliations, until the days of the English colonies had passed into history.
The architecture of these various localities is colored to a greater or less degree by the nationality, the caste, and the individual characteristics of the settlers; but it has, in a general way, a blood relationship that is easily discernible.
In the North we have no Colonial architecture until after the French and English wars, simply because you can never find permanency in style until you find fixed idealism or a home community. You remember, the French colonist as an individual had no intention of staying in this new France, while the English, dragged into a war because of the general European turmoil, were stayers to the last degree.
They did not, therefore, impress themselves on the architecture of the period, as they were from that time a French and English nation more or less mixed, without a national or single purpose.
The New England Puritans started life in the New World with a struggle for a bare existence, so they began building, after the log-cabin period had passed, in a simple and purely domestic fashion. This might properly be called the gambrel-roof period (gambrel is from the old French "gambe," or leg, the obtuse angle of the roof resembling the leg with the knee-joint). The doorways were frequently decorated with flat pilasters, and some attention was given to the simple detail of the cornice, but very little elaborate work was attempted. The window-panes were small because of the difficulty of manufacturing larger sheets of glass, and the colors used in decorating were always yellow or red, as they had few if any other pigments. In many of our present-day Colonial buildings these two characteristics are about the only link between the new and the old.
Most of the New England houses were covered with sidings or clapboards, and the roofs with shingles of large size, the walls being filled with brick, and in some cases with seaweed, for warmth. In many instances the north wall was built entirely of brick. These houses were framed of large corner posts and with cross-beams, in the same manner as our early barns, projecting into the rooms, and for finish were covered with plain boards. The panel-ling of the dado or wainscot in the more developed house was of wide boards with the edges bevelled, and these large boards were held in place by a small quarter-round molding. The wainscots and windows and door-trim, or frame, were always flush with the face of the adjoining plaster wall. The fireplaces were built of brick with large openings, the only way of warming and cooking. They were panelled simply, and had always a plain shelf for candlesticks arid the flint and steel box.
In these fireplaces was once common an interesting andiron called the "Hessian soldier." This was cast during the heat of the Revolution and supplied in large numbers to the loyal American, so that he might, in the seclusion of his own fireside, show his hatred of the breed by spitting at its image, which he did with admirable gusto and marksmanship.
This period seems to represent to most of us the ideal of homely comfort and the charm of the open fire on the hearthstone, the geographical centre of human emotions. I suppose the love of the early architecture of this country is so closely associated with our own memories of childhood and the hearthstone of our own individual grand-mothers, that we forget, never having experienced them ourselves, the discomforts of a cold home away from the fire. I myself have measured, sketched, and studied the old houses, always with a strong stirring of emotion, being only one generation removed from this type. I have lived in a home with a sanded floor laid out in patterns with a bunch of twigs, and with a grandmother and her daughter who cooked in the Dutch oven and used the flint and lucifer stick and administered the old Indian "yarbs" for sickness. I remember, too, the quilt made in the best room by the tea-drinking women of the neighborhood, and because of all these peculiar and pleasant memories, which are not in any sense academic but always human, these architectural expressions of this period have a most peculiar fascination. Oddly, they are colored with much the same sentiment as you will find in the south of France during the Romance or Romanesque period. There also was a sane and homely people, living close to the hearth-stone, and translating the other emotions of life through the language of this hearthstone comfort. This is why the.. "Georgian" period appeals to us. It is human and direct, and a true utilitarian expression of needs, and is therefore artistic and of value in the development of our modern styles of religious and domestic work in architecture.
As prosperity developed because of the New England activity in the slave and East Indian trades, the type of house changed in the more settled localities—in the cities and along rivers and post-roads. Now we have a carefully considered and studied type of Renaissance house, showing Italian influence through the works of Vignola and Palladio, who were popular authorities, translated, of course, by the home authorities and with the local limitations and variations.
For a long time the architects and decorators of both England and the Continent had used as a substitute for carved ornaments a material called "papier-mâché" or "carton-pierre," a paper pulp or stone pasteboard which was pressed in molds while wet and applied after hardening to the wood surface. This material allowed a new freedom and more opportunity for the display of rich embellishments. Unfortunately, when this went to the head of the builder, the results were not always admirable. Cupids, festoons, garlands, molding decoration, and, in fact, all details, which before the introduction of this machine-made product had of necessity been carved by the individual, were now cheap, and could be plastered on ad libitum.
In our days this industry has been carried to such a degree of perfection that the bosses, crockets, and even the constructional forms of the old work are reproduced so perfectly that the personality of the detail has disappeared; and we ourselves frequently refer to a catalogue number for the decorative forms, or we turn a compressed-air machine with its pointers on an old form newly made, and reproduce age so exactly that its own creator would not be able to distinguish between the true and the false.
Now it appears that in the days of old, in this country, there were men who, while devoted slaves of Palladio, Vitruvius, and Vignola, were far removed from the base of supplies, but they must build and decorate with or with-out authority. Then the active commercial traveller appeared with his samples, travelling by schooner or stage-coach, from Montreal to Savannah, encouraging the desire for embellishment, and then satisfying it with "papier-mâché." Here ready-made were the forms they must use. Did not those ancient worthies of the fifteenth century in Italy demand it of them ?
It seems, however, that many needs arose out of these new conditions, and while the house of Jackson, in London, for more than two hundred years has been able to supply babies and baskets, frets and friezes, swags, wreaths, and sunbursts, it could not meet all the demands of the time, nor could it provide for many new problems. It often became necessary then for these forebears of ours to "piece out with the skin of the fox," their own invention and creations being frequently of as much interest to the antiquarian as were the frequent changes in the forms of moldings, or in the relations which one molding bore to its neighbor. These craftsmen, you must realize, were no weaklings, and the little bits of original design that we find show to the student the location of the work.
For example, we have authentic records of a family of joiners named MacIntire, of Salem, Massachusetts, whose cunning descended through many generations of sons and cousins. The old ships of China traders sailing from these New England ports were provided with cabins fitted with painted and mahogany joinery of the highest order. This work, with the carved figure -heads and the ornaments of the poop-deck, was done by these same masters of the art of joinery. One can imagine the interesting personalities of these pioneer craftsmen from Portsmouth, Newburyport, Salem, and Boston, allied by the spirit of creation and competition, exhibiting their work in the foreign towns, discussing the use of the proper chisel or turning-machine, exactly like our friends in the guilds of old.
These Maclntires and their kind in every section of the colonies were building overmantels, doorways, porches, staircases, and furniture of all sorts, turning new beads or twisted rope ornaments, spiral balusters of various forms, with a knowledge of the law, but independent enough to vary or create as the conditions demanded. It is because of this independence that the New England Colonial has a charming individuality of its own despite the fact that the British manufacturers had already standardized all ornamental detail to a dangerous degree.
The proportion of column and pilasters, and the detail of the entablature in the transplanted style remains academic until the end of the eighteenth century, when the unpleasantness between the colonies and the mother-country shut off the source of inspiration. To such an extent did this affect the product that style became distinctly debased some time before the builders yielded to the seductions of the French Empire influence.
There are few towns of any considerable age in New England without their squire's house, where the best of which the community was capable found its expression, and these are often very fine indeed. Many of the churches, too, are beautiful. Several were built after the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and other English architects, and are not less charming than their own work in London.
Bullfinch, who built in Boston, and Strickland, of Philadelphia, were inspired by these giants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Our Capitol and the White House in Washington, the State House in Boston recently degraded by a most insulting addition, and the old Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, with the numerous town churches already referred to, are contributions of the old-school American students of these men.
In parentheses, let me say here that the excellences of the true Colonial period are largely attributable to the training and temperament of the builders or joiners, who were also architects and craftsmen of a high order. When the books failed him this type of man worked out his problem conscientiously. His pride in his work would not let him scamp it, and the result is good and quaint in its newness. Since the religious fervor of the Middle Ages died out, this individual instinct to do good work for its own sake—the artistic conscience, if you will—has been the mainspring of architectural progress. It has not been of creative vigor, but it is again lifting us out of the slough of architectural decadence, as we have seen that it did in former times.
The places where the New England Colonial came to fullest flower are the cities of Massachusetts Bay and settlements along the shores of Long Island Sound, all communities built up by the wealth amassed through the old East India and slave-trading companies, which passed from father to son of the New England aristocratic class.
With the architecture of the Dutch in New York we have little interest. It is neither Colonial nor had it any influence on Colonial, with this slight exception: the Dutch in New Jersey, on Long Island, and to some extent in the northerly parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland, built for themselves, farm-houses with stone and stucco walls and long, sloping roofs, the first attack of bungalow fever this country had. These houses are rarely of large size, and are entirely domestic in spirit. There has been nothing passed down to us by the Dutch like the pure style of New England and the Virginias, though the so-called Dutch Colonial is quite charming in its human expression, and is peculiarly fit for much of our modern domestic need.
Strangely enough, the two types of our Colonial were created by the two distinct types of society, the gentleman and the bourgeois. In the North, the man with the musket; in the South, the man with the sword. The cavaliers of the South were gentlemen because of the social law of the, country, while the Northerners were gentlemen simply because it was not their fault.
The association of the cavaliers with the Stuarts and the French court sometimes shows itself in architecture. In the old town of Annapolis there is a most interesting example of this. One of the old manor-houses has de-tails which, while Renaissance, are not English, nor are they pure French. There is a little of the blood of a side-stream that spread into England and Scotland, something of the Jacobite, a word which stands fora period that followed the purifying of the Elizabethan and also for a political party which supported James II. The name, by-the-way, must not he confounded with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, which title came from the convent of the Black Friars. It was essentially Roman Catholic in its traditions, however, even in those early days, and here in Virginia are subtle indications of the religion and family traditions that influenced them. These Southerners were in constant communication with " home." Their sons and daughters were educated there, and supplies and clothing came to them in exchange for cargoes of tobacco. You can readily see how the educated Virginians became amateur architects of taste and discrimination. They also had an equally profound respect for the traditions of the arts and sciences, and great pride of blood.
The plan of the Southern Colonial house in many ways differs from that of New England. The Northerner built his house with a central hall and two rooms on either side, the kitchen and service portion being arranged for in the rear. In the South we have the French method of balance. The main portion supported by smaller wings—the kitchen and service on one side, and on the other the business or law office of the master of the home. It is most significant that these people usually either wore the sword or studied Blackstone, while the estates were managed by factors, as in the old seigniorial days.
There are a great many examples of Southern mansions with columns two stories in height, and frequently with balconies thrown out at the second-floor level. This you rarely find in the North. The details also were more refined, with Adam mantels in colored marble and the more delicate Adam papier - mâché applied ornaments.
These people also differed from those of the North in that they rarely, if ever, were at a loss for architectural authorities. Flaying more books, they had fewer inventions. And, indeed; a great deal of the work was done for them in London, in architecture as well as in dress making.
This cavalier influence extended southward until it lost itself in the temporary influence of the Latin, seen most characteristically in the old French quarter of New Orleans.
While many architects and amateurs may be unable to point out the subtle differences which have been developed in these styles by religion, race, or political differences of outlook, or the so-called crudities which have resulted when the authorities are ignored, it is nevertheless a fact that the student can give you the period and location of a building from some such minor detail as the turn of the cornice, the treatment of a column or its capital, the material used, and the method of applying the material. Not only does this apply to the main parts of the country, but in many cases to small localities in which there have been minor differences in local history.
As architecture has from the earliest times expressed the desires of the people, and has honestly told the story of their necessities and their luxuries in a language that is universal and can be read by any one who will master its delicacies and its slang, so it is to-day. You can with-out effort separate the Gothic from the Classic, the Romanesque from the Byzantine. A little further study will differentiate for you the English revival and the Italian revival, the Philadelphia Georgian and the Georgian of Boston or of Annapolis. I hope you see now that with such knowledge your own home may express to you not only a family tradition, but a World tradition.