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On The Design Of Houses

( Originally Published 1912 )

WHEN a rich American who has no traditional ties wishes to build a mansion, there at once arises the question, what character or style of historical detail shall be used in its design, or whether as far as possible all such relations with the past shall be ignored. In these days of photography and easy travel the history of art forces its treasures before him in blinding profusion. The Iast century moreover multiplied to countless numbers the books which show in attractive guise what architecture has meant in other times and to other people. These blessings have wrought a swifter revolution than any that has previously affected the arts of design. They have also brought with them troubles that are quite new and very puzzling. Even our great-grandfathers were little concerned about the style in which their buildings should be designed. Up to their day architecture had shown a systematic and continuous growth. Throughout our country the designs of Gibbs and Wren and Inigo Jones were reproduced in many forms, and every village builder, without discussion or question, accepted such details as the only method of expressing himself in porch and cornice, in mantel and cup-board. The man of to-day can continue in their steps, but his position differs from that of his ancestor in that this is but one of various courses open to him.

Many will certainly be found who object to the use of detail, ornament, or forms that have served other people and other ages. The "laudator temporis acti" passes with many for an old fogy, and the "practical man" cannot see why we moderns are not sufficient unto ourselves, or why we have to depend in any manner on the styles of buildings in vogue in the past. Let such an objector, however, try to design even so familiar a building as a country house, and he will soon agree that the world must needs be more artless and less sophisticated than we find it today to permit him to ignore the work of the past. A trifling bit of detail gives a long historical ancestry even to an unimportant design. To the informed mind the pitch of the roof, the shape of the eaves or of the wall openings, the preponderance of horizontal or vertical lines or shadows, still more, the profiles of mouldings and the spirit of the ornamental detail, all promptly proclaim their origin.

Obviously, the question may be dodged to a great degree in many simple houses. Many buildings may have that "style" which means only grace and beauty of mass or of outline or color, and possibly those designers who can stop with this are the more fortunate. But, even in a little house, what shall be done with the inevitable detail of the stairs, the mantels, the porches, and the furniture? The traces of past human life and art cannot be so eradicated that all this detail shall be colorless, for it is out of the power of man to prevent its having some degree of affiliation with some bygone art. If such questions arise with the small details of a small house, how much more pressing are they in work of magnitude.

Why should not the rich American find safe models in the buildings of ancient Rome? Indeed, he might do worse, for there is much in common between our life and that of those distant days. We read classic authors and we feel familiar with their ways and methods. Cicero argues his cases as - if in one of our courts. Caesar tells the story of his campaigns as Grant or Sher-man have told of theirs. Horace describes his Sabine farm or Pliny writes of his Tuscan villa, and we are in the company of country gentlemen who find a truly modern enjoyment in house, farm, and cattle, in trees and gardens, in running streams and shady coppices. So, although the mediæval castle or cloister, notwithstanding its charm, has little in common with our life, we find that the villa of the ancient Romans would almost meet present needs at Lenox or Newport. Colonnades, courts and cloisters, great sunny baths from which the bathers have a view of the sea, tennis courts, riding-grounds and amphitheatres, marble seats and basins, flat lawns surrounded by plane trees that are linked by festoons of ivy and banked by masses of box and laurel, — all these met the tired Roman when he drove, on an afternoon, to the seaside or the mountain. They would accord well with the luxurious manners of modern watering-places, and their richly decorated interiors, doubtless something like those we see at Pompeii, would make no unfitting back-ground for fashionable life to-day.

Yet, as we say this, we know that, though the general spirit of such a building might be retained, it would be scarcely possible for a modern family to abide comfortably even in a luxurious villa such as the Romans built. In the fifteenth century men were still living ruder lives than we do now, and yet, anxious as the humanists of the Italian Renaissance were to restore classic ways, they did not copy the old Roman villa, but, with good common sense, adapted it to their own customs. The cardinals and princes who built the villas of Italy succeeded naturally to the luxurious tastes and ample expenditure of the ancient Romans. The love of gardens, shaded walks, terraced lawns, and sloping steps, of fountains, statues, and porticoes, was as great with a Prince of the Church as with a Senator of ancient Rome. The villas on the hills around Florence and Siena and those that are fast vanishing from the neighborhood of Genoa; the precipitous terraces and gushing fountains of the Villa d'Este; the ports and casinos that stud the steep shores of Lake Como; and the lovely vaulted porches which Julio Romano and his pupils built and made to glow with dainty arabesque and delicate color on the rugged sides of Monte Mario; all these must have resembled to a great degree the structures that covered the hillsides around imperial Rome. These Italian villas are in-deed the classic structures adapted to modern uses. Thus it happens that in them the history of art opens before us another line of wonderful examples.

But if, instead of studying the ancient palaces of Rome or those of Italy during the fifteenth century, we turn towards France, we are soon in imagination leading our rich client along a very different road in search of a style. We find the Valois kings returning one after another from Italy with imaginations fired by what they had seen there of an advanced civilization, and bringing in their train a host of Italian artists to render service in modernizing the arts of France. Whatever their faults, the Valois were great builders. Under their influence, little by little, that domestic comfort and luxury suggested by recent contact with the higher civilization of Italy was introduced into the ancient fortresses of France. The ancient structure remained fundamentally unchanged. The high roofs, the conical turrets, the machicolated cornices, and the vigorous picturesque outlines of the mediæval castle, all gave an indigenous shape to the buildings. Rude walls were however pierced with mullioned windows, and decorated with paneled pilasters tier on tier; a forest of chimneys and dormers grew on the roof, and the carvers, abandoning the rugged mediæval forms, enriched window and doorway, chimney and arcade, with arabesques and refined mouldings adapted from Italian models. The Renaissance became master in the old feudal dwellings.

In spite of the admiration of the Frenchman for the work of foreign artists, the latter were not strong enough to crush out native talent. As the French had shown themselves great artists during the mediæval periods, so they asserted their strength during the Renaissance of classic art. What had the general mass of Chambord or Fontainebleau or Chenonceaux, with their high roofs and multitudinous chimneys, in common with the Villa Madama that Julio Romano was building in Rome, or with the Farnesina that was growing under Raphael's guidance? Hardly anything, except a general resemblance in detail, and even to that the Frenchmen gave a new touch in arabesque and capital and cornice. The work of Philibert Delorme and Pierre Lescott, of Germain Pilon and Jean Goujon, although influenced by Italians and inspired by the antique, was thoroughly French. The Italians had applied the art of ancient Rome to their own needs and customs. The French adapted to their own uses the work of Italy. Hence there are no better examples of the proper method of assimilating the art of other days and other countries than these French châteaux. For such reasons they are full of suggestions for a people to whom the world of art is presented, much as it was to the subjects of François Premier.

When we turn to England we find repeated there all the various phases that occurred in the history of French architecture. During the Middle Ages the efforts of English builders had been spent on churches and monastery buildings, or on castles that were places of safety quite as much as dwellings. With the Reformation, church building practically ceased, but the increased luxury of the time produced the change of the defensible fortress into the comfortable dwelling-house. The castle of Elizabeth's favorite Leicester, which is familiar to us in Scott's novel "Kenilworth," though not of the purer Gothic type, showed nothing to indicate the coming change in art; and yet Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, only six years before Michael Angelo died.

But during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, means of defense gave way to the desire for comfort and luxury and light and air. Courtyards were opened up. Long ranges of windows appeared where before would have been blank walls. The English buildings resulting from this movement, where free from ornament and where builders adhered to the local traditions as handed down from father to son, were full of a quiet reason-able beauty due to the well-considered use of materials and the absence of desire to surprise by learning or technical dexterity. Such delightful work is to be found all over England. We see it in stone cottages and manor houses, in the plainer portions of great mansions; in the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and in the brick houses of Kent. It is difficult to name the age of such buildings. They have but little detail that ties them to any given period. They are simple, wholesome, and direct architecture. In these honest plain buildings the unbroken traditions of English building were continued throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and formed a charming English style unlike anything in France or Germany or Italy.

But more important building could not remain thus without the ornament that betrays the thought and learning of its designers. The larger houses and mansions demanded enrichment. They retained the picturesque group and outline that was a legacy of the Gothic tradition, but they soon were crowded with detail that is ill understood and with ornament that is poor. Though this ornament adds greatly to the picturesque effect of the structures, it is almost universally marked by extreme ignorance of the scholarship of architecture. Ill-proportioned orders, odd intermixtures of Gothic and Italian ornament, rude versions of familiar classical designs, all show a desire to appear familiar with the modes which were then prevalent in Europe, but which were not fully understood in England. France under Francis I, subjected to the same influences, made the Italian " motifs " her own and gave them a new and peculiar beauty. England was satisfied to adopt the " motifs " and be content with the richness they added to building. She accepted them as seen through the eyes of Dutchmen or other foreigners, and, caring for no refinements, was satisfied with rude suggestions of the original work. As a result Elizabethan and Jacobean building charms by its picturesque grouping, and is attractive in texture because of lavish and well-placed enrichment. The enrichment is not such as bears the scrutiny of a purist, although it must be said that its very naïveté and picturesque crudeness, joined to an abundant exuberance, gives it a certain interest of its own.

All this change was the same as that which, caused by the same influences, was going on in literature at this same moment. Perhaps the most fashionable book of Spenser's day was Lilly's "Euphues." It was considered by the Court a proof of refined manners to adopt its phraseology. "That beautie in court who could not parley Euphuisme" was as little regarded as she who now cannot speak French. This foppery is described in Sir Walter Scott's novel of "The Monastery," where a court gallant calls the cows "the milky mothers of the herd" and the youth who tends them "most bucolical juvenal." Indeed, the ardor for classical erudition was so prevalent among the learned and great, in England as elsewhere in Europe, that the mythology as well as the diction of the ancients became fashionable. It is impossible to read such a poem as Spenser's "Faerie Queene" and not see that it is the expression of exactly the same feelings as those which dictated the design of such great mansions as Audley End or Wollaton. One is a Christian romance of the Middle Ages embroidered with classical names and ill-understood allusions to heathen gods and goddesses; the others are Gothic palaces plastered over with such Corinthian pilasters and details as indicate the point which men of taste had then reached in realizing the charms of Roman art. The classical allusions, applied to a truly English allegory, are but the counterparts of the Italian mouldings and ornaments, the cherubs and wreaths and shells that are applied to the truly English buildings of the Elizabethan age.

The numerous foreign artists who came to England during Elizabeth's reign were nearly all natives of Germany and the Low Countries. Their influence was prominent in all ornamental detail, such as on the staircases, or in the carving of screens and mantels, in strapwork gables, in male and female figures ending in balusters. These all show Dutch influence on Englishmen. The workmanship was full of dexterity, but lacked the grace and elegance of the Italian, and the crudeness of the Dutchman's version of Italian detail made it far more easy for the ruder workmen of England to reproduce than the real Italian work. The Englishmen with these surroundings made very free with the five orders, and depended for guidance and help mainly on pattern books like that of Vriedman de Vries, which was published in Antwerp in 1563. It was largely by means of these pattern books that this taste was so quickly disseminated. They were used instead of the Italian treatises of Alberti and Palladio and the other interpreters of Vitruvius, with which in fact English builders at that time were not familiar. Towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth the workmen from the Low Countries found their principal employment in the making of monuments and chimney-pieces, and perhaps more design was lavished by them on interior wooden fittings than on the masonry itself. Staircases, which before this time had been of stone and which had been valued solely as means of communication, now became ornamental and stately. They were generally of oak and very often with interlacing strapwork on the balustrades or rude figurework on the posts. The designer's skill was also freely spent on mantels of oak or of colored marbles in houses, and on wooden screens or pulpits in the churches. But everywhere in all this detail Dutch taste made itself felt.

In England, then, we see that the work of a hundred years had produced from the mediaeval castle a modern mansion, in all respects admirable in an artistic sense as long as plain building was adhered to, but adorned, enriched, and beautified by ornament that does not bear close analysis. In spirit and in shape these houses form a type that is distinct and national, and as they were built by the common ancestors of Englishmen and ourselves, every Anglo-Saxon may legitimately delight in their beauties. There is also one more reason why we should like them. In France the art of the aristocracy was imitated by humbler classes and the manor and farm dimly recalled the round towers and lofty roofs of the château. But all English architecture starts with the home as the unit, and as the grandeur of the house increases, it is still an enlarged home. So we find scarcely a palace in England. Saint James's Palace is as nothing by the side of the Louvre; Blenheim is inconsiderable compared with Versailles. The truly interesting grand houses of England are such as Knole and Penshurst and Compton Wyngates, where features common to humble dwellings throughout England are found in the greatest perfection. The world has never known houses more homelike than these, for in them domestic charms take the place of splendor, and that homely aspect is retained which characterizes cottage, manor house, mansion, church and cathedral throughout the length and breadth of England.

Our wealthy client by this time will probably find this discussion confusing. Here already are several very distinct styles with which he may affiliate his design, and we are far from the end. That we have this wealth of authority prodigally placed before us is perhaps a misfortune, but it results from our being born in this century. It is the blessing and the burden of today. We can despise it and try vainly to be original; we can copy it exactly as many fashionable decorators advise; or we can, like the artists of the Renaissance in Italy, France, and England, or indeed like the real artist of all time, try to adapt the art of past ages to immediate needs. If we despise it, we may create novel-ties, but we have no guarantee that novelty is improvement. The slang of the cowboy is not likely to supplant permanently our mother tongue, and startling novelties in architecture will only please for a time. In fact, only ignorance is blind to the past.

On the other hand, slavish copying is unmeaning, pedantic, and stupid. Shall we go without bathrooms because an Englishman "tubs" it? Shall we forego piazzas because they are not needed under the foggy skies of England? At this moment, American fashion, ignorantly groping for a sure guide, sometimes blindly accepts almost any room if only it be of a "period," and especially a French period. It goes farther and makes each room of a different period. When the result is beautiful and appropriate, all is well, but to many the name gives undue confidence. In many cases it seems affected, and inappropriate, and consequently vulgar. For such reasons we may be sure that strict archeology is as much out of place in American house design as is the demand for a new and wholly American style.

There still remains the possibility of adapting the art of past ages to our own uses. This is the only work worthy of an artist, and whether the house be modeled upon the Petit Trianon or Haddon Hall, whether it resemble a château in Touraine or a Tuscan villa, it is of course lifeless and inappropriate unless adapted to our customs, life, and habits. He is the true artist who can thus adjust in a natural and straightforward way, without pedantry or affectation, the traditions of the past to the life and need and ways of the present.

The American house thus conceived will surely have one final advantage over its ancient prototypes in the fact that it will be new and sweet and clean. It is impossible not to feel a certain sympathy with one distinguished though perhaps somewhat Philistine writer when he says:—

"It is beautiful, no doubt, and exceedingly satisfactory to some of our natural instincts, to imagine our far posterity dwelling under the same roof-tree as ourselves. Still, when people insist on building indestructible houses, they incur, or their children do, a misfortune analogous to that of the Sibyl, when she obtained the precious boon of immortality. So, we may build almost immortal habitations, it is true, but we cannot keep them from growing old, musty, unwholesome, dreary, full of death scents, ghosts, and murder stains ; in short, habitations such as one sees everywhere in Italy, be they hovels or palaces.

" ` You should go with me to my native country,' observed the sculptor to Donatello. `In that fortunate land each generation has only its own sins and sorrows to bear ! '"

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