America's Rural Mansions

`FOR a hundred years,'' wrote Lewis Mumford, ``a large body of people have been trying to escape the age in which they live. The leaders in this flight are precisely those who have extracted profit from steel mills and grain elevators and railroads and urban land: they build Florentine palaces; they enshrine themselves in Tudor country houses. ... Up to the capacity of our tastes and incomes, the rest of us have followed in the footsteps of our financial overlords; for whenever we can break loose from our anonymous cubicles, our standardized offices, our undifferentiated streets, we abandon ourselves to Pure Romance.'' The American country house that serves as the subject of two new books from the same university press was a product of the immense wealth amassed by the robber barons of the Gilded Age. It continued to flourish into the early decades of the 20th century, as individuals and families with money continued to consolidate their social positions - and give solid form to their dreams - by building vast country estates, complete with elaborate gardens, recreational facilities, sometimes even model dairy farms. From the palatial splendor of architect Richard Morris Hunt's Biltmore in North Carolina, designed for a Vanderbilt, to the cozier charms of rural retreats like Olana, the painter Frederick Edwin Church's dream house in the Hudson River Valley, American country houses of this period testify to the ways in which the new ``leisure class'' proclaimed and pursued its leisure.

Beneath the heady diversity of styles - French, Colonial, Spanish, Moorish, Italianate, Tudor, and even avant-garde modern - British architectural writer Clive Aslet discerns a distinctively American approach to house-building. To begin with, almost all American country houses were situated on top of hills and carefully designed in relationship to the landscape and gardens that would surround them. Yet, unlike the traditional homes of the English aristocracy, American country houses gave only the appearance of being supported by the land around them: The money that built them came from other sources. Indeed, the model farms sometimes set up on these estates seldom showed much, if any, profit. But they expressed a pervasive American belief in the value of rural life.

The variety of sources for this love of the country is as suggestive as it is staggering: from the English Romantic ideal of a restorative nature to an American suspicion about the evils of cities; from an unabashed desire of the newly rich to imitate the lifestyle of the English landed gentry to the equally ardent desire of artistic types to lead the arts-and-crafts cottage life championed by John Ruskin and William Morris. A contemporary commentator, the great American social critic Thorsten Veblen, remarked that the land on these estates was a means of securing and symbolizing the precious and exclusive commodity of privacy.

Aslet, who is deputy editor of Country Life magazine and an author of books on English country houses, sees eclecticism as the keynote to American estates of this era. While their English counterparts inherited their country estates, the Americans were trying to find the identity they wished to project. The world from which to choose was all before them, and what they chose reveals a curious blend of conservatism - the desire to establish themselves as legitimate inheritors of European culture - American pragmatism with its love of modern conveniences, and sheer fantasy wish-fulfillment. Written in a sprightly style, richly illustrated, Aslet's book is particularly inviting to the general reader.

The American penchant for eclecticism also finds a defender in Mark Alan Hewitt, a practicing architect and historic preservationist. His study, ``The Architect and the American Country House,'' is more technical in its emphasis, replete with architectural drawings and blueprints, as well as photographs of exteriors and interiors. As the title indicates, Hewitt devotes considerable attention to the architects who designed these country houses, but whose names and identities have often been overshadowed by the fame of their clients. He discusses the phenomenon of the gentleman architect, a highly trained professional who usually came from the same social milieu as his clients and whose chief skill - apart from his long training and apprenticeship - was tact. A collection of brief biographies and photographs of the leading country house architects of the period helps give names and faces to these artists.

Hewitt's treatment of the socioeconomic underpinnings of the country house is also far more detailed and academic than Aslet's. There is an extended discussion of the debates that went on in the pages of the architectural magazines of that era, not to mention a long look at the emerging capitalist oligarchy that proclaimed its status and exclusivity through the houses it built. The book concludes with a plea for preservation: Even if the builders of these houses did not always succeed in achieving the grace they sought, Hewitt is certain that we have not done any better since then. Deeply interesting, if at times a little murky in its meanderings, ``The Architect and the American Country House'' is more specialized in its appeal than ``The American Country House.''

Both are handsome coffee-table books. When it comes to design, however, I can only report that the Aslet is, as architects say, more functional, easier to handle, while the Hewitt, like the Biltmore estate, is almost too huge and heavy to read anywhere but at a sturdy library table.

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