A view of 19th century architecture as seen from 1907

An excerpt from the book
THE HOUSE: its plan, decoration and care
1907 Isabel Bevier

The word transition suggests change and that suggests variety, uncertainty, and these are the words which characterize the period beginning about 1825. The war of the revolution was over, but the spirit of it yet remained; traditions and customs were being questioned. The Americans were experimenting in politics, business, and social customs and naturally this spirit of experimentation expressed itself in architecture. For a time Colonial customs and traditions were maintained, but they were bound to yield sooner or later to the demands of the revolutionary spirit for a newer style of architecture as well as changes in social order and business methods. Architecture is too complex to yield easily to experimentation. As a result the dwellings of the period show all sorts or incongruities.

The well-trained handicraftsmen lost much of their skill in their attempt to build quickly rather than well. They lost, too, the inspiration of association with skilled workmen and good standards as they journeyed westward. The amateur architects lacked judgment and adaptation. Greek art and architecture have been the standard of beauty for all ages, but these architects overlooked the fact that these models of beauty were public buildings, not private residences. The results were incongruities in domestic architecture. Imitations of Greek and Doric temples made strange looking houses on the Hudson. Many towns in the United States are still in their transitional period as regards art, and architecture, witness the tiny cottage with Doric and Ionic columns of a size sufficient for a Greek temple, or the house with Dutch gambrel roof, French windows and old Colonial outline.

The wooden Parthenon endured longer in the South. The veranda with pillars served to shut out some of the heat of the Southern sun. This lawless imitation of old world forms obtained not only in architecture, but furniture and furnishings as well. Empire furniture lacking the refinement and simplicity of Colonial became common and what one has called the "Dark Middle Age" of American interior decoration began.

The condition of New York residential architecture in the fifties may be gathered from the complaints of one-writer who does not like to have the "streets of New York filled with costly and meaningless copies of Greek porticos, of Gothicized dwellings, of ambitious imitations of baronial castles, Egyptian tombs, turreted churches, useless campanile towers." The writer adds, "As yet there is no American architecture whose name is known beyond the circle of his own employers" and he predicts that we must outgrow our childish dependence upon the old world before we shall be able to boast of our architecture as we boast of our ship builders. One style followed another in rapid succession. All lands, all materials were brought into requisition by the energetic American architect, aided by the ambitious rich man who had traveled in other lands. Perhaps the most extreme example of the incongruities of the house of the transition period may be found in "The Celebrity," where the new rich man gives this description of his favorite country seat.
"I had all these ideas I gathered knocking about the world, and I gave them to Willis of Philadelphia to put together for me. But he's honest enough not to claim the house. Take, for instance, that minaret business on the west. I picked that up from a mosque in Algiers. The oriel just this side is whole cloth from Haclclon Hall, and the gallaried porch next it from a Florentine villa. The conical capped tower I got from a French chateau, and some of the features on the south from a Buddhist temple in Japan. Only a little blending and grouping necessary, and Willis calls himself an architect, and wasn't equal to it. Now," he added, "get the effect. Did you ever see another house like it?"
Extreme as this description may seem, such monstrosities existed and similar examples are yet to be found. It would appear that the United States is still in the transitional period so far as its architecture is concerned though distinct types of American houses are being developed. It is also evident that while the house of the transitional period may be inconvenient it is certain to be incongruous because of its blending of elements which do not belong together.

No comments: