By Katharine Hoffman
William C. Whitney house, 5th Avenue, New York
TWELVE HOUSES THAT HAVE BEEN SELECTED AS THE FINEST AND MOST SPLENDIDLY DECORATED IN THE UNITED STATES—PATTERNED CHIEFLY ON FOREIGN MODELS, THEY ARE WONDERFULLY GORGEOUS AND COSTLY, BUT NOT ALWAYS ENTIRELY HARMONIOUS.
It would be discouraging to national pride, if America considered originality in architectural and decorative matters of moment, to realize how complete is our dependence upon the old world whenever we wish to make a brave show or to erect a worthy and enduring building. It is better, of course, to copy the good than to achieve originality only through atrocities; but there are times when one not necessarily a jingo could wish to hear that Mr. Croesus was putting up an American house instead of reproducing a Venetian palace; or that some decorative artist had made a mantel so beautiful and so perfect that it was not necessary for the latest millionaire to ransack an old French chateau to discover something to his liking.
But this time seems as far off as ever, possibly because there have been no master builders whose commanding designs could force admiration, but more probably because the millionaires, properly distrustful of their own taste, would be also distrustful of that which had not the seal of many generations' approval upon it. So the millions continue to be spent in rummaging the old world for models, with results that are sometimes grotesque and generally discouraging.
OUR LACK OF ARCHITECTURAL HARMONY
We have French chateaus, intended for ample spaces, crowded between two houses on narrow Fifth Avenue lots. Palaces of the Venetian doges run up, Aladdin-like, miles from the suggestion of water, their canal arches and water gates ludicrously opening upon a brick paved street. Old English country houses, demanding, for their setting, park grounds and terraced gardens courts and pleasances, are reproduced between two brownstone fronts. Palaces which the French kings thought well adapted to royal town life rear themselves upon remote hillsides in such incongruity that the uninitiated may be forgiven for thinking them at first glance highly ornate insane asylums, assuredly the only buildings of such vast proportions appropriate to such places.
|Main hall and stairway of William C. Whitney house|
On a Chicago corner, with square chimneys belching smoke and smut all wound, and flat plains stretching limitlessly out, is an apotheosis of a Scotch manse—a heavy stone edifice copied after some simple dwelling among the hills and the heather. There are no hounds to the absurdities which a man arrived at sufficient fortune for building will commit.
There is the greatest possible difference between the American and the English notion of a home, and the English notion seems the better. There houses grow, and their belongings with them. Homeliness is rather a virtue, and dinginess is not a crime. The idea of constructing .a dwelling from the foundation to the curtains at the windows and the tapestries on the walls at one fell swoop would be inconceivable to the English. In this country houses are built and furnished so quickly that one almost expects to read in the advertisements of the enterprising department stores: "Friday, Bargain Day in Homes Perfectly Equipped and Ready for Use." The shine of new varnish is over everything, even when actual varnish is tabooed.
The homes of the millionaires of America, as one reads of them, provoke the inquiry," But where do these people live?" Surely they do not loaf and invite their souls in the midst of the curios gathered from all quarters of the globe; they do not lounge in the state apartments furnished after the Marie Antoinette manner; they do not take their shirt sleeved ease, or whatever may correspond with that in their circle of society, among the catalogable treasures of their private museums. Nothing could make a man of simple tastes and modest means more contented with his lot than to read the list of the un-homelike splendors with which the millionaire surrounds himself.
|Stuyvesant Fish home in New York|
Even in the best conceived houses the effect must be that of a sublimated patchwork quilt. It is as much as even conscientious architects and decorators can do to keep single rooms free from incongruities, to avoid having Watteau shepherdesses on panels above a wainscoting of old English oak, or Louis Quinze furniture pirouetting around a room hung with Colonial wall paper. Even so small an amount of harmony requires the greatest self-restraint. To carry this principle throughout an entire house is more than can be expected.
A millionaire awakes in the simplicity of a Colonial bedroom. His eyes rest upon its cool blue and white paper, and take cognizance of the polished mahogany of his pineapple posted chests and bed. He takes his Lath in France, with foolish and inquisitive angels or cupids peering at him through wreaths of roses. He snatches his roll and coffee, perhaps, in a baronial English hall, and as he passes out of the house he looks into a drawing room that might have been that of the frivolous Marie Antoinette. He goes down town in an American automobile, and on the fourteenth floor of an office building finds himself for the first time that day face to face with the true- expression of the American architectural genius.
It is in public and semipublic buildings that we excel. When foreign architects wish to praise us, they do not speak primarily of our churches or of our homes, but of our hotels, our newspaper buildings, and our capitols. One of them, Horace Townsend, gives us the most ungrudging commendation in regard to these. He says: "Nothing akin to Messrs. McKim, Mead & White's scholarly Hotel Imperial or that opulently conceived re-edification of Mauresque magnificence, the Ponce de Leon Hotel in Florida, has yet appeared within our own metropolis [London]."
|Exterior of William C. Whitney house|
There are, however, twelve houses in America which have been selected by architectural critics as the most magnificent of their kind. It would be unfair to say of them that their splendors are of the hodgepodge description; but it is equally true that they are not comfortably "grown into" homes, that their rarities are not the result of slow and casual collection. But their magnificence is never vulgar—which is more than may be said of certain others.
TWELVE TYPICAL AMERICAN PALACES
These twelve are the houses of William C. Whitney, the late Cornelius Vanderbilt, W. D. Sloane, Stuyvesant Fish, John Jacob Astor, John D. Rockefeller, Louis Stern, and Louis Tiffany of New York; of Mrs. "Jack" Gardiner, of Boston; of George Streator, of Chicago; of Joseph Winterbottom, of San Francisco; and the Breakers, the Vanderbilt house at Newport. Probably Mr. Whitney's house, Mrs. Gardiner's, which is still in process of construction, and Mrs. Fish's, which was opened with great éclat last year, are the most remarkable of these.
Mrs. Fish's house at the corner of Madison Avenue and Seventy Eighth Street; is as perfect a reproduction of a Venetian palace as is possible on a dignified, but not over picturesque, New York street. The tall gate that screens the entrance is of Venetian bent iron, and from the very threshold one is carried straight into the realm of the doges, though, except for this gate, the granite exterior promises nothing remarkable.
On the first floor, when one has passed the iron portals, one sees a drawing room, and on the opposite side the dining room. This latter is a faithful copy of the banqueting hall of one of the nobles of Venice when Venice ruled the seas. The lower panels are of dull walnut. Above t hem hang wonderful old tapestries or red and yellow. A dull red marble mantel glows darkly above a fireplace where a brighter color flashes. It is a most imposing room, and it seems to require a regiment of powdered and liveried menials to wait upon a concourse of glittering dames and gallant gentlemen. It would seem a profanity for a solitary diner, for instance, to munch a simple chop in its sumptuous atmosphere. The drawing room, across the hall, is distinctly a room for beauty. Its most conspicuous feature is a mirrored door. It is carpeted in red velvet, and its walls and ceiling are a pale bluish green, while all its furnishings are of the rococo style in yellow.
|Homes of George Vanderbilt, William D. Sloane, |
and William K. Vanderbilt
On the second floor is the ballroom, the largest private dancing room in America, it is said. Like the drawing-room, it has mirrored doors. The walls are of a pale bluish tone, and all the molding is in pale colored clay. The family coat of arms is wrought above the white marble mantel at the head of the room. The salon is also on this floor. In it the ruddy tints which predominated down stairs return to use. It is hung in red tapestry. The woodwork is dull oak, the windows are small paned affairs, and there is a great mirror framed in dull brass.
On the third floor are the sleeping rooms of the family. Mrs. Fish's boudoir is a dream of pale pink loveliness; Mr. Fish's room is a Colonial chamber in blue and white. The house contains, as all lovers of cleanliness should rejoice to learn, six bathrooms.
MR. WHITNEY'S NEW YORK HOUSE
Mr. Whitney's house is one of those where the principle of strict fidelity to the epoch reproduced in each room is seen at its best. As a whole, the decorations heterogeneous, but each room in it is a perfect and Self-contained example of its own period and kind of decoration.
|Entrance Hall and stairway at the Breakers|
It is said that the Colonial room on one of the upper floors of Mr. Whitney's house is the finest example of that school of decoration to be found in the country; and for no other reason than his rigorous forbearance to introduce inept trifles into its austerity. Other men have had Colonial rooms, and vastly dear Colonial rooms, but the temptation to bring into them something which no colonist, either grim Puritan or lordly planter, ever used, has proved their artistic destruction.
Sometimes the zeal of decorators has caused them to introduce into certain rooms articles which belonged to the period, but were still out of place. For instance, there were certain things which, in Colonial times, belonged to the kitchen, the sitting room, or the drawing room. A reckless Colonial mad decorator jumbles them all together, indifferent to the fact that a. pewter pie plate was not used as a wall ornament by our unaesthetic ancestors, and that warming pans were never displayed in the drawing room. Still worse errors have been perpetrated in the name of decoration; and it speaks volumes on the state of this art in America that Mr. Whitney has gained distinction because he has brought no Colonial kitchen furniture into his Colonial bedroom.
Library of The Breakers
Mr. Whitney was prodigal when he decorated his house. He wanted a mantel for his hall on the ground floor, and he wanted the design to be that of the old French château period. He ransacked the stores of dealers in this country, and then he went abroad. He had agents scattered broadcast through the world to aid him in running to earth the particular mantel he wanted. Finally he bought it in two parts the top from a ruined chateau in France, the pilasters from a house in London.
For his picture gallery he sought out the hiding places of old black Spanish velvet, against whose lusterless, plushy surface rare pictures look rarer still. He purchased all that was to be bought from the European dealers in such costly fabrics. Then he set the textile artists to work, and enough more was made to line the gallery walls.
The same zeal for exactness, the same scorn of sordid monetary considerations, have been shown throughout the establishment. His tapestries are the best to be had, of their periods. Even his bathrooms have not escaped the rage for perfection. They are tiled in the most conscientious reproduction of the Florentine mosaics.
"SHOW" HOUSES OF VARIOUS CITIES
|Tiffany House at Madison Avenue in New York|
Mrs. "Jack" Gardiner's house is still building in Boston. It overlooks the Fens, and it is a careful reproduction of an old Italian palace—a style of architecture peculiarly appropriate to the city of east winds. Its progress owards completion is retarded now and then by some untoward strike of the workmen. One may not reproduce even a palace or a museum for storing priceless art treasures without reckoning with un-artistic labor unions, though it is said that Mrs. Gardiner's builders tried to do so.
The plans of her new house and the work, so far as it has progressed, show it to be of wonderful beauty, and thrifty Boston is reported to be hoping that she will someday bestow it upon the city as a museum. In addition to the beauty of the edifice itself, Mrs. Gardiner's art collections are very valuable and interesting.
The Cornelius Vanderbilt house at Fifth Avenue and Fifty Seventh Street, New York, is modeled upon the famous Château of Blois, in France. It is of pressed brick, with trimmings of light stone, and it is surrounded by a high fence of wrought iron, through the interstices of which one sees a neatly shorn and trimmed bit of lawn. Scoffers who have not known of the Château of Blois have sometimes failed to admire this palace as it should be admired, and have declared its style particularly institutional. But this is likely to be the effect of introducing any noticeable and distinctly foreign sort of building into a restricted space. The interior of the house is Empire throughout.
Competent judges declare that the same fault, that of restricted space, has more or less spoiled the Breakers, the Cornelius Vanderbilt place at Newport. It is a villa in the Italian style, and in itself is very beautiful. Each of the principal fronts has a leading motive which differentiates it from the other, yet the unity of the two has been preserved. The dining room and the great hall are splendid—artistic, simple, and massive.
The Louis Tiffany house at Seventy Second Street and Madison Avenue, New York, is an exquisite example of what may be done by an artist in the line of decoration. It is not constructed according to any hard and fast rule of art, and it is not bound to any one epoch or era. Magnificently and charmingly decorated, it is an encouraging example of what originality within artistic bounds may accomplish.
Of the others in the decorator's red book, or blue book, or book of whatever hue architects may use to denote unquestionable standing, the Rockefeller, the John Jacob Astor, and the Sloane houses are of mixed periods; so is the Winterbottom house in San Francisco. The Louis Stern house in New York is rococo, and the George Streator house in Chicago revolts against its Western surroundings by being Persian in the main and at least oriental throughout.
Up to 1855 there had not been any very strenuous efforts on the part of even rich Americans to achieve grandeur in architecture or design for their homes. They came to New York when their "piles" were made, meekly accepted the brownstone dispensations of the contractors and filled these with the furniture horrors of the middle Victorian period. At about the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, an American architect, imbued with the spirit of European designing, returned to this country. He was Richard Holman Hunt, and the influence which he exercised upon the building art of America from that time was marked. The Breakers, the John Jacob Astor town house, the Cornelius Vanderbilt town house, the magnificent Biltmore in North Carolina, the Marble House at Newport—all these and many more were the products of his genius.
Cornelius Vanderbilt house, 5th Avenue & 58th Street, New York
Of the later school of architecture, the most famous exponents are McKim, Mead & White, Thomas Hastings, and Mr. Post. Most of the houses in the list of the best conceived ones in this country are the work of some of these.
How much of the interior decorators work is merely prohibitive, it is hard to guess. In the case of all the houses in this list there has probably not been much to combat on the part of the owners; but good taste does not always keep pace with good fortune, and there are cases on record where the decorators have had to fight grotesque fancies on the part of their owners. The story of the worthy manufacturer who wished his cornices and buttresses adorned with the trade mark which had made him famous is well known. He was first balked by the authorities of a cemetery where the monument to his merits was not permitted to be erected until that badge had been erased from it. And in a certain Western city a "show" house, owned by a millionaire maker of agricultural implements, has—or had not long ago—a dining room frieze where the goddess Ceres on one side is faced on the other by a plow or a mowing machine of the owner's manufacture.
From the Junior Munsey, November 1901.