Every American city is surrounded by a curious mirror image of itself: cottage country. Each Friday evening people make their way to their rustic retreats; on Sunday, the exodus is reversed. The precise magnitude of this periodic emigration remains undocumented, but if one includes not only beach houses, mountain lodges, lakeside cabins, and ski chalets, but also trailer parks, permanent campgrounds, hunting camps, ice-fishing houses, marinas, and houseboats, the number of second, country places is vast. The well-to-do go to Bar Harbor, the Hamptons, the Cape, the less affluent make do with less scenic, or merely less desirable, locations. The destinations vary, but the aim is the same: take a break, get away, get out of the city.
This desire is nothing new, for, as James Ackerman points out in his new book, which traces the evolution of the villa since antiquity, people have been building country places for more than two thousand years. What is a villa? “A building in the country designed for its owner’s enjoyment and relaxation,” he writes. To complete the definition, one need only add that the owner is almost always a city dweller, for the villa exists because of—and as a counterpoint to—the city. The great periods of the villa and country house, such as in sixteenth-century Italy, Georgian England, or between 1890 and 1940 in the United States, have always coincided with times of vigorous metropolitan growth. Indeed, Professor Ackerman identifies only two periods in Western history when thriving urban cultures did not build themselves country retreats: the burgeoning of the communes of central Europe and Italy between 1000 and 1400, and the heyday of the republican city-states of ancient Greece. The reason for these two omissions is unclear—most likely life outside the protection of city walls was simply too perilous.
The villa was a Roman invention, and in many ways all subsequent country houses, whether of Florentine merchant princes, English aristocrats, Tidewater planters, or New York City financiers, were merely variations on a Roman theme. What binds all these works together—and I would include the humble lakeside cottage and beach shack in this prestigious company—is the city dweller’s idealization of rural life, and his establishment of an architecture that encompasses, and expresses, this ideal.
The urban ideal of country life is, of course, a fantasy, and herein lies the interest of the villa as an architectural type: its unchanging purpose. “The villa has remained substantially the same,” writes Ackerman, “because it fills a need that never alters, a need which, because it is not material but psychological and ideological, is not subject to the influences of evolving societies and technologies.” When Pliny the Younger described the pleasures of lazing about on his seaside terrace, or of getting out of a toga and into some comfortable clothes, we know exactly what he is talking about. Petrarch, who reawakened Italians’ appreciation for the pleasures of country life, wrote that “I came to the villa at Careggi not to cultivate my field but my soul”; it is a sentiment that every weekend cottager shares.
The ancient Roman villa began as a rural version of the typical town house. The rooms were arranged around two courtyards—an atrium near the entrance, and an inner peristyle surrounded by a colonnade—and looked into these courts rather than out at the countryside. Eventually this scheme was turned inside out. Rooms were planned so as to take advantage of the best views. Instead of courts there were porticoes that looked out at the surrounding countryside, and instead of a compact cube, the villa acquired wings that extended into the landscape. These later villas, of which only excavated ruins remain, appear to have been added to over time, and must have had an irregular and picturesque appearance that reflected the informal way of life that they contained. We do not know the extent of the gardens around these houses, but to judge from Pliny’s descriptions of his own villas, it was views of the agrarian landscape that were most appreciated, especially as the Roman villa was often, though by no means always, at the center of a working estate.
The villa reappeared in fifteenth-century Italy, although by then the only evidence of Roman villas was in literature, and the earliest Renaissance villas derived their form from that of medieval castles. Like these military structures, although for different reasons, villas were often built on heights, with commanding views of their owners’ extensive landholdings. Eventually, villas lost their medieval features, but there was a curious indecision about just how they should look. On the one hand there was Cosimo de’ Medici’s villa at Fiesole, designed by Michelozzo, which resembled a rather grand farmhouse, informal, undecorated, and, to a surprising degree—as a result of artificial terracing—a part of the hillside on which it stood. Thirty years later, his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent designed a villa at Poggio a Caiano that was formal, grand, classically ornamented, and palatial in appearance. Clearly a beautiful object in the landscape, not of it.
Which brings us to the sixteenth-century genius, Andrea Palladio. Professor Ackerman published the first English study of Palladio, almost twenty-five years ago (it is still in print, and well worth reading), and his enthusiasm for his subject makes this one of the most engaging chapters in The Villa. Which is as it should be, for it was Palladio who brought the two Renaissance strands together and established the definitive form for the villa, a form which would last for several centuries, and still reappears today.
The villas designed by Palladio (there were about twenty, most of them still standing) are definitely intended to be experienced as objects in the landscape, but they are also a part of the countryside, not only because of their site, and their explicit response to view and vista, but also because of their design, which combines classical pediments and columns with an almost rustic simplicity of forms and materials. Palladio knew nothing of the appearance of the villas of antiquity, but there is a Roman pragmatism in his use of plain, stuccoed surfaces, and the sparing use of ornament, indeed, in terms of building techniques nothing had changed in the intervening sixteen hundred years. These were not, strictly speaking, places for leisure, but the Venetian gentlemen farmers for whom they were built were certainly city folk whose urban culture—and urban wealth—demanded more than mere functionality. “The particular aim of the Palladian country house,” writes Ackerman, “was to give magnificence to the once humble agricultural complex, symbolically joining the substructure of work to the superstructure of consumption.”
The Palladian idea of a country house reemerged in another urban culture: eighteenth-century England. The English country houses were bigger and grander, partly because their owners were richer, and partly because these country homes were also places for entertaining large numbers of guests. These palatial houses, which Mark Girouard has called “power houses,” divested themselves of any agricultural associations, and although they owed their architectural form to Palladio—or, rather, to Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture—their relationship to the countryside was altogether different. They did not look out on cultivated fields, but on what Ackerman calls “England’s most influential and enduring contribution to the visual arts”: the landscape garden.
This innovation, which Horace Walpole credited to William Kent, represented a reversal of the tradition of the formal Italian and French gardens. Instead of treating the landscape as a huge, formal garden, the English created gardens that resembled a natural landscape. “Natural,” in this context, did not mean rough or rustic, however. Sheep were sometimes allowed to graze in a pasture, but only as an ornamental accessory. The purpose of the landscape garden was to be scenic, romantic, and, above all, evocative of the classical past. To that end, it incorporated Grecian temples, statuary, grottoes, waterfalls, bridges, and a variety of architectural fragments that Kent called “eye-catchers.” These structures were arranged to give the viewer an orchestrated sequence of views and experiences as he walked, or rode, through the garden.
The landscape garden was a conscious re-creation of the sort of scene that appeared in the paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, and was hence described as “picturesque.” It was inevitable that a taste for picturesqueness and informality should eventually influence the design of the villa itself, and in mid-nineteenth-century America it did so thanks largely to the writing of Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing was a horticulturalist, not an architect, but his books on the design of gardens, cottages, and country residences had great success with the public and were extremely influential. Downing was addressing an upper-middle class that had the means, and the inclination, to build country retreats outside the city, and he wrote at a time when improved transportation (including railroads and steamboats) made suburban living a practical possibility.
The type of suburban villa that Downing advocated—and that architects such as A. J. Davis built on the banks of the Hudson—was influenced by a landscape that was often wilderness, or had been until recently. Unlike their classical European antecedents, these houses were often built of wood, rather than stone. They incorporated features such as board-and-batten siding, scrollwork ornament, and steep roofs, and a characteristic of the American villa: the porch. They were picturesque houses in a picturesque setting.
Ackerman closes his engaging narrative with a juxtaposition of two twentieth-century architects whose country houses neatly embody the two contrasting ideologies of the villa: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Wright’s own country house, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, begun in 1911, was in many ways a restatement of the early Tuscan villa (he had spent the previous year—his year of exile—in Italy, principally in Fiesole). As in his later masterpiece, Fallingwater, a weekend retreat built for a Pittsburgh department store millionaire in 1935, Wright carried Downing’s conception of the picturesque to its full, artistic fruition. Not only did the house evoke the forms of its natural settings, but because of its irregular composition and use of rough masonry, it actually seemed to be a part of the landscape, a landscape which was, at least in the case of Fallingwater, left in its original, untouched state.
This natural quality, which Wright called “organic,” was also an affirmation of his growing rejection (literally, in the case of his move from the suburbs of Chicago to rural Wisconsin) of the city. Whereas the villas of Palladio brought urbanity to the Veneto countryside, Wright’s country residences, with their great hearths and expansive plans, were imbued with the age-old American ethos of returning to the land.
As Colin Rowe pointed out in 1947, in his famous essay “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa,” the suburban houses that Le Corbusier built near Paris during the Twenties and Thirties were an explicit reinterpretation (in plan) of certain of Palladio’s villas. They were also a reaffirmation of the villa as an urban artifact deposited in nature, but distinct from it. Le Corbusier considered himself an urban man, and his country houses did not sentimentalize the move to the country. The nautical imagery that he adopted in the Villa Savoye (pipe railings, ramps, funnel shapes, expansive terrace decks) gave the occupants the impression that they were steaming through the landscape, more passengers than participants.
The Villa is an expanded version of six Mellon lectures, delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1985. I did not attend these talks, but the text preserves some of the quality of what must have been animated occasions. There is none of the academic dryness here that sometimes characterizes art-historical writing and makes it unappealing to the lay person. Instead, to read this stimulating book is to meet an erudite scholar—Ackerman is Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard—who has thought a great deal about the subject, and is willing to entertain, as well as inform, to patiently explain, as well as to make pronouncements. Moreover, one has the impression that the author has visited—and found pleasure in—the buildings that he is describing.
Like most works of art history, The Villa is based on the assumption that it is possible to make a clear distinction between those buildings that are works of art and the rest. “What distinguishes a villa from a farmhouse or a country cottage in their buildings, as in the whole of the history of Western architecture back to the time of Horace and Pliny,” Ackerman writes, “is the intense, programmatic investment of ideological goals.” This sounds reasonable, although one wonders how exactly to judge the “intensity” of a villa builder’s architectural goals? The remains of ancient Roman villas, for example, suggest that these houses grew by addition over time, and their rambling plans often appear more pragmatic than ideological.
Elsewhere, Ackerman suggests that what also distinguishes the villa from the farmhouse is that the villa is the product of an architect’s imagination. Here, also, the Roman villa raises doubts. We do not know who the designers of these houses were, or if, indeed, architects were always involved; Pliny’s letters imply that at least some parts of his seaside villa may have been planned by himself. Still, there is no doubt that, beginning in the Renaissance the distinction between formally designed buildings and popular construction is clear. The role of the architect, who was, in many cases, not yet a specialist, was confined to expensive, monumental buildings, chiefly churches and palaces—and villas—and the history of architecture of this period is easily construed as a chronicle of the evolution of these few building types.
After the eighteenth century, however, the architectural profession, more numerous now, began to be involved in a large variety of buildings. Offices, commercial buildings—even houses—which had previously been left to builders and craftsmen, were now designed by architects. Some of these were just as grand and monumental as had been the cathedrals and royal residences. On the other hand, many were buildings in which practical and functional considerations were often more important than architectural ideology, or whose successful use relied on (hidden) technological devices rather than on formal manipulation. Such buildings were designed by architects, but they had little interest for the art historian.
To identify which buildings would be included in the canon of architecture the art historian had to acquire a new role: that of critic. He had to pick and choose. Inevitably, the choice reflected personal bias, so much so that in the case of some art historians—one thinks of Siegfried Giedion’s championing of modern architecture, or Vincent Scully’s more recent promotion of postmodernism—it is hard to distinguish history from advocacy.
Ackerman is too conscientious to fall into this trap, and he purposely avoids discussing contemporary developments. “No historian,” he writes, “can see his own time clearly because he cannot stand back from it sufficiently to distinguish its truths from its ideologies.” Nevertheless, he, too, is selective. He gives much space to a discussion of Fallingwater, for example, which he obviously admires. But how important was the influence of this unusual house on the evolution of the ideology of the villa in America? Certainly less than the English-style country houses of William Adams Delano on Long Island, or the ranches and haciendas of G. W. Smith in California. The work of these and other society architects, who were Wright’s contemporaries, receives no mention at all in The Villa. Indeed, a single, disparaging reference to “the bombastic Beaux-Arts style mansions” that the rich were building for themselves in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, is the only allusion to what was probably the single greatest burst of villa building in history.
The period in question, which began in the late 1860s, and lasted approximately until the Second World War, coincided with the industrialization of the United States and with the rise of great family fortunes. In the popular imagination, the architecture of the American country house is typified by the palatial extravagances built by millionaires such as George Washington Vanderbilt (Biltmore in North Carolina), James Deering (Villa Vizcaya in Miami), and William Randolph Hearst (San Simeon in California). These are the largest, and most dramatic, examples, but there were literally hundreds of country houses built during this time, all across the nation.
These country houses were obviously built for their owners’ enjoyment and pleasure, and so fit into Ackerman’s definition of a villa. They also reflected a specific ideology that was derived from Europe, but that developed its own, peculiarly American, set of beliefs. Like Palladio who modeled himself on antiquity, or like the English gentlemen builders who studied Palladio, the American country-house architect looked to the past. The English country house (both Tudor and Georgian) provided an obvious model, but not the only one. At Biltmore, the architect Richard Morris Hunt took his inspiration from the chateaux of the French Renaissance; the style of Louis XIV was also popular, especially for grand mansions. In California and Florida, the inspiration was often Mediterranean—Italian at Villa Vizcaya, Spanish at San Simeon. In the Adirondacks, where architects designed romantic log camps (more than two thousand of them) for rich New Yorkers, the influence was Swiss.
Just as Palladio freely interpreted the past to suit the needs of his sixteenth-century patrons. American architects adapted the European models to suit their clients. This meant a much greater emphasis on comfort, informality, outdoor living, and on the use of modern building techniques—both San Simeon and Villa Vizcaya are built of reinforced concrete. Of course, these modern plans and modern technologies were clothed in historical dress, for the American country-house architects were traditionalists, not formal innovators. They refused to accept the modernist creed that a new age required a new architecture. But they were not only traditionalist, they were eclectic. If a client wanted Colonial Revival, or Moorish, or Jacobean, they were pleased to oblige. This obviously gained them commissions, but it has not impressed the modern art historians, who are more interested in artistic consistency—and originality—and who are uncomfortable with an architectural ideology that was so accommodating, and so changeable.
The result is that the period of the American country house—“the bombastic Beaux-Arts mansions”—has been ignored and belittled by art historians, at least until the last decade. Happily, Mark Alan Hewitt has produced a comprehensive study that goes a long way in filling the gap. Hewitt is not a historian but a practicing architect and, as the title of his study suggests, The Architect and the American Country House deals not only with the houses but with the men and women who designed them.
Hewitt lists three generations of architects who were involved in country-house work, over eighty names. They include people who specialized in country houses for the well-to-do, such as Horace Trumbauer and Charles Adams Platt, but also virtually all the foremost architects of the day: Richard Morris Hunt (whom Hewitt credits with being the model for the society architect), John Russell Pope (who designed the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery), Thomas Hastings (who, with John Carrère, was responsible for the New York Public Library), and the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White, where many of these architects served their apprenticeships. Among this diverse group were architects such as Julia Morgan (designer of San Simeon) and Royal Barry Wills, who also specialized in middle-class homes, and Grosvenor Atterbury, who designed the pioneering suburb of Forest Hills Gardens, in Queens.
The country-house movement—it was undeniably that—took its architectural inspiration from Europe, but the idea of building a grand house in the countryside had an American history too. This is the subject of Roger Moss’s engaging and discursive book, The American Country House, which, despite its title, complements rather than duplicates Hewitt’s study. Moss begins with a description of the colonial plantation houses of Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. This introduces the reader, to masterpieces such as Shirley, Drayton Hall, Mount Airy, and probably the greatest of the architectural achievements of the period, Stratford Hall. He goes on to include a chapter on the neoclassical villas that Philadelphian patricians built along the Schuylkill River during the second half of the eighteenth century. More modest in scale than either plantation mansions or the later constructions of the Gilded Age, these elegant and exquisite houses represent an architectural high point in the evolution of the American country house, and deserve to be better known. Thanks to Moss, who is an architectural conservationist and executive director of the Athenaeum in Philadelphia, and whose enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, they probably will be.
The country-house movement is well worth a second look. Not only because, since the 1980s, there has been a resurgence in the building of large country retreats, as well as a revival of interest (led by Robert A. N. Stern) in architectural eclecticism, but because, as the handsome illustrations in both of these books amply demonstrate, many of these houses are distinguished works of architecture. My favorite is The Hill-Stead, in Farmington, Connecticut, which was built for a Cleveland industrialist, Alfred Atmore Pope, in 1898–1902. It was designed by Pope’s daughter, Theodate, working together with McKim, Mead and White. The sprawling house is part of a complex of attached barns and outbuildings, whose informality recalls that of the Roman villa. Or would, if the Romans had built with wood. The beautiful white, clap-boarded house, with its Mount Vernon porch and dormered roofs, was one of the earliest examples of the Colonial Revival style, and its combination of stylish forms with traditional New England building techniques is done with great skill. Henry James, who visited the Hill-Stead in 1910, wrote that the house “made everything else shrivel and fade: it was like the sudden trill of a nightingale.”
The Hill-Stead was the product of the fruitful combination of the artistic discrimination of its owners (the Popes had an excellent collection of Impressionist paintings), the talent of its chief designer—Theodate Pope—and the historical knowledge and proficiency of its architects (both McKim and White were leaders in the Colonial Revival). But its sense of restraint and moderation, and its avoidance of the grand architectural gesture, were untypical. American country houses were usually more striking, more dramatic, more opulent. That is hardly remarkable. Villas have always been built by the well-to-do, and they were, after all, intended for pleasure and enjoyment. When the Roman patricians went to their country estates, they expected to have all the comforts of their city houses: banqueting halls, hot baths, ball courts. They may have removed their togas, but they were hardly roughing it.
The function of a villa has always been to provide a luxurious setting for leisure, and rarely was luxury carried as far as in the country houses that were built by the American rich between 1860 and 1940. Clive Aslet’s The American Country House is a vivid recreation of the period, and of the life that these rural bastions of power and privilege contained. Aslet is not a historian—he is deputy editor of Country Life—but, unlike Hewitt, he makes no pretense at scholarship. His colorful account, which sometimes reads like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, is a reminder that conspicuous consumption was not invented in Ronald Reagan’s America but has a long pedigree.
Andrew Jackson Downing deplored ostentation and complained that “The indulgence of one’s taste and pride in the erection of a country-seat of great size and cost is becoming a favorite mode of expending wealth.” When he wrote that, in 1850, the ideology of the villa, or rather, of the American villa, was about to produce a new type. Not, of course, the eclectic country house, which was firmly in the European mold, nor even, despite Ackerman’s assertion, the organic house of Frank Lloyd Wright, which, while modern in appearance, followed essentially the same program. The American contribution to the villa tradition was the weekend cottage.
The weekend cottage was the product of several interlocking circumstances: middle-class affluence, universal car ownership, good roads, a national inclination for outdoor recreation, plentiful rural land, and the widespread availability of weekend leisure time. Although it took many forms, the cottage owed more to Downing than to Pliny or Palladio. It was small and informal, usually built by the owner and a local contractor rather than designed by an architect, and it often expressed the personality of its occupants in its form and decoration. No less ideological than its grand antecedents, its sources of inspiration were different, more modest, usually drawing on vernacular styles: the pioneer cabin, the beach shack, the mountain chalet.
The weekend cottage was not an architectural milestone, but it represented a prodigious achievement. For the first time in history, the possibility of owning a country retreat was extended beyond the well-to-do. So potent was the ideology of the villa that even in this miniaturized form its chief elements remained visible: one’s own plot of land, a view, an opportunity for rural relaxation, a setting for informal behavior, a retreat from urban ways.
One peculiarly original variation of the weekend or vacation cottage, probably inevitable given American mobility, was the travel trailer. The evolution of the trailer is traced by Allan D. Wallis in Wheel Estate, a history of the mobile home. During the Twenties and Thirties thousands of Americans took to the road. These “Tin Can Tourists” traveled in wheeled homes with evocative names like Covered Wagon and Prairie Schooner; there were also luxury models like Glen Curtiss’s Aerocar. By 1937, the industry was producing 100,000 trailers annually. These really were “machines for living,” and at the same time as Le Corbusier was designing his landlocked nautical villas, Norman Wolfe and Wally Byam were already manufacturing streamlined trailers like the Silver Dome and the Airstream.
Although travel trailers began to be used as permanent homes by migrant laborers during the Depression, and by the government to house workers at defense plants during the Second World War, their chief function was as temporary country houses. The villa-on-wheels had a different relationship to the landscape than the cottage, however. Of course, it was an object in the landscape, but it was an object in a variety of settings, Grand Canyon one week, and the Florida Keys the next. This detachment, and self-sufficiency, had a curious effect on the occupants. The landscape was now something to be controlled, chosen to suit whim and fancy. Wallis recounts that in 1938, the Walt Disney Studios released a cartoon titled “Mickey’s Trailer.” The famous mouse was shown living in a country cottage surrounded by a lawn and picket fence. When Mickey pulled a large lever, the saddle roof, porch, picket fence, and lawn all folded up and disappeared into compartments, and the cottage, revealed now to be a trailer, was towed away. The dichotomy of the country house had finally been resolved: in Mickey’s villa, at least, house and landscape were one.
December 20, 1990