American Revivalism: This country’s love affair with the colonial revival

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2011 |

In a wide ranging exhibition the Museum of the City of New York captures this country's long love affair with the colonial revival style-the good, the bad, the amusing, and the endlessly inventive.

The colonial revival is so prevalent in the United States that it is often overlooked-hidden, in a sense, in plain sight. It has been given "high" and "low" interpretations by the nation's most talented architects and by budget restaurant chains. It has been promoted by our leading cultural institutions and sold by department stores. It has enjoyed periods of favor and disfavor, but seems to never entirely disappear. Indeed, we seem to have "revived" our colonial past practically the moment it officially ended in 1776. The architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson points out, for example, that the iconic steeple of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, which was added in 1828, is an example of the colonial revival.1 That the addition came so closely on the heels of the colonial period itself underscores that the style is less a revival of an ancient tradition, like the Gothic revival, than it is an ongoing part of our identity; in a still-young nation of immigrants, the colonial revival is an aesthetic expression of our constant need for, as the historian Henry Steele Commager so trenchantly put it, a "usable past."

The colonial revival's longevity and continuing vitality are not, however, merely byproducts of a search for a collective identity. The style responds to a wide variety of agendas, from that of theperson who traces his or her roots to the colonial period and wishes to assert the power of legacy, to the "hyphenated American" (Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American) for whom the style might express a sought-after sense of security and belonging. For the aesthetically traditional, the style offers a reliable choice, associated with taste and restraint; for the more adventurous, the colonial revival, with its legible lexicon of shapes and proportions, serves as a jumping off point for invention or whimsy. Given the style's openness to interpretation and variation, it is not surprising that throughout its history, it has been creatively shaped and disseminated by key individuals. In addition to high-style architects and designers, this list includes surprising figures, from a minister-turned-entrepreneur, to a Lithuanian-born craftsman, to a First Lady.

The Pioneers
McKim, Mead and White

A major watershed in the evolution of the colonial revival occurred in 1877 whenfour young architects-Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead, William Bigelow, and Stanford White-toured New England, sketching and measuring historic colonial era houses in Marblehead, Newburyport, and Salem, Massachusetts, as well as in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Even before this joint effort, Mc-Kim had visited and sketched colonial buildings for years on his own in Newport, Rhode Island.). In the process, a new direction in American architecture was forged. The firm of McKim, Mead and White was established in New York in 1879, and three years later the architects began to design the H. A. C. Taylor House in Newport. Completed in 1886, the house was a pioneering example of the colonial revival. McKim, Mead and White followed this earliest foray into the colonial revival with the Mount Vernon-inspired James L. Breese House (1906) on Long Island, as well as numerous residences in NewYork City.

 

The Populist
Wallace Nutting

Former minister Wallace Nutting succinctly summed up his aesthetic philosophy: "Not all the old is good, but all the new is bad."3 He started taking photographs of the American countryside around 1900, and in 1904 he opened the Wallace Nutting Art Prints Studio in New York, where he sold the images. For nearly three decades Nutting pursued numerous colonial revival projects. He bought colonial houses and opened them to tourists. He staged and photographed period-appropriate tableaux, employed hundreds of colorists to hand paint the photographs, and sold them nationwide as decorative accents. Beginning in 1917 Nutting fabricated reproductions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American furniture. He also wrote extensively about his passion; his 1928 two-volume Furniture Treasury, with five thousand photographs taken by him, is still considered an invaluable pictorial guide to the furniture of the nation's early years.

The sophisticate
Mott B. Schmidt

In 1920, after several years of working primarily on house renovations, Mott Schmidt began to collaborate with the celebrated interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe on a series of projects that would establish him as both a significant architect and a practitioner sought after by members of New York's social elite. Schmidt's design of three town houses on midtown Manhattan's Avenue A for Elizabeth Marbury, Anne Tracy Morgan, and Anne Vanderbilt (Mrs. William K. Jr.) helped to create the stylish enclave known as Sutton Place. Decades later, his 1966 addition to Gracie Mansion-the late eighteenth-century farmhouse that serves as New York City's official mayoral residence-capped his career as an accomplished historicist architect (see frontispiece). His allegiance to traditional American and British precedents, however, had positioned him largely outside the mainstream of a profession in the thrall of modernism. Schmidt died in 1977, just as a younger generation of architects was gaining an appreciation of a wide spectrum of traditional architectural vocabularies.

The businessman
Jacob Margolis

As businessmen and woodworkers, brothers Jacob, Nathan, and Reuben Margolis played important roles in promoting the colonial revival. Immigrating to the United States from Lithuania at the end of the nineteenth century, they settled in Hartford, Connecticut. Nathan established a business with his father repairing furniture and eventually buying and selling antiques and making reproductions. Reuben also worked as a cabinetmaker in Hartford, and at the height of the antiques craze of the 1920s, he traveled extensively to London in search of material for the American market. In the 1920s Jacob held publicized auctions of high-end antiques in Manhattan. Jacob also offered advice to leading collectors, to whom his training as a cabinetmaker proved helpful in determining whether pieces were authentic or fake.

The collector and his designer
Henry Francis du Pont Henry Davis Sleeper

Henry Francis du Pont was one of the greatest collectors of Americana during the twentieth century, and his two houses, Chestertown and Winterthur, were the focus of his efforts. In 1924 du Pont commissioned the New York architecture firm Cross and Cross to design Chestertown in Southampton, Long Island.To create the interiors of the fifty-room house, du Pont turned to the designer Henry Davis Sleeper, whose own house, Beauport, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, du Pont admired. "Mightn't it be fun," Sleeper had asked, "to have a house in which each room could recapture some of the spirit of a specific mood or phase or ‘period' of our American life from the time of Plymouth down through the revolution or early Republic?"4 Sleeper's favorite room in the house was a New England style colonial kitchen, named the Pembroke Room after the Massachusetts town where Robert Barker, an ancestor, had built a saltbox cottage in 1650. After working with Sleeper on Chestertown, du Pont turned his attention to Winterthur, a far grander estate outside Wilmington, Delaware. The du Pont family had purchased the estate in the early nineteenth century, but in 1930 Henry du Pont, who had inherited it three years earlier, established the nonprofit, educational Winterthur Corporation with the express purpose of transforming the house into a museum devoted to early American decorative arts. By 1932 he had doubled the size of the building to accommodate his collections, and in 1951 he opened the house-museum to the public.

 

The suburbanite
Royal Barry Wills

During the post-World War II era, Royal Barry Wills was arguably the nation's most popular architect specializing in single-family houses. In 1925 Wills opened his own architectural office in Boston, and by the mid-1930s had specialized in the design of houses for a middle-class clientele. In the postwar era, with the resurgence of the homebuilding industry, he was perfectly positioned to become a leader in the field. The editors of Life stated that he designed "the kind of house most Americans want."6 His work evolved from simpler schemes for small houses to larger scale full-blown essays in the colonial revival style, complete with cobblestone-paved driveways. He freely interpreted such features as the covered wing connecting a typical New England farmhouse to a barn, rendering it as a kitchen and laundry room linking the core of the house to a two-car garage. Though often dismissed by members of the architectural profession, Wills was widely published in the popular press and enjoyed enormous success; by the time of his death, his firm had completed more than twenty-five hundred house projects.

The patriot
Eleanor Roosevelt

On May 16, 1927, Eleanor Roosevelt, soon to be First Lady of New York State and eventually the nation, opened her East Side town house to a public viewing of reproductions of eighteenth-century American furnishings made by Val-Kill Industries. Founded in 1926 by Mrs. Roosevelt and three friends-Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, and Caroline O'Day-this enterprise was located near the main Roosevelt family house in Hyde Park, New York. Until the operation closed in 1936, Val-Kill employees produced replicas of early American furniture, pewter, and weavings, many of them reproductions of pieces in museums. Val-Kill products were carried by leading department stores and specialty shops in various American cities. At the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt linked the nation's legacy of colonial era architecture and decorative arts to national unity and triumph over adversity. In reference to the bicentennial of George Washington's birth in 1932, which was marked by celebrations centered on full-scale reconstructions of Federal Hall in Manhattan's Bryant Park and Mount Vernon in Brooklyn's Prospect Park (see Fig. 4), Roosevelt asserted that it was "good for all of us in the trying times we are going through, to consider those early days, when the problems were probably even greater, and learn the lessons which the characters of the men who founded the United States have to teach us."

 

The new traditionalists

After World War II a stylistic split developed: colonial revival largely disappeared from the urban scene, while it remained popular, although often watered down, in the surrounding suburbs. The Bicentennial in 1976 sparked interest in the nation's past, just as the centennial had a century before. Allan Greenberg and Robert A. M. Stern were among the first high-profile architects to reconnect with the rich traditions of the colonial revival. Greenberg's grandly evocative, Mount Vernon- inspired Connecticut farmhouse of 1983 garnered broad attention (Fig. 12). Three years later, Stern, who had already been pursuing a variety of classically rooted architectural styles, hosted a documentary television series, Pride of Place: Building the American Dream, that explored the nation's architectural heritage and its continued relevance. A younger generation of architects has followed in the footsteps of Greenberg and Stern. Peter Pennoyer worked at Robert A. M. Stern Architects before opening his own firm. He has also coauthored a series of books on important American architects working in classical styles, such as Delano and Aldrich. Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons established their architectural practice in 1992. Gil P. Schafer III started his firm, G. P. Schafer Architect, in 2002, having previously worked for Pennoyer. While decorative artists and interior designers have consistently embraced the colonial revival, some of today's practitioners are mining the style in particularly inventive ways. James Boyd and Anne Reath have picked up on the colonial tradition of using silhouetted forms in wallpaper representing unexpected figures, from Nefertiti to Charles de Gaulle. In 2009 Ted Muehling, known primarily for his jewelry designs, was among eight fine and decorative artists who took part in a program sponsored by The Magazine Antiques and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. During a weekend at the museum, the artists surveyed its vast collections, and each selected one artifact they found inspiring. Muehling's chandelier was sparked by a colonial era lighting device in the museum's Prentis House (Fig. 16). A New York City interior done by William Diamond and Anthony Baratta in 1999 is a psychedelic update of colonial revival with braided rugs reminiscent of Wallace Nutting, but here rendered sixty feet long and colored acid green and shocking pink. Manhattan decorator Jeffrey Bilhuber's recent renovation of a seventeenthcentury Long Island house, which he christened Hay Fever, artfully mixes furnishing and decorative effects from numerous periods, including the colonial, while Jamie Drake's interiors for Gracie Mansion constitute a bold essay in the colonial revival for the twenty-first century (Fig. 1). In the hands of talented practitioners, the colonial revival is at once instantly recognizable and sufficiently malleable as to be continually reimagined, retaining its status as the American style.

 

The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis is on view at the Museum of the City of New York from June 14 through November 6.

1 Richard Guy Wilson, The Colonial Revival House (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2004), p. 6.
2
Henry Steele Commager, "The Search for a Usable Past, "American Heritage, vol. 15 (February 1965), p. 3.
3
Wallace Nutting, as quoted in Elizabeth Stillinger, The Antiquers (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980), p. 190.
4
Henry Davis Sleeper, as quoted in Samuel Chamberlain and Paul Hollister, Beauport at Gloucester: The Most Fascinating House in America (Hastings House, New York, 1951), p. 2. For more about Beauport, see Howard Mansfield, "The hidden magic of Henry Davis Sleeper's Beauport," and Shax Riegler, "The legacy of Henry Davis Sleeper," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 176, no. 6 (December 2009), pp. 46-55.
5
Eleanor Roosevelt, quoted in "Bicentennial Seen as Help in Crisis," New York Times, March 22, 1932.
6
"Royal Barry Wills," Life, vol. 21 (August 1946), p. 67.

DONALD ALBRECHT, the curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, and THOMAS MELLINS, an author and independent curator, are co-curators of  The American Style, and authors of the accompanying catalogue.

 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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