The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 3/Notes on Domestic Architecture

The Atlantic Monthly  (1858) 
Notes on Domestic Architecture

Featured in Vol 1., No.3 of The Atlantic Monthly. (January 1858)


If building many houses could teach us to build them well, surely we ought to excel in this matter. Never was there such a house-building people. In other countries the laws interfere,—or customs, traditions, and circumstances as strong as laws; either capital is wanting, or the possession of land, or there are already houses enough. If a man inherit a house, he is not likely to build another,—nor if he inherit nothing but a place in an inevitable line of lifelong hand-to-mouth toil. In such countries houses are built wholesale by capitalists, and only by a small minority for themselves.

And where the man inherits no house, he at least inherits the traditional pattern of one, or the nature of the soil decides the main points; as you cannot build of brick where there is no clay, nor of wood where there are no forests. But here every man builds a house for himself, and every one freely according to his whims. Many materials are nearly equally cheap, and all styles and ways of building equally open to us; at least the general appearance of most should be known to us, for we have tried nearly all. Our public opinion is singularly impartial and cosmopolitan, or perhaps we should rather say knowing and unscrupulous. All that is demanded of a house is, that it should be of an "improved style," or at least" something different." Nothing will excuse it, if old-fashioned,—and hardly anything condemn it, if it have novelty enough.

And this latitude is not confined to the owner's scheme of his house, but extends also to the executive department. In other countries, however extravagant your fancy, you are brought within some bounds when you come to carry it out; for the architect and the builder have been trained to certain rules and forms, and these will enter into all they do. But here every man is an architect who can handle a T-square, and every man a builder who can use a plane or a trowel; and the chances are that the owner thinks he can do all as well as either of them. For if every man in England thinks he can write a leading article, much more every Yankee thinks he can build a house. Never was such freedom from the rule of tradition. A fair field and no favor; whatever that can accomplish we shall have.

The result, it must be confessed, is not gratifying. For if you sometimes find a man who is satisfied with his own house, yet his neighbors sneer at it, and he at his neighbors' houses. And even with himself it does not usually wear well. The common case is that even he accepts it as a confessed failure, or at best a compromise. And if he does not confess the failure, (for association, pride, use-and-wont reconcile one to much), the house confesses it. For what else but self-confessed failures are these thin wooden or cheap brick walls, temporarily disguised as massive stone,—this roof, leaking from the snow-bank retained by the Gothic parapet, or the insufficient slope which the "Italian style" demands?

There is no lack of endeavor to make the house look well. People will sacrifice almost anything to that. They will strive their chambers into the roof,—they will have windows where they do not want them, or leave them out where they do,—in our tropical summers they will endure the glare and heat of the sun, rather than that blinds should interfere with the moulded window-caps, or with the style generally,—they will break up the outline with useless and expensive irregularity,—they will have brackets that support nothing, and balconies and look-outs upon which no one ever steps after the carpenter leaves them,—all for the sake of pleasing the eye. And all this without any real and lasting success,—with a success, indeed, that seems often in an inverse ratio to the effort. If a man have a pig-stye to build, or a log-house in the woods, he may hit upon an agreeable outline; but let him set out freely and with all deliberation to build something that shall be beautiful, and he fails.

Not that the failure is peculiar at all to us. In Europe there may, perhaps, be less bad taste,—though I am not sure of that; but there, and everywhere, I think, the memorable houses, among those of recent date, are not those carefully elaborated for effect,—the premeditated irregularity of the English Gothic, the trig regularity of the French Pseudo-Classic, or the studied rusticity of Germany,—but such as seem to have grown of themselves out of the place where they stand,—Swiss châlets, Mexican or Manila plantation-houses, Italian farm-houses, built, nobody knows when or by whom, and built without any thought of attracting attention. And here I think we get a hint as to the reason of their success. For a house is not a monument, that it should seek to draw attention to itself,—but the dwelling-place of men upon the earth; and it must show itself to be wholly secondary to its purpose.

We have had a good deal of exhortation lately, now getting rather wearisome, about avoiding pretence in architecture, and that we should let things show for what they are. The avoidance of pretence should begin farther back. If the house is all pretence, we shall not help it by "frankness of treatment" in details.

The house is the sign of man's entering into possession of the earth. A houseless savage, living on wild game and accidental fruits, is an alien in nature, or a minor not yet come to his estate. As soon as he begins to cultivate the soil he builds him a house,—no longer a hut or a cave but the work of his own hands, and as permanent as his tenure of the cultivated field. If that is to descend to his children, the house must be so built as to endure accordingly. It is the material expression of the status of the family,—such people in such a place. Hence the two-fold requirement of fitness for its use and of harmony with its surroundings. A log-house is the appropriate dwelling of the lumberer in the woods; but transplant it to a suburban lawn and it becomes an absurdity, and a double absurdity. It is not in harmony with the place, nor fit for the use of the citizen. Nothing more satisfactory in their place than the old English parish-churches; but transfer one of them from its natural atmosphere and surroundings to the midst of one of our raw villages or bustling cities, exposed to the sudden and violent changes of our climate,—the open timber roof admitting the heat and the cold, and the stone walls bedewed with condensed moisture,—and after the first pleasant impression of the moment is over, there is left only a painful feeling of mimicry, not to be removed by any precision of copying, nor by the feeble attempts at ivy in the corners.

This is all evident enough, and in principle generally admitted; but we dodge the application of the principle, because we are not ready to admit to ourselves, what history, apart from any reasoning, would show us, that those importations are failures, and that not accidentally in these particular cases, leaving the hope of better success for the next trial, but necessarily, and because they are importations.

All good architecture must be the gradual growth of its country and its age,—the accumulation of men's experience, adding and leaving out from generation to generation. The air of permanence and stability that we admire in it must be gained by a slow and solid growth. It is the product, not of any one man's skill, but of a nation's; and its type, accordingly, must be gradually formed.

But in this, as in everything else, there must be an aim, and one persisted in, else no experience is gained. A mere succession of generations will do nothing, if for each of them the whole problem is changed. The man of to-day cannot profit by his father's experience in the building of his house, if his culture, his habits, his associates, are different from his father's,—much less if they have changed since his own youth, and are changing from year to year. He will not imitate, he will not forbear to alter. On such shifting sands no enduring structure is possible, but only a tent for the night.

We talk of the laws of architecture; but the fundamental law of all, and one that is sure to be obeyed, is, that the dwelling shall typify man's appropriation of the earth and its products,—what we call property. A man's house is naturally just as fixed a quantity as the kind and the amount of his possessions, and no more so. The style of it, depending on the inherited ideas of the class to which he belongs, will be as formed and as fixed as that class. Then where there is no fixed class, and where the property of every man is constantly varying, our quantity will be just so variable, and the true type of our architecture will be the tent,—of the frame-and-clapboard variety suited to the climate.

For good architecture, then, we need castes in society, and fixed ways of living. We see the effect in the old parsonages in England, where from year to year have dwelt men of the same class, education, income, tastes, and circumstances generally, and so bringing from generation to generation nearly the same requirements, with the unessential changes brought in from time to time by new wants or individual fancies, here and there putting out a bay-window or adding a wing, but always in the spirit of the original building, and the whole getting each year more weather-stained and ivy-grown, and so toned into more complete harmony with the landscape, yet still living and expansive.

It may be said that the result is here a partly accidental one, and not a matter of art. But domestic architecture is only half-way a fine art. It does not aim at a beauty of the monumental kind, as a statue, a triumphal arch, or even a temple does. Its primary aim is shelter, to house man in nature,—and it forms, as it were, the connecting link between him and the outward world. Its results, therefore, are partly the free artistic production, and partly retain unmodified their material character. In the image carved by the sculptor, the stone or wood used derive little of their effect from the original material; the important character is that imparted to them by his skill. Still more the canvas and pigments of the painter. But in architecture the wood and stone still fulfil the offices of covering, connecting, and supporting, as they did in the tree and the quarry, and their physical properties play an essential part in the work. The house, therefore, is a work of art only half emancipated from nature, and must depend on nature for much of its beauty also. It must not be isolated, as something merely to be looked at, apart from its position and its material use.

The common mistake in our houses is, that they are designed, as inexperienced persons choose their paper-hangings, to be something of themselves, and not as mere background, as they should be. Thus it is that people seek to beautify their houses by ornamenting them, as a vulgar person sticks himself over with jewelry. A man's house is only a wider kind of dress; and as we do not call a man well-dressed when we are forced to see his dress before we see him, so a house cannot be satisfactory when it isolates itself from its inmates and from the landscape. In such houses, the more effort the worse they are; they may cheat us for the moment, but the oftener we see them the less we like them. Does not the uncomfortable sensation with which fine houses so often oppress us arise from the vague feeling that the owner has built himself out of his house, and his house out of the landscape?

Hence it is mostly the novices that build the fine houses. A man of sense, I think, will generally build his second house plainer than his first. Not that he desires, perhaps, any the less what he desired before, but he is more alive to the difficulties and to the cost, and takes refuge in the safety of a lower scale. His experience has taught him that where he succeeded best he was really farthest from the end he sought. The fine house requires that its accessories should be in kind. All things within and without, the approach, the grounds, the furniture, must be brought up to the same pitch, and kept there. And when all is done, it is not done, but forever demands retouching. What is got in this kind cannot be paid for with money, nor finished once for all, but is a never-sated absorbent of time, thought, life. And it attacks the owner, too; he must conform, in his dress, his equipage, and his habits generally; he must be as fine as his house. The nicer his taste the more any incongruity will offend him, and the greater the danger of his becoming more or less an appendage to his house.

Much of that chronic ailment of our society, the "trials of housekeeping," is traceable to this source. This is a complicated trouble, and probably other causes have their share in it. But we cannot fail to recognize in these seemingly accidental obstructions a stern, but beneficent adjustment of our circumstances to enforce a simplicity which we should else neglect. One cannot greatly deprecate the terrors of high rents and long bills, and the sufferings from clumsy and careless domestics, if they help to keep down senseless profusion and display.

Our problem is, in truth, one of greater difficulty than at first appears. For we are each of us striving to do, by the skill and forethought of one man, what naturally accomplishes itself in a succession of generations and with the aid of circumstances. It is from our freedom that the trouble arises. Were our society composed of few classes, widely and permanently distinct, a fitting style for each would naturally arise and become established and perfected. There would be fewer occasions for new houses, and the new house would be less novel in style, and so two difficulties would be overcome. For novelty of style is a drawback to effect, as tending to isolate the house; and a new house is always at a disadvantage. Nature, in any case, is slow to adopt our handiwork into the landscape; sometimes the assimilation is so difficult that it must be ruined for its original purpose before it will be accepted. Sooner or later, indeed, it will be accepted. For though most of our buildings seem even in decay to resist the harmonizing hand of Nature, and to grow only ghastly and not venerable in dilapidation, yet leave them long enough and what of beauty was possible to them will appear, though it be only a crumbling heap of bricks where the chimney stood, or the grassy slope where the cellar-wall has fallen in.

It is for this reason that persons of taste have taken pains to face their houses with weather-stained and lichen-crusted stone, or invent proper names for them, in imitation of the English manor-houses. But Nature is jealous of this helping, and neither the lichens nor the names will stick, for the reason that they never grew there. They cannot be naturalized without naturalizing their conditions. The gray ancestral houses of England are the beautiful symbols of the permanence of family and of caste. They are the embodiments of traditional institutions and culture. When we speak of the House of Stanley or of Howard, the expression is not wholly figurative. We do not mean simply the men and women of these families, but the whole complex of this manifold environment which has descended to them and in the midst of which they have grown up,—no more to be separated from it than the polyp from the coral stem. All this is centralized and has its expression in the House.

Now as these conditions are not our conditions, the attempt to build fine houses is an attempt to import an effect where the cause has not existed. Our position is that of a perpetually shifting population,—the mass shifting and the individuals shifting, in place, circumstances, requirements. The movement is inevitable, and, whether desirable or not, we must conform to it. So we naturally build cheaply and slightly, that the house be not an incumbrance rather than a furtherance to our life. It is agreeable to the feelings to be well rooted and established, and the results in outward appearance are agreeable. But it is not desirable to be so niched into the rock, that a change of fortune, or even a change in the direction of a town-road, shall leave us high and dry, like the fossils of the Norwegian cliffs, but rather, like the shell-fish of our beaches, free to travel up and down with the tide.

The imitating of foreign examples comes from no real, heart-felt demand, but only from a fancied or simulated demand,—from tradition, association; at second-hand in one shape or another. It is at bottom something of the same flunkeyism that in a more exaggerated form assumes heraldic bearings and puts its servants into livery.

It may well reconcile us to our deprivation to remember at what cost these things we admire are established and kept up. The imagination is pleased with this stability; but it is bought too dear, if progress is to be sacrificed to it, if the freedom and the true lives of the members are to be merged in the family, and if they are to be the stones of which the house is built. It is not desirable to be adscriptus glebæ, whether the bonds be physical or only moral ones. We may well be content to have our limits free, even though our architecture suffer for it. It is better that houses should belong to men, and not men to houses.

But whether we are content or not, it is evident that all hope of improvement lies in the tendency, somewhat noticeable of late, to the abnegation of exotic styles and graces. We have survived the Parthenon pattern, and there seems to be a prospect that we shall outlive the Gothic cottage. Even the Anglo-Italian bracketed villa has seen its palmiest days apparently, and exhausted most of its variations. We are in an extremely chaotic state just now; but there seems to be an inclination towards more rational ways, at least in the plans and general arrangement of houses.

Of course mere negation cannot carry us far. We sometimes hear it said that it is as easy for a house to look well as to look ill, and those who say this seem to think that the failure is due solely to want of due consideration of the problem on the part of our builders, and that we have but to leave out their blunders to get at a satisfactory result. But if we look at the facts of the case, we find the builders have some reason on their side.

Nothing can be more unsightly than the stalky, staring houses of our villages, with their plain gable-roofs, of a pitch neither high enough nor low enough for beauty, and disfigured, moreover, by mere excrescences of attic windows, and over the whole structure the awkward angularity, and the look of barren, mindless conformity and uniformity in the general outlines, and the meagre, frittered effect inherent in the material. But when we come to build, we find that the blockheads who invented this style, or no-style, have got at the cheapest way of supplying the first imperative demands of the people for whom they build,—namely, to be walled in and roofed weather-tight, and with a decent neatness, but without much care that the house should be solid and enduring,—for it cannot well be so flimsy as not to outlast the owner's needs. He does not look to it as the habitation of his children,—hardly as his own for his lifetime,—but as a present shelter, easily and quickly got ready, and as easily plucked up and carried off again. The common-law of England looks upon a house as real estate, as part of the soil; but with us it is hardly a fixture.

Surely nothing can be more simple and common-sense than an ordinary New England house, but at the same time nothing can be uglier. The outline, the material, the color and texture of the surface are at all points opposed to breadth of effect or harmony with the surroundings. There is neither mass nor elegance; there are no lines of union with the ground; the meagre monotony of the lines of shingles and clapboards making subdivisions too small to be impressive, and too large to be overlooked,—and finally, the paint, of which the outside really consists, thrusting forward its chalky blankness, as it were a standing defiance of all possibility of assimilation,—all combine to form something that shall forever remain a blot in the landscape.

Evidently it is not merely a more common-sense treatment that we want; for here is sufficient simplicity, but a simplicity barren of all satisfaction. And singularly enough, it seems, with all its meagreness, to pass easily into an ostentatious display. In these houses there is no thought of "architecture"; that is considered as something quite apart, and not essential to the well-building of the house. But for this very reason matters are not much changed when the owner determines to spend something for looks. The house remains at bottom the same rude mass, with the "architecture" tacked on. It is not that the owner has any deeper or different sentiment towards his dwelling, but merely that he has a desire to make a flourish before the eyes of beholders. There is no heartfelt interest in all this on his part; it gives him no pleasure; how, then, should it please the spectator? The case is the same, whether it be the coarse ornamentation of the cheap cottage, or the work of the fashionable architect; we feel that the decoration is superficial and may be dispensed with, and then, however skillful, it becomes superfluous. The more elaborate the worse, for attention is the more drawn to the failure.

What is wanted for any real progress is not so much a greater skill in our house-builders, as more thoughtful consideration on the part of the house-owners of what truly interests them in the house. We do not stop to examine what really weighs with us, but on some fancied necessity hasten to do superfluous things. What is it that we really care for in the building of our houses? Is it not, that, like dress, or manners, they should facilitate, and not impede the business of life? We do not wish to be compelled to think of them by themselves either as good or bad, but to get rid of any obstruction from them. They are to be lived in, not looked at; and their beauty must grow as naturally from their use as the flower from its stem, so that it shall not be possible to say where the one ends and the other begins. Not that beauty will come of itself; there must be the feeling to be satisfied before any satisfaction will come. But we shall not help it by pretending the feeling, nor by trying to persuade others or ourselves that we are pleased with what has been pleasing to other nations and under other circumstances. Our poverty, if poverty it be, is not disgraceful, until we attempt to conceal it by our affectation of foreign airs and graces.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.