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Georgian Revival

by Darryl Spencer

April 6,2007

The front of the latest Charlotte Observer insert “Properties of Charlotte” depicts a substantial brick home, roughly Georgian, highly symmetrical, with an impressive number of gables in its steep, slate-like roof. There are quoins at the corners, heavy moldings and fascia at rooflines, and a tall, somewhat Palladian entry portico. The side-entry garage entrances offset the symmetry enough to be “interesting.” The overall effect is of solidity, achievement, taste with a touch of grandeur—and definite devotion to the past. Yet to my educated eye some of the over-window trim is inappropriately scaled, some architectural embellishments are a bit idiosyncratic, the arch over the entry is too high, and the roofline is a bit too…French.

Intending from childhood to be an architect, I got as far as college analytical trigonometry – the necessity for which to design homes my teacher could not explain satisfactorily – then decided I really just wanted to escape those Kentucky hills and to live abroad: hence, teaching English in the Peace Corps. (We Kentuckians didn’t know much about international commerce.) A sister once mentioned my “checkered quilt of jobs,” but I have had two careers: teaching and ersatz architecture, which I once combined by teaching interior design. Whatever my actual job, my passion for architecture has never abated.

So I look at “Properties of Charlotte” and wonder: why are Americans –the world’s first social revolutionaries—in our third century of independence from the Old World, still aping its architecture? When an adolescent I found Desmond & Croly’s 1903 Stately Homes in America, whose pictures of grand homes of preceding centuries fascinated me—particularly those Richard Morris Hunt designed for various Vanderbilts (including Asheville’s Biltmore). The text seemed even to my young mind at odds with its adulatory illustrations of American mansions. Recently rereading it I found in this104-year-old book a discussion of the possible origins of Charlotte’s more impressive homes: “In the making of them, both their designers and owners have had at the top of their minds…magnificent European models, the like of which was never seen in this country; but this very dearth of native American styles, after…generations of national life, this seeking after ‘stunning’ but exotic effects…requires a good deal of explanation,” Desmond and Croly write. One theory seems a bit of a stretch: the America the colonists founded was a place of new freedom for economic growth and social ideas and thus “genuinely original…but its power of being original was thereby exhausted… In all ideas that were not of a practical importance, particularly in all aesthetic forms, the colonists willingly fell back upon European precedents.” Hardly a stretch considering our predilection for European music a century after Charles Ives; for rhyming poetry 150 years after Whitman; for pictorial art, traditional-chronological prose fiction, even for automobiles with faux-leather carriage-like tops…you can supply other examples.

The writers compliment Americans by comparing them to Venetian adventurer-merchants of the Renaissance who, unlike other Italians, “were not a landed aristocracy with a definite, time-honored, and unimpeachable social status… [but] for the most part self-made men” in “a rough democracy, in which any man, who had the…luck, brains, and will, might struggle to the top and fight for the privilege of staying there. The houses in which these men lived reflected their manner of life and their social status [and were] effective and conspicuous; to display their power, their wealth, their pride of success and life.” Even the opulence was to be expected: “it is no wonder that their residences show something of the same pleasure in rich and ‘stunning’ furniture and fabrics, something of the same love of strong and compelling effects, something of the same willingness to advertise their wealth and power – as those of the Italian nobles formerly did.”

A corollary is possible: just as the Irish “kicked Chippendale up a notch” with fanciful animal and mythical ornament, perhaps the more Scotch-Irish founders of the Carolinas also felt that pure, English Georgian was a bit tame. What could be more suitable in a state bearing a Latinized form of a British king’s name and in a city named for the third British Georgian monarch’s wife than a perhaps unconscious and confident if imperfect amalgamation of the architecture of our cultural ancestors?

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