Alike the great old oaks, hill-top comfy, rooted deep, offering seeds to the eager, fertile soil are the great old houses, the first houses, the houses of interest and event which by nature seem to spread themselves in variation, as far as the eye can see. Most American towns have great old houses, hill-top planted by the founders of the place, and many of these are loved and under care, under community ownership, or under personal pride. From these first houses have grown all that comes thereafter, the whole block, the whole street, the whole spreading town in leaf-like variation, the American architectural styles which look to their elders for guidance and advice.
In my native Michigan, two towns in which I lived, Ann Arbor of the Greek Revival “Kempf House”, and Rochester of the Tudor Revival, “Meadowbrook Hall”, admit this thesis. Now, of Alexandria, Virginia (these thirty years), I find in broader scale several first seeds having rooted in the soil, the Georgian, the Colonial, and Mount Vernon herself, found in numerous variation these ten miles around. The Mount Vernon, a great, old oak beneath whose boughs an entire nation seems to grow, seems sometimes to relax into the ease of shade … seems sometimes by root to spring into fresh vigor, renewed whenever the country is at need, whenever the soil is seasoned to usher forth new life.
One Ann Arbor house in which I lived (the second floor with the bay window), the “Andrew De Forest House”, an old, 1845 Greek Revival that learned from history, that changed with fashion, that adapted to use, as would most houses which have survived three lifetimes of our brief, human reckoning. That house, you might like to know, has great attic beams, solid and heavy which betray the hacking marks of the woodsman’s tools, perhaps the tools of De Forest himself, a carpenter builder.
One can feel in houses, as I am sure have you, the tools that made the thing in which you live; can feel the workman’s hands, for good or ill as some error betrays a weak will, or as some achieved excellence disappears, as we expect excellence to do, to just be good, to be silent without notice, unnecessary of comment. Then, upon the most happy of occasions, some beauty of craftsmanship or design, perfectly placed, lifts the personal spirit, the intellect upon each cheerful sight, each pleasant view of arch, of molding, or of some fine-bit of craftsmanship, some dear material, or some excellent choice in whose company, by whose idea the best in us comes to life.
Before the craft of the house, before the building of the house, the idea of the house: Living in houses we live in ideas, ideas which inform, which, on occasion, form who we are … often, much to the better. Later, we shall speak of the house as an idea of “privacy”, of culture, of being animal or man, humane, urbane, or natural, whatever that imagined natural might be. Just now, it is enough to say, “The house invents the idea of who, of what we are.”
That great, Tudor, Rochester House, Meadowbrook Hall, found itself miniaturized in Forest Court house, another house in which I lived when a student at Ann Arbor. That little, Forest Court house, took upon itself the skin of Meadowbrook, though its bones were a chop-a-block production, efficient and serviceable, and, well, without intelligence, style or grace, or anyone to love it. My next house, the Burns Park Tudor, was alike living in a great mansion, in small; I, some minor lord of some minor mansion, hunt-like, richly masculine, roughly textured, gentlemanly smooth in detail; direct across the way, the field where once the horses ran wild in race. When the house kept me, my little MG waited silent in the covered drive for race or show, and the heavy Harley roared each dawn, interrupting the birds’ morning song, disturbing the elbow-patched professors’ quiet ease. That Burns Park Tudor shall enjoy long life, being, as it is, beautiful and well loved. Only that which is beautiful is long loved; only that which is well-loved survives the generations.
Each month, we shall visit some great house, some first house, some house of interest or event, so that we might learn of ourselves, of our places and who we are. Seems we never grow tired of learning about ourselves, and of ourselves there is always something new, something more to say. Our first issue of “The Beautiful Home” dilates upon the Federal Style, expands upon Thomas Jefferson, the “Jeffersonian”, and there in Monticello we shall see from distance Thos. Jefferson’s vast intellect; from near we will notice moss growing within the marks on sandstone left for us by the teeth of the chisel of the hand that gave the great man’s plan, life.
* * *
As mentioned: during September, a consideration of all things Jeffersonian, of much which is Charlottesville, articles and considerations by Dr. Nir Buras, architect Milton Grenfell, Eric Wind and Charlie Dunne, and others, and all the joys, challenges, opportunities, all the vagaries and vicissitudes that attend a new venture.
Featured Image: Kempf House, 1853, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
* * *
Should admit: upon the invocation of TBH, composed a prayer of benediction.
Dear God: It oft did seem I walked alone
and cold, and lost, when on ol’ shoes I roamed
the wood, Your road, till I was led, was shown
the door You made to family and home.
Now here, I smile to share, as You would wish,
this gift of Home, that all-we-all be blessed.