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SHELDON AND ARTISTIC COUNTRY-SEATS
In his brief prefatory note to Artistic Country-Seats (1886-87), George William Sheldon wrote that architects had made a significant contribution to the "Renaissance of American art," a development inspired by the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and that their achievements could be seen most clearly in the "country-seat." Consequently, his purpose in preparing the portfolio was "to present, in as direct and attractive a form as possible, an exposition of this triumph." Subtitled Types of Recent American Villa and Cottage Architecture with Instances of Country Club-Houses, and arranged in two volumes with five parts, it was published in 500 copies by D. Appleton and Co. of New York for those who had subscribed to the project. The first volume contained 50 exterior photographs and 47 first-floor plans of 44 different houses and three casinos; the second volume contained 50 photographs and plans of 49 different houses and one casino. Sheldon wrote commentaries for each of the 97 executed buildings, some as short as two pages in length, some as long as six. The text of the first volume consisted of 220 pages and that of the second, 187.
These photographs and informative plans are evidence of the craftsmanship of builders, the creative design, practical planning and technological receptivity of architects, and the confidence and adequate bank accounts of clients in the period from 1878 to 1887. Vincent Scully, who drew heavily upon Sheldon in his masterful and often-cited study, The Shingle Style (1955), claimed that Artistic Country-Seats and Artistic Houses, which Sheldon prepared for Appleton in 1883-84, were the two most important contemporaneous sources for understanding the shingle style.
Sheldon was born on January 28, 1843 in Summerville, S.C., the first son of the Rev. George and Martha Lyman Sheldon. After graduating from Princeton with a bachelor's degree in 1863, he tutored there in Latin and belles lettres while studying for his master's degree from 1865 to 1867. He then joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary where he remained as instructor in Oriental languages until 1873. For several years he worked as the art critic for the New York Evening Post and from 1890 until 1900 was literary adviser in London for D. Appleton and Co. He died in Summit, N.J. on January 29, 1914.
From the late 1870s until he moved to London, Sheldon published frequently with Appleton and Co., particularly on recent American art. In 1879 American Painters appeared, 50 biographical and critical essays on known and obscure artists; in 1882 Hours with Art and Artists, chatty and casual commentaries on contemporary artists in France, Britain and the United States; in 1883-84 Artistic Houses, 203 fine photographs and descriptions of the country's costliest interiors; in 1885—86 Selections in Modern Art; in 1888 Recent Ideals of American Art, copperplate reproductions of 184 oil and watercolor paintings; and in 1890 Ideals of Life in France and Women in French Art, each consisting of 225 plates of paintings and drawings. He also wrote for the leading art periodicals of the day. For example, in 1880 he published one of the first positive assessments of Winslow Homer's "American shepherdess" type for the Art Journal (April), and for Harper's Monthly (February) "A Symposium of Wood-Engravers," today regarded as one of the most valuable commentaries on this medium written during its late nineteenth-century revival. However, he was probably more versatile and prolific as a writer than authoritative; in 1882 he published a 575-page account of the volunteer fire department of New York City and two years later Harper's carried his article on the "Old Packet and Clipper Service."
Information about the process Sheldon used to produce Artistic Country-Seats is scant today. Judging from his statements about the individual houses and casinos, he visited some but not all of them. Many of his commentaries are thorough, confident and informed, suggesting that he was writing from personal notes. Describing the parlor of the Wood house (plate 10), he wrote, "It has no wainscoting, but the mantel is very beautiful, its lower part having two square fluted columns supporting the shelf, which are continued to the cornice, inclosing a circular mirror of beveled glass, with carved spandrels, and five small square mirrors of beveled glass on each side of it." Other descriptions, however, lack such intimate familiarity with decorative or constructive detail. The general observations and statistical information that characterize many of his statements may indicate that he was dependent on the photograph and plan or on material supplied by client or architect.
In reference to the Howard house (plate 51), he explained that "the ground plan, given below—for which we are indebted to the architect—is drawn from a point of view different from that chosen by the photographer." In all probability, he relied on the architects for the plans and did not take the pictures himself. The quality of the photographs is so good for this period that professionals must have been responsible. The Gutekunst Co. of Philadelphia, founded by Frederick Gutekunst (1831—1917), claimed in an advertisement that it was responsible for the photographic work of both Artistic Houses and Artistic Country-Seats. Did this mean clicking the camera as well as producing the photogelatine prints, or only the latter? While this is unclear, there is some evidence suggesting that this anthology was the work of a single photographer.
The clarity of the plates is unusually high and consistent. The photograph of the Geiger house (plate 9) is one of the rare examples of a slightly unfocused shot. Furthermore, the set represents competent architectural photography: well-composed pictures which, despite challenges of length (plate 92) or rambling plan (plate 39), seldom slice off the ends of a principal facade. Roofs are not washed out by the light of the sky above, and references to the environment do not interfere with an examination of the house. Though trees abound on these properties, only infrequently do they obstruct our study of the elevations (plates 46, 51, 71 and 86). Another reason for concluding that one person might have been responsible for these photographs is the perspective from which the shot was taken. In 80 percent of the houses the view is angled and either mildly left or mildly right of center, a position from which the principal facade could be studied easily and a secondary facade less effectively. For some small, square houses, the camera emphasized the relative equality of two facades, as in the J. H. Smith house (plate 41), the Hemenway house (plate 49) and the Mallory house (plate 50). The third and least frequent position was on the perpendicular, which divided the composition into two balanced parts. This can be seen in the photographs of the Cook residence (plate 14) and the Scott residence (plate 69).
These photographs are surprisingly similar in several other ways. When the terrain permitted, the photographer or photographers called attention to the surroundings, particularly to the luxurious flat lawns, the graceful sweep of driveways, or paths leading to steps and porches. Perhaps the most consistent feature and certainly the least expected is the absence of signs that red-blooded American families lived in these cottages and villas. Except in a few photographs (plates 10, 34, 45, 60, 61 and 91), people are not to be seen on these premises or even standing behind windows. We must be content with reminders that humans have been or will be there—a chair left in the front yard of the Netter house (plate 57), the open windows of the Newcomb (plate 76) and several other houses, or the nets anticipating or recalling games played on the casino lawn at Elberon (plate 78). Where are all the horses and carriages for whom these drives and porte-cocheres were built? Even signs of construction, junk or unfinished plantings are difficult to find. Strangely, these houses look isolated, naked, empty, silent despite their beautiful surroundings and animated designs; the Cook house (plate 14) is a case in point. Of course some of these houses were empty because they were used for only few months during the year and many of the photographs were taken when the summer or mountain season had ended. Also, Sheldon's anthology was so contemporary that several families had not yet moved in.
On the other side, it can be argued that more than one photographer was involved because the distance from which the photographs were taken varies considerably. The Josephs (plate 11), Gibson (plate 20), Howard (plate 51) and Washburn (plate 72) houses were photographed from vantage points that made their form take precedence over their detail. Given the size of these four, this may seem to be an inevitable result, but two of the largest residences in the Philadelphia suburbs, the houses for E. N. Benson (plate 40) and H. H. Houston (plate 70), were photographed at much closer range. In several instances of spectacular photography, the close range enhances the detail to the detriment of the form and confronts the viewer with the physical presence of the materials. Though modest in size, the French house (plate 6), the Hemenway cottage (plate 49) and the Van Buren retreat in Tuxedo Park (plate 61) make aggressive visual demands on us that are unexpectedly modern in their anticipation of the motion picture's fascination with detail and the Pop artist's penchant for disquieting scale.
Assuming that the dates for the completion of these cottages and villas are reasonably accurate, the photographs were probably taken between the summer of 1885 and the summer of 1886. The growth of plant life, particularly ivy, around some of the older houses, such as the Vanderbilt residence (plate 33) of 1877–78 or the Netter house (plate 57) of 1881, reinforces this conclusion. It is impossible to reconstruct the itinerary of the photographer or photographers. Although the houses at Newport appear to have been recorded in summer or later summer, two of the houses at Lenox-Stockbridge were caught in winter and two during the summer months.
The plans of these houses and casinos were probably sent by the architects to Sheldon. Then each of the major rooms of the first floor of these buildings was identified in the same typeface, the Geiger plan (plate 9), probably labeled by the architect, being an exception. The size of these plans was determined by the size of the page and not by the dimensions of the house. The plans of the Dod house (plate 34) and the Noakes house (plate 77) are drafted in a distinctive style, but most of the others, in part because of the similarity in size and identifying type, suggest, at first glance, similar drafting signatures. On second glance, however, variations become evident. These can be detected in the hand printing marking small spaces (such as plates 12, 42 and 76), the decision to include or exclude references to door openings (plate 72), the direction of stairways (plates 60 and 97), ceiling ribs (plate 1) or floor patterns (plate 94), and the various stylistic means for identifying porch columns (plates 7 and 81) or even a window.
Dates of Construction, Locations and Architects
Sheldon's survey of country houses and country clubs was decidedly up-to-date. Seven of the buildings have not been dated because verifying information was lacking. The date or dates given the remaining 90 buildings refer to the year in which the construction was completed. Of these 90 houses or casinos, two were built in 1878-79, ten in 1880-81, 22 in 1882-83, 33 in 1884-85 and 23 in 188687. This means that 62 percent of the dated buildings were completed in 1884 or later.
Sheldon found these examples of his new American Renaissance primarily in New England and the Middle Atlantic states. Only 18 of the houses were located outside of these two regions, and these tended to be principal homes of families living in or near major cities (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit and St. Paul-Minneapolis) rather than second or third-house country seats. The houses located in the suburbs of major cities tended to be somewhat larger and were usually constructed of brick or stone while those along the coast or in the mountains tended to be smaller and were often built of wood. However, there are numerous exceptions to both of these generalizations. Over one-third of the examples were erected in three areas— Newport-Narragansett Pier, the suburbs of Philadelphia and the metropolitan suburbs of northern New Jersey. In the order of the number of houses and clubs included in Artistic Country-Seats, the cities and regions are:
Newport-Narragansett Pier, R.I. 13
Philadelphia and its suburbs, Pa. 12
Northern New Jersey 11
Long Branch coast, N.J. 7
Boston suburbs, Mass. 6
St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minn. 6
Tuxedo Park, N.Y. 5
Cleveland, Ohio 5
Lenox-Stockbridge, Mass. 4
Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. 4
Cincinnati, Ohio 3
Far Rockaway—Lawrence, N.Y. 2
Buffalo, N.Y. 2
Bar Harbor and Mt. Desert, Me. 2
Greenwich-Bryam, Conn. 2
Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 2
Chicago, Ill. 1
Falmouth Foreside, Me. 1
Glens Falls, N.Y. 1
Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. 1
Mamaroneck, N.Y. 1
New Castle, N.H. 1
New York, N.Y. 1
St. Augustine, Fla. 1
Stratford, Conn. 1
Washington, Conn. 1
Washington, D.C. 1
Although the buildings included in Artistic Country-Seats were designed by 47 different architects, two-thirds of them were done by 17 firms. The prestigious and very busy firm of McKim, Mead & White was responsible for one-sixth of the examples that Sheldon selected. He clearly recognized the spatial and compositional changes occurring in the design and planning of American frame houses in the first half of the 1880s and included many of the firms responsible for what Scully has termed "the shingle style." That Scully reproduced 33 photographs from this collection is a tribute to Sheldon's ability to pinpoint a significant trend against the confusing and architecturally eclectic background of this decade. Furthermore, Sheldon called attention to designers who present-day historians and critics, aided by decades of perspective, have concluded were among the genuine innovators of the period, such individuals and firms as McKim, Mead & White; Bruce Price; Lamb and Rich; W. R. Emerson; Peabody and Stearns; Clarence Luce; Arthur Little; Henry Richardson; Wilson Eyre, Jr.; and J. C. Stevens. On the other hand, Sheldon was open-minded, for he also included in his anthology costly and enormous structures built of durable materials and designed in revival styles. To call him open-minded may be a polite way of saying that he had an underdeveloped idea of what domestic architecture in the 1880s should be. He could praise with apparently equal fervor and sincerity designs stripped of the pulse and risks inherent in those cottages of wood, pretentious and heavy academic machines that announced so clearly the frantic search of new wealth for historical and cultural trappings. Since this series was "printed for the subscribers" and since some of these subscribers were probably the owners of the houses illustrated, he might also be accused of having the backbone of a chocolate éclair.
Consequently, his designation "country-seat" is not very narrow or precise. For Sheldon, it embraced large and small, cheap and expensive, structures built of a variety of materials, located in the heart of cities or in remote regions and used either for a few months of the year or uninterruptedly as the family's sole residence. Yet this publication is an extremely valuable document of the period. If twentieth-century historians have slighted the diversity and pedestrian or reactionary expressions of this decade, Sheldon celebrated its pluralism and respected its products. As a result, his story of the domestic architecture of the 1880s is told with a different and larger cast of characters than the ones we usually hear. We learn, for example, of the influence of Theophilus P. Chandler, Jr., in the suburbs of Philadelphia, of Clarence Johnston in St. Paul and of W. Halsey Wood in East Orange, N.J.
Excerpted from AMERICAN COUNTRY HOUSES OF THE GILDED AGE by Arnold Lewis, George William Sheldon. Copyright © 1982 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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