Sunday, August 7, 2005

The Return of the "Big House"


Rear view of "STONEHEDGE FARM" by Sam Gray, summer 2005, for NEW ENGLAND HOME Magazine (to be launched September 2005)

Forget formulaic, pieced together pre-fabricated and chemically composited McMansion. We're talking c. 25,000 square feet of architect-designed house, complete with interior design and landscape, too, and a bevy of real and natural materials like stone, granite and wood. High end stuff, perhaps at least $200 a square foot in 2002 dollars (and that was before the cost of building materials tripled in the Northeast). I recently wrote about one such house in the western suburbs of Boston for a new magazine about to be released: NEW ENGLAND HOME (check out their website in "Literary" links, at right). It promises to be a magazine exclusively about well-designed high-end New England homes, perhaps an ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST for the nouveau Puritan. I haven't seen the first issue yet but my article is the cover story and I have to like that.

I actually liked this house, even though I didn't have a chance to visit it, save for photographs and extensive interviews with the family. It is what I would call post-modern Shingle Style with more an emphasis on traditional template than on modern stretches. There is a deliberate nod by the architects, Catalano Architects, Inc. to Henry Hobson Richardson, the firm of McKim, Mead & White, and even English country house designer Edwin Lutyens (pronounced Lutch-ens) whose late nineteenth century look was already post-modern in its way. [If you've seen the 1979 movie adaptation of A FRENCH LIEUTENANT's WOMAN, with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, the large English lakeside house used for the last scenes of the movie is a Lutyens design. Think big spaces, playful articulation of form and massing, and the ideal background for the pre-Raphaelite set.] As their website founder Thomas P. Catalano has been praised by Paul Goldberger in THE NEW YORK TIMES as "an architect whose shingled and clapboard houses are handsome and expansive, and endeavor to fit into their surroundings." Neo Shingle-Style? Neo-Colonial Revival? Can one have a revival of a revival? If so, that is what this house exemplifies and Catalano, who was once an apprentice to Robert Stern, is a proponent of the "Big House" movement.

The family that built it wanted to make it a liveable home for their extensive family of grown children and grandchildren. Talking with them reminded me of what my greatgrandparents thought about when they had in mind a country mansion in then ex urban Akron, Ohio in the early 1910s. Their vision turned into 65,000 square feet of Tudor Revival comfort and elegance--but despite its grandeur, the house was always warm and inviting. And my greatgrandparents entertained their extensive family and group of friends--and occasional special luminaries--like there was no tomorrow. I suppose before the great Wars and income taxes if you were on the right financial side of the fence, there probably was no tomorrow. [Some original summer houses from this era and before--in the late 1800s--exist near us around Dublin Lake in Dublin, New Hampshire. Sadly, those remaining houses that have not been torn down or burned, are sold to newly-monied newcomers because the original families can no longer afford the obsene property taxes that occur when you live lakeside with a mountain view in New Hampshire. "Live free or die" is our state motto--it should change to "Live free if you can afford to live here at all"]

All this talk of family seats makes me mourn the passing of the farm and what could have been. We wanted to create that same semblance of continued family gathering place. But it was not to be. My grandparents and even my mother managed to do so for a time--but not in recent years. I guess in the end and for a variety of reasons we could not carry the baton. Now I will try to create that within our home that we've shared since our marriage, the one that my husband's family has owned since 1960, the large double Federal house that will be 200 years old in 2013. It is rare in this day and age to have children near and family all around. I envy those, like the MacDowells with their large suburban farm estate and handful of grown children and even more grandchildren, that can actually pull it off--whether in 25,000 or 1,500 square feet. [Our friend Judy and her husband manage beautifully in less then that, complete with two grown daughters, a son-in-law, and a grandhild. Of course the Amish just add on a "Grandpa House" to their property for the older generation to "retire" into.]

The closest of families, no matter what their house size, are the ones who can say what they mean to each other and still get together for the holidays--or regular Sunday dinner--unscathed. None of this WASP pretense and pretending the elephant isn't in the room...because it usually is, whether dwarfed by the architecture or crammed into a corner, the elephant is there and he needs to be acknowledged. When a member of one such New England family I know announced at a Thanksgiving dinner that he was gay--perhaps not the best time to announce such a thing, unless in a WASP household--his father paused for a moment and said, "Would you please pass the peas?"


Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a favorite story told by my brother, who is gay, about a gay friend of his from Alabama. The friend went home at Thanksgiving and during the meal, while everyone was discussing the Auburn/Ole Miss football game, he banged on his glass and announced he had something really important to say. Everyone looked up expectantly and he said " I, I, I just want yall to know that I'm, I'm, I'm gay." Dead silence until one of the cousins says "Well duh." And the conversation returns to football. Ivy

Catherine said...

A classic! I've heard a variation of same across many dinner would make a great theme in an AR Gurney play, if it hasn't been used already.