When the Colonial Revival began in the 1870s, American architects were rebelling against the Industrial Revolution’s spirit of change and culture of the machine. They embraced early American neoclassical architecture as timeless, and its materials like wood, stone, brick, plaster as pre-industrial. But they also often integrated spatial inventiveness not found in Colonial prototypes to create comfort and accommodate modern living. Colonial Revival architecture was rarely about authenticity. It was an inventive mix of Classical elements that felt good and felt right. One could call it architectural comfort food. While the original Colonial Revival movement was a reaction to industrialism, today’s Colonial Revival architecture is a response to the modern cult of ugliness. The period from 1945 to 1980 was the era of the ranch house, of modernist homes valuing individuality over holistic neighborhoods, and houses with bad, ugly proportions. We are now returning to the humanist order of the early Classical sources. This is often done by looking back through the lens of the Colonial Revival. Like the architects we admire, modern-day revivalists enjoy creatively adapting traditional styles to suit contemporary demands.
How does this house reflect and redefine the hallmarks of Colonial Revival style?
The layout of this house is much more relaxed than that of early Georgian and Federal dwellings. The overall asymmetry, which accommodates formal entertaining rooms and more relaxed family areas, reflects the way Colonial Revival architects combined and modified historical prototypes to suit modern living. Stylistically, the house looks like a rambling 1930s Federal Revival manor with Georgian details. Inside the central block, an Adamesque parlor sits next to a Georgian style dining room. In the family wing, rooms reminiscent of 1950s Colonial Revival taste lie behind a pristine Federal loggia, and a family room with a barn-like interior is concealed behind an elegant Palladian inspired facade. These style juxtapositions are much more unabashed than they would be in a true Colonial Revival house. They work together because all the materials are pre-industrial: scored plaster-over-brick, wood paneling, hand-molded plaster, and hand-sawn timbers. While the solidity and the hand-wrought nature of the materials offer a sense of ease, the variety of styles engages you in an intellectual way.
You’ve described The Decoration of Houses, written by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman in 1897, as an important text to the Colonial Revival. How does the following sentence apply to this house? Each room in a house has its individual uses: some are made to sleep in, others are for dressing, eating, study, or conversation; but whatever the uses of a room, they are seriously interfered with if it not be preserved as a small world by itself.
This house is filled with unexpected transitions. Every space is slightly different in style. The Adam blue parlor is high style Federal, very light, very New Republic in style. The dining room looks more Georgian. It has a colonial feeling, with the wood paneling painted a warm, greenish gray. The painted, coffered ceiling and functional cabinets of the kitchen and breakfast room invoke the style of a mid-twentieth-century Colonial Revival service kitchen. The powder room is an Italian fantasy. The pilasters were made in Italy and painted in Renzo Mongiardino’s workshop. The timber-frame trusses of the family room are very playful, and utterly unexpected. Each room really is its own little world, the design invokes a mood that is just right. Overall, there are a lot of design elements that normally wouldn’t go together, but somehow they do. The effect is like a multi-course meal, the appetizer doesn’t have to complement the dessert, because you aren’t eating them together.
At first glance, this house looks like a serious colonial house. But underlying this gravity, there is a quality of levity. How did you employ qualities of wit and surprise in the house, and why?
The house looks like a classic colonial dwelling, but within, the traditional order of the rooms is flipped. Instead of finding the formal parlor, which is located in the rear of the house, the first thing you see is a very intimate library. The next space is a massive stair hall like a great hall that you might find in a Georgian country manor in England. It’s not at all what you’d expect to find in a suburban Colonial Revival home. The hall is illuminated by a lantern, which is actually a three-dimensional trompe-lâ€™oeil. Lanterns always project through the roof, to let sunlight in. This one projects into the attic, where indirect light illuminates it. While you are aware of the lantern when you are in the space, it is not evident when you leave the house and look back at the roof. These are subtle surprises that most people wouldn’t notice, but they work on an unconscious level to create a relaxed, less formal environment.
I also used the element of surprise in the family room wing at the rear of the house. The details of the facade quoins and a Palladian door are refined, but they are much too large for the building. Behind the exaggerated formality of the facade is a rustic room with massive timber-frame trusses. In moments like these, I am looking for an emotional experience, as opposed to simply copying Classical elements and laying them out in the anticipated way. I am not an academic. I am always trying to reveal the human element in the house. There is an emotional resonance between the house and the human being. To get that, one has to embody the architecture with anthropomorphic characteristics. Instead of being a machine, the house has to have emotion, it has to have spirit, romance, comfort, wit.
View images of the James residence