Thursday, October 25, 2012
We could survive without the antimacassars, but all anybody really wanted was a comfortable chair.
These days, we all allow ourselves to enjoy warm and fuzzy feelings about times gone by. Nostalgia makes us yearn for an age when things were better, when life was easier, and days were simpler. While we rush through our lives, working hard, playing hard, running to keep up, we imagine it would be lovely to spend the morning sitting on a fretwork trimmed porch with nothing more to do than to admire the delphiniums while we rock gently in a white wicker rocking chair and soak up the sunlit breeze. Basically, what we think we want to do is to go “home” to Mayberry RFD and have Aunt Bee bake us an apple pie.
Does that sound too good to be true? Of course it does. Would we really want to do without our washing machines? Dishwashers? Television sets? Computers? Smart phones? Microwaves? Internet? Air conditioning? Fast drying acrylic paint for artists? Indoor plumbing? I don’t think so.
What we honestly want is just to find a way to stretch our hours. The Victorian Age appears to be so attractive because it makes us think of a time and place where time itself functioned in a different way. We don’t need to search too far past the remaining Victorian buildings in our cities to understand that once upon a time there really was time for imagination. There was an age when sentiment was an acceptable virtue. Of course, it was also an age for hard work, unbending rules of social conduct, a rock solid, unbreakable class system, and oh yes, whalebone corsets for the ladies and celluloid collars for the gentlemen.
In order to escape from just those things, the past century completely accepted the brave new world of Buckminster Fuller and Mies van der Rohe. Form followed function, and it did it with a vengeance. Frank Lloyd Wright dictated that home design had better be an austere glass and brick box. The glass and brick box was furnished with rectangular tables, low slung sofas you sat on, not in, and stiff chairs. Rooms were so beautifully balanced they became totally impersonal. Everything old fashioned was frowned at. Grandma’s geegaws and knickknacks were strictly forbidden. Even though one man’s gingerbread cornice might become another man’s bad taste, the flouncy, romantic Victorian age filled thoroughly contemporary moderns with a secret hidden yearning. We could survive without the antimacassars, but all anybody really wanted was a comfortable chair.
That may be why the dawn of the 21st century brought on the attack of giant, fat furniture. We didn’t dare go back to the dainty, delicate curlicues of the 19th century, but everybody was growing mighty tired of the crisp, sleek 20th. Obese sofas filled with acres of cushiony foam invaded our rooms. Beds grew so tall we needed a step ladder. Our dining room tables turned into something called “eating bars” with high bar stools we could fall off. Outsized chairs raised our legs, rubbed our backs, turned us around in circles and rocked us to sleep in front of massive TV sets hidden in gold-rimmed picture frames.
Life wasn’t always so easy to define. In the earliest days of our country, Thomas Jefferson chose the Greek Revival style of architecture as a symbol of the high ideals of American Democracy. Jefferson believed Greece and Rome were symbols of the Democratic vision. However, times change and people’s ideas change with them. During the 19th century, people decided that even though Greece and Rome were indeed founders of the world’s first republics, they were also pagan nations in barbaric times.
Attention became focused on the beautiful Gothic Cathedrals of Europe. The Gothic Revival brought a new style. Public buildings and homes were built with towers, spires, pinnacles, stained glass, and pointed arches on windows and doors. The advancements of technology contributed to the style. Trimmings no longer had to be painstakingly carved by hand. Millions of lacy, wooden embellishments were machine turned on newly invented jigsaws. These ornaments were used on window frames, on roof gables and on balconies. The old red brick courthouse in Dallas is an iconic example of Gothic Revival architecture.
In the middle of the 19th century, the “balloon” frame house was invented by a Chicago lumber dealer named George Washington Snow. Before his invention, houses were built with heavy frames made out of huge timbers. They were mortised and tenoned and carefully joined together with wooden pins. Snow used standard lengths of wood that had been pre-cut to size and thickness. He used “newfangled” steel nails to hold his light board framework together.
Unfortunately, when his idea was first introduced, it was considered to be a worthless novelty. It got its name because people thought that anything that looked that flimsy would fly away like a balloon in the first strong wind. Builders laughed about the big bad wolf huffing and puffing and blowing Snow’s balloon frame houses down.
They were wrong. Snow’s design revolutionized construction. His ideas are still used today. The invention of the balloon frame freed builders from the exhausting problems of massive construction. Once builders were no longer tied down by structural problems, they could turn their attention to high style and even more elaborate ornament.
Buildings became increasingly more individual as builders became more adventuresome. Private homes were styled to please the mind and eye as well as the comfort of the family. Norman, Swiss, and Italian styles competed for high fashion. The Italianate style had arched windows, wraparound porches, arcades, window bays and fretwork. There was ornament on top of ornament. You name it, they had it. Every eave contained a decorative bracket, both to support the structure, and more importantly, to cast interesting shadows.
Eccentric architectural flights of imagination included the square towers of Tuscan villas, cottages made to look like Swiss chalets, houses with fairytale princess towers, cupolas, roof walks, outdoor staircases and oddly shaped six- and eight-sided rooms and porches.
Today, the gorgeous abundance of balustrades, arches and balconies seems quaint and unreasonable. No one would reasonably decide to build a new home or a public building that is completely in the style of an earlier time. Still, it is comforting to dream about corners in which to hide and quiet spaces where shadows once reflected the passing clouds.
Jan Statman is an artist, author, poet, playwright, art teacher and TV interviewer. She is listed in Who’s Who in American Art, Who’s Who of American Women, Who’s Who in the Arts, Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Dictionary of International Biography, and other biographical references.