How do we learn to house ourselves with taste? Today we buy a "shelter" magazine such as Architectural Digest or Better Homes and Gardens, or we tune into HGTV.
One hundred and fifty years ago, we would have bought a book from one of the age's great tastemakers, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852). Beginning as a nurseryman, Downing wrote a treatise on landscape design and then moved into architectural theory. His architecture books remained popular for decades after his untimely death in a steamboat accident, going into dozens of editions and reaching thousands of readers across the country.
For Downing, it's all about the landscape. "Architectural beauty," he wrote, "must be considered conjointly with the beauty of the landscape or situation."
Not only should the landscape be designed to enhance the house; the house must also be designed to enhance the landscape. For instance, Downing suggests that houses on level ground should be horizontal, with low roofs; in rugged, mountainous settings, he calls for spiky, tall-gabled designs.
Also, colors should blend with the landscape: soft grays and tans rather than the gleaming white of Greek Revival buildings that stood out prominently - harshly, according to Downing - from the greenery.
To experience Downing's influence, go see the Day-Taylor house at 81 Wethersfield Ave. in Hartford. Constructed in 1858 by Hartford builders Hiram and Sylvester Bissell, it is an example of a style that Downing called "Italianate," since it is based on ordinary Italian farmhouses as depicted in popular landscape paintings of the time.
In "The Architecture of Country Houses," first published in 1850, Downing described characteristic Italianate features that can be found on the Day-Taylor house.
"Roofs rather flat, and projecting upon brackets ..." The Day-Taylor roof isn't actually flat, but to eyes accustomed to the steeper pitches of the 18th and early 19th centuries, it would seem so. With its low pitch and wide eaves, the roof is a heavy lid that puts a firm stop to the house's tall, narrow proportions. The brackets (Downing sometimes called this the "Bracketed Style") provide visual support for the eaves and a rich border to finish off the house.
"Windows ... with massive dressings, frequently running into the round arch, when the opening is an important one ..." The "massive dressings" here are the heavy window hoods, made of cast iron in an early example of mass-produced building elements. The windows themselves are isolated in broad expanses of plain brick so that each one becomes an individual object to be seen and admired, like a picture hung on a wall. Different shapes lend picturesque variety.
"Ample verandas and arcades, are especially agreeable in our summers of dazzling sunshine ..." The porch of the Day-Taylor house has classical columns and arches copied from Italian buildings, but the idea of the porch itself was rare in Europe. Even in the 19th century, Americans desired spaces for outdoor living, where they could enjoy refreshing summer breezes and also commune with the surrounding landscape.
"Above all, when the composition is irregular, rises the campanile or Italian tower ... giving picturesqueness, or an expression of power and elevation, to the whole composition." This could be an actual tower, as on the Day-Taylor house, or else a monitor (a cupola with big windows) sitting atop the roof; in either case it provided another point from which to view the landscape. It also highlighted the house's picturesque "irregular outline," itself an earthshaking change: for the first time since the Renaissance began - more than 400 years before - stylish buildings did not have to be symmetrical.
As for the landscape that Downing champions, today it takes a powerful imagination to picture busy Wethersfield Avenue as it was when the Day-Taylor house and its neighbors were new. (Within a block or two there are several more houses in same style, including Armsmear, the sprawling home of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt.)
Then they sat on broad lawns dotted with shade trees and curving planting beds, and tidily outlined by fences, a perfect example of the landscape that Downing wrote about: "The Italian style is one that expresses not wholly the spirit of country life nor of town life, but something between both, and which is a mingling of both." It was the beginning of the suburbs.
Christopher Wigren is deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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