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In replicas of famous homes, imitation can be the sincerest form of excess

By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, July 4, 2010; E04

The decision to live in an exact replica of the White House or Mount Vernon or some other iconic American home seems a bit like the decision to join the Marine Corps. For many people, it's an extension of patriotism. But there's also an element of pure, inexplicable, what-the-hell bravado. One day you wake up and realize: It's time.

Fred Milani, a home developer who built himself a 16,500-square-foot, one-third-scale version of the White House in Atlanta, puts it this way: "It is a house, my house. What can I say? It is a good feeling. It is a good house."

Replicating famous buildings is neither a recent phenomenon nor a peculiarly American one. Many of the mansions that line Fifth Avenue in New York and Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington are more or less loosely based on famous European prototypes.

Almost as soon as Americans earned enough to move out of primitive log shelters, builders were replicating the details and general outlines of earlier houses, using pattern books that communicated architectural ideas to builders who were essentially craftsmen.

Building replicas, however, seems to have something to do with an excess of money and not a lot of imagination when it comes to flaunting it.

The famous French architect François Mansart did a pretty bang-up job when he designed the Château de Maisons outside Paris in the middle of the 17th century. And rather than build something new, Chinese real estate magnate Zhang Yuchen decided to park his zillions of yuan (made in the real estate boom of the 1990s) in a hotel that is an exact copy of Mansart's baroque masterpiece.

Using the original plans and importing the same stone from France to a suburb of Beijing, the Communist Party member reproduced the structure -- and then added two wings copied from the Palace of Fontainebleau near Paris.

Near Hangzhou, another Chinese plutocrat has reproduced the White House, in full scale, with a mini-Mount Rushmore nearby (one-third scale).

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Cultural ambition generally plays some role in these quixotic endeavors, as it did in what was probably the first full-scale replication of Mount Vernon, built for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. States were invited to contribute representative pavilions to the fair, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in what Europeans (without irony or shame) called "the New World."

For its building, Virginia reproduced Mount Vernon, inside and out, down to the last detail, including the oddly asymmetrical window arrangement that reflects the expansions of the original house made by its owner, George Washington. African American actors were hired to staff the building to reproduce the domestic life of the country's most famous slave owner.

Lydia Mattice Brandt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, is studying reproductions of Mount Vernon, which were built for no fewer than six major expositions and fairs. The choice of Mount Vernon, Brandt says, reflected a Southern desire to lay claim to the nation's founding father, reassert the South's fundamentally American identity and "embody both post-Confederate pride and an agreeable vision of a new South for a national audience."

Mount Vernon became an essential symbol in the Lost Cause ideology of post-Reconstruction Virginia, conflating two identities: Virginia, cradle of presidents; and Virginia, home of Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.

Naturally, they stocked it with period furniture and other mementos, including whisky flasks and a desk once owned by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It was all about advertising a vision of Virginia untainted by the controversy and nastiness of the Civil War.

"They chose it for the same reason that people are still sticking Mount Vernon porches on houses today," Brandt says. "It is recognizable, and it makes people feel good."

Dennis Pogue, vice president for preservation at Mount Vernon, thinks Mount Vernon may be the most reproduced house in the United States, and he keeps a bulky file of pictures people have sent of knock-offs from around the country. There's the Mount Vernon Hotel in Charlottesville and the California Federal Bank Building in Los Angeles. There are also funeral homes, a Howard Johnson and many private residences.

"Domes are hard," Pogue says, which is one reason you don't see mini-Monticellos serving hamburgers or taking deposits on every Main Street. But you can turn almost anything into a little Mount Vernon, he says, just by adding some square columns and a cupola to the top.

For the luxury-home replicator, Mount Vernon has the advantage of two conveniently located "dependencies," side buildings linked to the main house by an arcade. These are perfect, Pogue says, for a garage and indoor swimming pool.

Architect Allan Greenberg, who is so inspired by classical architecture that his portfolio looks as if it were plagiarized from Palladio, says he has built three Mount Vernon-inspired homes and a children's playhouse model of the mansion.

For the most Mount Vernon-y of his Mount Vernon houses, Greenberg cleaned up the original a bit. He reordered the windows to make them more symmetrical, gave the house round columns instead of square ones, cut the number of bays on the portico from seven to five and nixed the cupola.

And it still looks very much like Mount Vernon. His clients, he says, like to host large suppers under the portico, which on the original house is in the back, facing the Potomac River.

"Most people who imitate Mount Vernon use the two-story porch facing the river as the entrance up to the house," he says. The father of the country, it seems, got his own house backward.

Architect William E. Poole might quibble with the idea that Mount Vernon is the most replicated home in the country. Using a slightly different definition of terms, he says that his Natchez House is the most popular home design.

Based on the Briars, now an inn in Natchez, Miss., Poole's house is much more modest than Mount Vernon, with only six short columns supporting a generous but not grand front porch. It reflects a taste for simplicity, Poole says. But it has strong historical resonance. Jefferson Davis, whose whisky flask went to Chicago to give Mount Vernon a little more Confederate flair, was married in the parlor of the original Briars.

"We processed 2,000 orders in one year," says Poole, who sells his plans on the Web and through magazines. "The house was built all over the United States, all over Canada. We shipped plans to places like New Zealand and Indonesia and Japan."

It is a strange business, this game of "inspired by" and "based on" and "modeled after," a game filled with invisible lines and danger zones. Replicate a very famous building with too much detail, and you generally end up with something architecturally dubious in a Las Vegas sort of way. Replicate a relatively obscure building, such as R. Charlton's Coffeehouse at Williamsburg, right down to the 18th-century saw marks, and you get an extraordinary example of the melding of archaeology, history and preservation.

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But the strangest of all may be replications for which there is no original. On the banks of Popes Creek, where George Washington was born, stands a house that was constructed at the high-water mark of the Colonial Revival movement in the 1930s. Authorized by Congress to build "a replica, as nearly as may be practicable, of the house in which George Washington was born," a high-minded public association re-created the Washington birthplace, a house that is both humble and imposing and so freakishly homey that it looks as if it were orchestrated by Martha Stewart.

It has nothing to do with Washington, of course, who was born in a much smaller house. Archaeologists uncovered the foundations of the real birthplace while building the fake one, and visitors can see its outline on the ground near what the National Park Service, in the spirit of full disclosure, calls the "Memorial House." You could fit the entire original house into the central hall of the 1930s "replica."

The replicators may have been misled by Washington's reference to the house as "the ancient mansion seat" of the family. But that's the problem with replication. It seems to make memory real, and memory is so often faulty.

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