ARCHITECTURE, MEN, WOMEN AND MONEY IN AMERICA 1600-1860.By Roger G. Kennedy. Random House. 526 pp. $35. JESUS SAID, according to John (14:2), "In my Father's house are many mansions." So, too, in a secular sense, with American history. This is a book about a lot of those mansions, including the highly influential one known as Mount Vernon, built by the Father of His Country. Other famous homes are discussed as well, such as Nicholas Biddle's Greek temple, near Philadelphia, named Andalusia.
Most of Kennedy's buildings will be unknown, however, even to well-informed readers. Are you familiar with the Lanier and Shrewsbury mansions in Madison, Indiana, built during the later 1840s? After reading Kennedy's two exuberant chapters about Madison, a boomtown that borders the Ohio River, many readers of this engaging book will feel a strong urge to get there as swiftly as possible in order to see the numerous structures designed by an obscure local architect named Francis Costigan.
The stated focus of this volume is the relationship between architects and affluent clients during the initial two-thirds of American history. Kennedy delivers on that commitment as best he can; but in many instances too little is known about our architects and even less about their connections with clients. Consequently economic and social context is supplied in abundance. The result is a panoramic narrative of American origins and growth, from the Renaissance to the Civil War, from country homes in Britain to Barbados, and from Maine to Minnesota. The author is equally concerned with New World crops as a source of wealth and with what happened to the designs of Palladio when rich planters got ready to build homes socially commensurate with their new fortunes.
Kennedy was trained in law, worked for some years as a banker, and has served since 1979 as director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He brings to this book -- so clearly a labor of love -- worldly and practical credentials for writing about the ways in which a great variety of Americans have made fortunes, spent them, and in many instances have shaped or been affected by the spasmodic patterns of national politics.
Kennedy writes very well indeed. His authorial voice is chatty, personal, irreverent yet enthusiastic, at once elegant but informal. Given all the biographical sketches of buildings as well as people; the fresh, abundant, and carefully placed illustrations; and the attentive balance between architectural particulars and general historical background, the reader is carried along at a swift pace. This book is like an irresistible current. It flows.
Although primarily descriptive and people-oriented, the book does offer a number of sensible arguments and speculative hypotheses. In the preface to Part IV, for example, when Kennedy is about to carry us across the Appalachians to places like Nashville and Natchez, he asserts that "bold and successful architecture is likely to be produced when an economy has enlarged itself quickly, when the energy of the newly rich has not been wholly spent in that enlargement and when there is a group of these potential clients interested in architecture."
Subsequently, in concluding a chapter about the mansions built by cotton planters in the expanding South, Kennedy contends that "form follows feeling. When clients are quite comfortable with their role, and sure of the way they are perceived by others, they seem likely to build houses -- masks -- that represent them, cheerfully, as they are. . . . When the opposite is true, architecture becomes the art of dissembling. The antebellum South possessed some eloquent examples of that art."
The book also brims with more particular suggestions and insights: the Caribbean influence on coastal New England architecture, for example, and hence why we find verandahs in Maine; the architectural impact of the mosquito (especially in South Carolina); and the peculiar fate of the Palladian portico in British North America, a phenomenon that Kennedy calls the "biloggial frontispiece" (one porch stacked above another, as in the Hermitage of Andrew Jackson).
Kennedy takes care, by the way, to notice the vernacular language of architects and of those interested in the history of design. Phrases like "Dutch Gothic," that might otherwise perplex us, are explained. He also makes a genuine contribution by indicating why classical revival would be a more appropriate generic term than Greek revival architecture in Great Britain and in the United States.
THIS IS, incidentally, a fine book for anyone remotely interested in the history of Washington and its environs. The architects of the White House and Capitol, James Hoban and William Thornton, respectively, are discussed. We find out when George Washington put the porch on Mount Vernon (and what combination of circumstances made it possible). We discover that Roosevelt Island, once owned by George Washington Parke Custis, was previously called Barbados! And I, for one, who lived in Washington from 1941 until 1958, was fascinated by Kennedy's explanation of the provenance and symbolic significance of the Custis-Lee Mansion, originally known as Arlington House.
I do find it rather outrageous that Kennedy considers James Sterling Young (a professor of political science at Columbia University) to be Washington's "best historian." It passeth all understanding that Kennedy, who has read widely and well, seems oblivious to the works of both Constance McLaughlin Green (Washington, 1800-1950, 2 vols., 1962- 63) and John W. Reps (Monumental Washington: The Planning and Development of the Capital Center, 1967).
Such omissions are offset by all that Kennedy can tell us about the likes of Thomas U. Walter, who became the U.S. government architect in 1861, extended the Capitol and designed its present neo-baroque dome; or about William Jay and Robert Mills of Savannah; Charles Dakin of Mobile; the frenzied work of Samuel Sloan, who designed 32 hospitals for the insane as well as Longwood, the notorious, never-finished octagonal mansion in Natchez; and John Notman, who promoted the notion of suburban villas after 1830.
All of that and much, much more. This book should reach an extensive clientele: anyone interested in the history of commerce, crops and cities, for example; or anyone who cares about historic preservation; or has any curiosity about the evolution of architectural ideas and traditions in the United States. Or, not incidentally, anyone who has ever undergone the exhilaration and psychic exhaustion of working with a creative architect to design and build a house. There is no experience quite like it; and there is a certain fascination in finding out what the undertaking must have been like for earlier Americans living in various sections of the country at different stages of our socio-economic and esthetic development.