Monday, May 28, 2012

"Peacock Point"

THE publication of a new work by Messrs. Walker and Gillette is a matter of interest among architects. There is a keynote of excellence running through the design of all the product of the firm that at times rises above the level of professional skill. When this happens the result is a masterly work of art. Such is the house of H. H. Rogers, at Southampton, Long Island, which I(John Taylor Boyd, Jr.) described last year in the January number of the Architectural Record. The "Rogers house," as it has come to be known, called forth at once admiration for the rare way in which it combined imagination and boldness with vigorous classic unity of effect; for its harmony of color and its perfection of detail, especially in the matter of texture. Remarkable as this house was on the exterior, with its flat-walled gardens, inside it was to be praised for the free, unconventional use of materials, of plaster and metals and tile, used in decorative schemes obtained by contrasting pieces of furniture, furnishings and objects of art against flat wall surfaces of exquisite texture, all in rich, strong, yet harmonious color.
A decidedly different type of house is "Peacock Point". Indeed, at first sight one would hardly believe that it came from the same hands that wrought the Rogers house - that is, until one notes the striking, decorative quality of the terrace front and the sureness of proportions common to the two. Inside, also, if one is familiar with the Rogers house, one will appreciate in Peacock Point something of the same ability to devise contrasts of spots of rich concentrated ornament in glowing colors against bare flat planes. Especially is this true of the breakfast room ***below***.
It is evident that Peacock Point is a much more conventional type of house than the other, doubtless necessarily so, since the latter is a summer residence and might, therefore, assume a more original character than an owner would desire in a year-round home, where medieval oak and tapestry, wrought iron and tile might become tiresome at times, especially in winter.

Exteriorally, Peacock Point follows a type familiar to us. That is the type which has been evolved by two different lines of thought converging towards the same goal, the goal of formal architecture on balanced axes, expressed with fine proportions and in exquisite taste. These two differing influences originated a generation ago with the late Mr. McKim and with Mr. Charles A. Piatt. Both of them were men of strong personality, and they succeeded in imparting to their work an extraordinary expression of well-being and good breeding carried out in perfect taste. Indeed, if one comes to think about it, one will be astonished that two such people could say the same thing in such different words. 'Tis like reciting the Lord's Prayer, first in English and then in Russian. Only two such strong personalities could have accomplished this paradox. The two architects possessed in rare degree the true classic spirit, which is: formality without monotony, perfection without coldness or deadness. They knew how to retain interest, yet at the same time ruthlessly cut away every motive or ornament not absolutely vital to the design. They often endowed their work with qualities of charm and grace, which is but another attribute of true classicism. Altogether, it is doubtful if there ever has been evolved a formal style of architecture more suited to the needs and character of gentlemen of large means and of ample endowment in the material and intellectual benefits of twentieth century civilization. More recently, this modern American adaptation of Georgian has evolved further, under the influences of younger men, among whom are Messrs. Walker and Gillette. It has become freer, slightly less severe, and grace and delicate scale have often been added to it. This modification has perhaps been the result both of intimate study of beautiful details in Italy, and also of the variety and perfection of early American work, of whose fascination we never tire.

All these influences are apparent in "Peacock Point". But it shows clearly the same bold, keen sense of decoration so characteristic of its creators. The decorative character of the terrace front has, however, a sounder basis than any architect's temperament, or any yearning for pretentiousness on the part of an owner desirous of something striking to advertise him to a public flashing past his door in automobiles. The true reason for the strong color spotting of the pilasters and flanking bay-windows in the side pavilions is to provide a motive powerful enough to carry across the waters of Long Island Sound. The house stands only some 250 feet from the shore line, and did it not have such strong contrasts of color would appear at a distance as a flat, dark mass without any architectural character whatever.

As an additional effective aid in providing a long-distance impression, we must admire the splendid silhouette of the house. Its manner of piling up from the ground in a pyramid, up from ground floor bay-windows, then to flanking loggia and service wing, on up to the flatroofed balustraded pavilions of the second story and finally to the third floor attic crowned by its hipped roof - all this cannot be too highly praised. Not only does this stepping up improve the aspect of the house at a distance, but it further harmonizes the house with its level site, in which effect the terrace and the skillfully disposed planting serve to aid.
The successful tieing-on of the flanking pavilions to the centre motive is a skillful bit of technique, and I do not recall anywhere having seen a better solution of the hard problem of stopping the frieze and architrave of the entablature above the pilasters and columns and then carrying only the cornice around the building above the plain walls. 

On this sea-front the order has been detailed with admirable freedom, especially with regard to the narrow entablature above the elongated capitals and the flattened vases set above the cornice. In its decorative motifs and delicate scale it has the inspiration of colonial America, though we cannot recall anything exactly resembling it in our early native masterpieces. Another virtue of the exterior of "Peacock Point" is that, while invested with unusual refinement and delicacy, the underlying proportions of windows and window enframements and balustrades retain that splendid solidity and sureness that the progenitors of this style of house endowed it with. Too often we notice the recent tendency of over-refinement, where delicacy and thinness - qualities in themselves desirable in certain cases -  have not been successful and have instead made designs look weak, even effeminate. The truth is that when delicate, attenuated proportions are chosen, the designer must detail them with corresponding delicacy, with extreme subtlety. Refined subtle proportions demand even more than do heavier ones strength and firmness and character in every line. The difference of a small fraction of an inch in belt-course or capital, or frieze, or overhang or projection, may decide success and failure of the work of art. It is no exaggeration to say that attenuated proportions require higher ability in their designs than heavy ones, though, of course, they have no superiority in themselves over heavy ones. Many cases there are where heavy proportions are to be preferred to light ones, and just as much ability may be imparted to their details. The point is that if the heavy order has not unusual artistic accuracy in its design, it does not appear to have failed so signally.

As minor details will be noticed the lively touch of decoration of the metal balcony, lace-like against the dark brick, the finely turned balusters, columns and arches, also the humorous placing of the big peacocks over the bay-windows, symbolical of the name of the estate.
The south or entrance front is of simpler, quieter aspect than the other, since in a garden front there is no need of affording a long distance impression. Its good taste is evident, resulting in less emphasis of pyramidal effect, though the silhouette is the same. The sparkling touches of color, of style, provided by the enframements of the first story, the big fine motive of the entrance, and the able handling of the balustraded terrace which ends against the urn-tipped posts of the circling walls and serves to aid the adjustment of building to flat terrain, these are the main elements of the success of this front. It is fortunate, too, that advantage has been taken of the position of the tall elms on the lawn to break up the horizontal lines of the cornice.
As the photographs show, the roadway swings up to the entrance door around a long elliptical lawn of elm trees. At the west of the opposite end of this lawn is the entrance, where a gateway of curving walls has overcome ingeniously the oblique turning off from the highway. The gardens open out from the house terrace on the east, and, further along, are found a polo field and the farm of the estate. The photographs are worth much study for the effective planting, which is plentiful but not dense enough to appear gloomy. 
The designers have avoided mechanical or trivial effects in the gardens. Instead they contented themselves with a less formal method, have sought bold sweeping effects made by contrasting big beds of flowers against banks of trees and broad greensward paths, and have brightened the perspectives with an occasional spot of architecture in the curving curb of a pool, an infrequent statue or thatched teahouse. It is precisely the scheme of decoration of the garden front of the house. 
Good use has been made of rough stone walls and paths made by great flagstones set in greensward. Altogether the effect is somewhat naturalistic, akin to oldfashioned places, with just enough of modern style and art to make it cheerful. How often do we see the contrary where gardens are hard, mechanical, fussy, with a surfeit of angular brick walls, countless little paths and steps and levels all washed spick and span and without sufficient background of shrubs and trees! The old Italian and English gardeners knew their work. They were aware that delicacy and color in nature are provided by leaves and flowers and sunlight, and that the right contrast comes when architecture of walls and terraces is made heavy and lumpy with blocks of stone with robust overhangs or rustications affording deep shadows. The extravagant use of rococo elements in garden architecture of the Renaissance was not caprice, it was more than blindly following the tastes of the time. We can hardly swallow such oddities now and would not care for them today in buildings, but in gardens they have a purpose. In Italy and England one will note that, however delicate may be the scale of buildings on the parts off the ground, the architecture in contact with foliage near the ground on the same building is coarse and heavy. Yet, more often than not, American architects will set mechanical, sophisticated prim little gates or posts or other garden decoration in the midst of a garden.
By this time we are all familiar enough with symmetrical plans of houses with centre entrances and consequently we do not need to have their intricacies pointed out to us. 
The entrance is agreeable - into a biscuit-colored hall with wrought iron stair railing and brass hand rail, whose chief merits are the old Portland stone floor brought from England and the Chinese panels in full color on the second floor. 
In the dining room we have much more elaboration, even sophistication, executed with great delicacy of detail. Here the color scheme shows soft yellow walls as a background for walnut furniture and blue carpet and the crystal candelabra over the mantel. Again the symbolical peacock appears, this time as a screen in front of the "Franklin" on the hearth. We are no longer content to associate crickets with the hearth—we must place peacocks there. In what countless ways, in even the minutest, the oddest, the most humorous details, is the old truth always recurring that architecture is the mirror of the life of its time!

I have mentioned the charming breakfast room and its fine decorative flower reliefs. These were developed from old
Dutch flower pictures in a sort of "composition' material, and executed in full color. A happy idea, which, let us hope, will not be cone to death by careless imitation. On the chairs of this room are painted plaques of birds of the locality.
A view of the library, a most homelike room. Its walls are tinted a fawn gray and the cornice is painted in color blending into a most charming interior with objects of different arts and periods vivaciously combined. Its only fault is a slight tendency of that curious fad of contemporary decorators which is to balance all tiny pictures, medallions and other trinkets painfully on an axis, especially a piece of furniture. The reductio ad absurdun of this logic I once saw in a published photograph of a simple chest of drawers, which was presented as an example to be followed. Here the decorator in some uncanny way had disposed tall candles and framed photographs and books, especially books, until he had changed that humble chest of drawers into a shrine or an altar. Were the owner of the bedroom a religious man, it is certain that he could never enter or leave the room without kneeling and crossing himself before the icon.
The decorator's art has advanced rapidly in the last ten years and all must be glad of its progress. It has taken a great load off the architect's mind, for now he may design good interiors, conscious that there is a good chance that they will not be ruined by bad furniture and hangings. For this reason it is a misfortune when we discover in the decorator's art any tendency to degenerate into formula? and fads. In too many cases interior decorating is more of a business venture than a profession, and, under the commercial pressure of increasing the volume of sales, is too easily tempted into a routine like this ridiculous overemphasis of symmetry in tiny things.
A work wrought with insight in conception and details, executed with high skill and breeding, in a fine vigorous scale, well harmonized with its setting, "Peacock Point" is a worthy addition to America's ever lengthening list of fine houses.

The house was demolished in the early 1960s. Click HERE to see remains at wikimapia. Click HERE for link to for more on "Peacock Point" including comments from Henry P. Davison II. 


  1. This post completes a trilogy of articles by John Taylor Boyd, Jr. My intent with the text from these articles is to give "color" to the B/W photos. I hope you can take the time to read these three posts. Learning about the textures and colors used, at least for me, brings the subject to another level.

  2. That's exactly,what reading this did, for me.. thank you! I'm anticipating a Walker & Gillette book.

  3. A magnificent house with great photos. Wonderful and informative. Youre posts keep getting better and better

  4. Walker and Gillette were so very, very good: Masters of form and materials.