Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mr. Vanderbilt's HOUSE and COLLECTION - Introduction

***"Beettlehead's" 640 Fifth Avenue  is one of my first and most popular post. The source of the wonderful photogavure and  lithographs came from Mr. Vanderbilt's House and Collection, the Holland Edition published in 1883. Starting with this "Introduction" I intend to be true and pure in posting the original text  along with the photos and lithographs in sequence as they were published - as if you were reading the book in person.  Each photo was presented with a title page followed by a blank end page. The photogavures came with a protective transparency. In this post I include everything you would see as if you were turning each page - blank pages and all  - subsequent posts - all unnecessary and repetitive pages will be eliminated. ***  


In these volumes we are permitted to make a revelation of a private home which, better than any other possible selection, may stand as a representative of the new impulse now felt in the national life. Like a more perfect Pompeii, the work will be the vision and the image of a typical American residence, seized at the moment when the nation began to have a taste of its own, an architecture, a connaisseurship, and a choice in the appliances of luxnry, society, culture. We would give much to see the house of Sallust, at the foot of Vesuvius, thus preserved, with its Lares and Penates unbroken: much to view the actual home, and machinery of living, of a Venetian merchant prince, a Tudor gentleman, a Flemish banker. It is just such a privilege which is now accorded to those who examine the ensuing volumes; and the unbidden guest of today at Pompeii can hardly have a more curious feeling during his explorations than the reader of this work who, - whether at uncounted leagues of distance or at an incalculable remoteness of future time - shall turn its pages and become the guest of a nineteenth-century gentleman. The leave to make this unprecedented revelation comes from a free-hearted open generosity that feels there is nothing to conceal and believes there is something to instruct; and this leave, fortunately for the reader, comes at the right moment, prompt and opportune, when wealth is first consenting to act the Mediecan part in  America, to patronize the inventors, to create the arts, and to originate a form of civilization. The country, at this moment, is just beginning to be astonishing. Re-cemented by the fortnuale result of a civil war, endowed as with a diploma of rank by the promulgation of its centenary, it has begun to re-invent everything, and especially the House. 

The House, at this fruitful and creative epoch, is understood in three senses. The builder of architectural education considers it as an expression of one of the five orders; if he succeeds, at the sacrifice of his chimneys and other conveniences, he will get an eulogistic chapter in the architectural journals; and many thousands of asthetic gentlemen, in Europe and here, are satisfied thus to live, approved and chimneyless. The second class, enamored of the modem rage for hangings,  constructs its chambers of tapestries, turns its rooms into tents, builds barnlike walls as a mere shelter for its draperies, and laughs at the scorn of the architect, but grows serious at the sight of a moth. Many are the "Jacobean" residences made on this principle. The third class, to which the present owner belongs, regards the House as a Home. In the mind of such an owner, the residence is only the last shell or envelope of the man; the rooms express the habits; the stairways lead to the comforts, the luxuries, the studies and the tastes; the house appears to have grown over this mass of individual needs, and the space in which each habit plays seems to be the first thing arranged. If around this, like a screen of privacy, is thrown a stone mantle sufficiently handsome and rich, the proprietor enjoys his shelter with supreme satisfaction, never asking whether the architect has found a fault in a carving, or the upholsterer a culpable color in a curtain.

It is perhaps just as well, for those who mean to live in their houses, not to stray too far from the principle observed by this last class. A house that is an architect's elevation, and a house that is the draper's emporium, may be delightftd to the spectator but a purgatory for the inmate. We shall hardly do better than to keep in mind the five rules which excellent old Fuller, he of the "worthies" lays down in his "Holy State." "In building," says he, "we must respect Situation, Contrivance, Receipt, Strength, and Beauty." Receipt, or capacity of reception, is a merit common to most modem homes in our country, though certainly not in some European capitals, such as Paris; of the other qualities, all have been generally attended to except Beauty; and that is to be attained by free-hand sketches, by quick and almost impromptu construction, such as the mansion considered in this work, rather than by slavery to the architectural orders. It is earnestly to be hoped that, in America, there will never be a feudal spirit of vassalage to any of the sub-orders of which European upholsterers have made such a study. A French gentleman will take us into a room which he declares to be pure Louis Fifteenth; if we detect a table-leg which is Louis Sixteenth, the chamber ceases for him to be "Pure." Another apartment wilt be designated as Louis treize, modified here and there by interlopers, - for, getting so far back, a Louis more or less makes small difference. Now the fact is that none of these French sub-orders are good enough, or important enough, to form a system of house-architecture upon. Only the lens of the curiosity-shop merchant is fit to discriminate a science in their vain distinctions and dry-rotten efflorescence. A distant Western world should surely keep away from the pundit upholsterer, and rather try, by melting all styles into its crucible, to hit upon something new. Still less creditable to worthy people seems the style struck out by Dutch  mercantile wealth, and imported with the Hanoverians into England; in this worst of false styles, the style of Hogarth's backgrounds, not a pediment but is triangulated amiss, not a Tuscan column but is ill-proportioned, not a Roman arch but is like a cake with the leaven omitted. In this style, which now holds all England in rapture, but which we hope will never be acclimated in America, we suffer again with good Fuller, when he explored the ignorant errors of Tudor architecture; "A fair Entrance with an easy Ascent gives a great Grace to a Building, where the Hall is a Preferment out of the Court, the Parlour out of the Hall; not as in some old Buildings, where the Doors are so low Pigmies must stoop, and the Rooms so high  Giants may stand upright."

The tendency of the day is not merely to classify buildings into the Grecian, the Egyptian, the Gothic and the like, but to prolong these just distinctions into our table-service and bedrooms, so that a salt-spoon may be of the Jacobean Order, and may be reasonably commanded of an architect, and a night-cap may be of the chastest Louis Quinze. No growth in true task ever came of an insipid pedantry like this. America is at a happy distance from the world of these petty niceties. The hope of creating a new regimen of asthetics lies less in her fulness of instruction about the sixteen Louis, than in an independent creation of new and inventive belongings, which, if strictly adaptcd to usefulness and unrestricted in opulent splendor, will  often satisfy taste and be novel besides.

The house now under consideration presents hundreds of objects imputed on this principle, invented for a need, with unrestricted means and a competent share of culture. There is a better chance of encountering ideas and suggestions in wandering through a residence thus furnished, than if the objects were all coined in the purest stamp of the impurest French king.

The occupant of this residence has often admitted to his house an almost indiscriminate assemblage. It is believed that the present way of throwing it open will really be less an invasion of privacy. The picture-gallery is one of the notable and recognized collections of the world, and it will be amply revealed in the coming pages. The permission to draw so freely upon private possessions has been a valued boon to the projectors of this work, and to the reader will be like a card of invitation to one of the artistic At Homes which have to so many people opened the gallery-doors heretofore. 


  1. And oh, how I love the engraving of the cherubim guiding the locomotive out of the tunnel---hilarious! All the allegory money could buy.

  2. Allegory! Thats the word I was looking for. OK so what do you call the fancy letter that starts off a paragraph? Like THE were the T might be in a fancy scroll - there must be a term?

  3. Hard to believe, but it's called an Initial, although illuminated drop cap seems acceptable (as well as more descriptive).