Obviously, a lot has changed in two hundred years, but American’s love for their colonial history and architecture has remained steadfast. As evidenced by preserved villages such as Sturbridge, Deerfield, Greenfield, Strawberry Banke and Williamsburg, and the hundreds of homes maintained by local historical and landmarks societies, colonial New England architecture is alive and well in the hearts and minds of Americans.
At first glance one notices the well designed façades, hefty proportions, the graceful balance and detail of the New England home. The carved doorway, small paned windows, and smoke rising from the chimney beckon us to come inside and stay a while. Henry James in 1904 while traveling through our fair New England, noted in the American Scene, “Look at them…at the fine old liberal scale, and felt symmetry, simple dignity, and solid sincerity of them…”
So why, you wonder, have we strayed? Why has the countryside been littered with other than perfectly proportioned New England colonials? Where corn and tobacco used to grow, houses have been planted from a seed-book of generic plans that offer up what the builder believes will sell – space, convenience, economy. Without a care for aesthetic, or for what history has taught us to please the eye and comfort the soul, proportion and balance is thrown out of the too tall pseudo Palladian window with the snap in grills in favor of ease and carefree living.
To say that a lot has changed in the last hundred years, architecturally, is an understatement. Through the colonial revival period of the 20th century, designing homes was still an art, and adherence to aesthetic principles was still the rule. The late 20th into the early 21st century has produced an abundance of ruthless architecture, the type that serves up to its buyers everything they could possibly want. Space, lots of it, high ceilings, large bathrooms with whirlpool tubs, perhaps a slate foyer, and an indoor pool. The rule became – give them what they want on the inside, and adjust the outside accordingly. The designer may have done his/her best, given their training, to produce an aesthetically pleasing home, but once left to the interpretation of the builder and homeowner, who are left to select for themselves all of the details they ever dreamed of incorporating into their home – well, the apple ends up falling very far from the tree. Sometimes it ends up a kumquat!
It reminds me of a story I used to read to my children, about a little bear who draws a picture of his mother at school. On his way home he shows the picture to his friend, the alligator, who says the mouth is too small. So he makes it larger. Then he meets his friend the elephant, who says the nose is too short. So he makes it longer. Then he meets the giraffe, who says the neck should be taller, and so on. You can imagine the picture by the time he gets home. But of course, his mother loves it! And, I suppose, from the inside of the house, the homeowner who got everything they ever wanted in their house, will love it too. But from the outside, it’s probably hard to tell which is the front, the side, or even, which way is up!
This is alright for the fast lane folks, I guess, where a house is just a house, a place to get it done. But some of us want to move slower, savor every moment. To some of us, it all matters. We want to envelop ourselves in the hand made, where we can caress the paneling, admire the hand carved mouldings, ponder the past over a grand hearth. We want to walk across old pine boards, open real wood doors, lift an iron latch. We long to gaze out of small paned windows with wavy glass. We yearn to enjoy the simple elegance of the colonial house, grounded in history and constructed by hand.