So many, moving so fast, in the name of progress. Yet where are we going? Some of us chasing our tails, some striving for an unknown beyond. So many take no notice of what surrounds them. “Architecture is frozen music,” said Goethe. We need to stop, now and then, and listen. The notes are carefully crafted around us in small forms – a beading detail on a window frame, a bolection moulding around a fireplace opening, a paneled wall at a chimney breast, wainscoting, raised paneled or plank, with chair rail above, a corner cupboard built in to the corner of the room to house our precious things. The curve of the shelf, the scallop of the back, the hand forged brass knob – all carefully considered, hand worked and forged with a pride that could carve a country out of a wilderness.
Yet, how ungrateful we have been. How could we turn a blind eye to what these craftsmen created? How could we forget the awe of their achievement?
We have strayed far. Hundreds, thousands, dare I say, millions, of houses have been built since, without even a cursory nod to classical design. They want to learn nothing from the past, just to rewrite it. To pick it clean, selectively, according to their likes and dislikes, and mold it together as economically as possible, into one giant monolith. And most builders cater to this. They look only forward, never back. Forward to the profit margin, to the devil with the result. Thus, we have miles of plastic cities, plastic neighborhoods, plastic homes. With wide empty spaces in which to lose dreams instead of create them, slippery spaces where nothing can stick, Teflon walls, padded floors, plastic paint.
Where is the pride in that? Where, the reality?
Our American treasures, large and small, cannot be forsaken. We cannot leave this work only to Landmarks Societies or Historic District Committees, their budgets and powers are limited. We each have to do our small part, whether it’s saving, instead of knocking down, or calling in an expert for advice on how to restore, repair, reshape the old doorway, the sagging floor, the crooked windows. There is help and expertise out there. But one has to make the call. One has to care.
How I wish I could have been with Henry James on his travels in 1904! When the roads were still dirt, travel was horse and cart, and architecture so simple. Before the advent of asbestos and aluminum siding, insulated windows and asphalt roofs! When glass was wavy and doorways were made of wood. When architects like Christopher Wren and Asher Benjamin based their designs on the classical, craftsmen honed their skills with pride, and town folks built their homes, and their lives, on principles.
We can do this again. We need to slow down, turn our attention to the classical details that have outlasted all fads, to the places that have drawn tourists and students alike for a thousand years, and listen, ever so carefully, to the frozen music.