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By Robert Boucheron


The Montréal Review, January 2013


Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois (2005) by Carol M. Highsmith


In a dream that recurs with variations, I visit an apartment that I leased months or years ago. I lived in it briefly or never moved in. Have I paid rent all this time? A window has been left open, or the front door will not close. Or I find myself in an old house, one in disrepair. I am spending my first night, with no furniture and little idea of where things are. Again, a window or door is open, admitting drafts and noises from the street.

In the course of my work as an architect, I visit unoccupied houses and apartments to sketch floor plans and take dimensions. To dream about these places is a small step from reality. Still, a house is a symbol for a person or for a way of life. In my dream, I see the house from inside, corresponding to the way we see our own lives and bodies. I understand the old house image-I am now sixty-but I don't know what to make of the apartment. Does it represent a career I did not pursue, or an earlier phase of life? I live vicariously in the places I draw, and that helps to confuse matters.

For most people, the phrase "dream house" carries no negative weight. On the contrary, it conjures a fantasy of comfort, luxury, and size, a house that might suddenly appear by rubbing Aladdin's magic lamp. In this sense, a person says that someday he will build his dream house.

An industry of books and shelter magazines testifies to the popularity of this domestic daydream. Hanley Wood, for example, publishes American Dream Homes, which describes itself as an "annual showcase of our finest designs. . . the year's most celebrated homes from the most accomplished designers. . . great photography and meticulous descriptions of the exquisite details."

The photographs rarely include people, and certainly not the celebrity homeowners. That would disrupt the dream, in which the magazine reader is the happy inhabitant. The text reinforces the subliminal message, inviting the reader on a tour, and implying that all this can be yours. The expense is rarely mentioned, partly because it is obvious, but more because the dream does away with practical concerns. You could win the lottery or inherit a fortune. You could move in tomorrow!

There is nothing unclear about the drawings and photographs. The description is realistic, minutely detailed, and loaded with adjectives. The granite countertop is polished, the fireplace mantel is veined marble, the ceramic tile is imported from Italy, and the wood floor is reclaimed oak from a demolished mill. Look closer, and the lighting is too bright, the colors too intense, the glass too clear. The shadows are missing, just as the untidiness of life is missing. Where is the stray shoe, the carpet stain, the magazine left lying on the couch? The photographs, for all their apparent realism, have been carefully arranged, with hidden lights, and then skillfully edited, to remove the fallen leaf from the plants brought in as props.

All of which seems harmless, except that plenty of people have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. A diet of too many sweets is unhealthy, and a surfeit of dream houses leads to distress. You feel that your home, and by extension your life, is small, plain and empty. There is a hidden social message, too, the competitive spirit that seeps into every aspect of our lives. The most telling sign of status is where a person lives.

Those who strike it rich can afford their dream house, and turn fantasy into reality. The process involves more than rubbing Aladdin's lamp. Instead of a genie, they must deal with real estate agents, building inspectors, loan officers, home builders, and perhaps an architect. The dreamer encounters obstacles, and experiences frustration. An architect with years of experience in luxury houses says in conversation: "It is easier to design a resort hotel or an expensive vacation home than to draw a couple's dream house. Client expectations are high. She wants to cram everything in, and he wants to meet a budget."

Somewhere in the process, perhaps after construction has started, the client receives a reality check. This can take the form of a real estate appraisal lower than expected, or denial of a permit, or notice of a zoning violation, or a construction cost that is spiraling out of control. The owner's impulse is to blame someone else. The world is conspiring to thwart his dream. All she wants is a beautiful place to live. Is that too much to ask?

Still, they persevere, and if they have enough money, the result is there for all to see. Is it fair to call these houses vulgar? Nouveau-riche? They can be interesting. In an essay called "Among the Ruins" about three twentieth-century writers, Bruce Chatwin writes: "On the island of Capri there lived three narcissists who each built a house on the edge of a cliff. They were Axel Munthe, Baron Jacques Adelswärd-Fersen and Curzio Malaparte. All three were writers of the self-dramatizing variety. All had a strong dose of Nordic sensibility. And all sought to expand their personalities in architecture. Their houses were thus acts of self-love-'dream houses' where they hoped to live, love, and work wonders of creation."

Axel Munthe (1857-1949) was a Swedish physician and psychiatrist who wrote a memoir about his villa on Capri, The Story of San Michele. First published in English in 1929, the book was immensely popular and was translated into 50 languages. Munthe had a rich clientele in Paris and Rome, but he also worked in Naples among the poor during the cholera epidemic of 1884. He bought the ruin of a villa in 1887, then lavished a fortune on it. A natural story teller, he mixes the serious and the supernatural, drops names, including the Queen of Sweden, and omits swathes of his life, including his wife and children in England and his omnivorous sex life. He makes much of the Roman emperor Tiberius, who passed the last eleven years of his life on Capri, where he owned twelve villas, perhaps including San Michele.

Axel Munthe's villa on Capri

Mark Twain (1835-1910) anticipated Chatwin's trio with his idiosyncratic mansion in Hartford, Connecticut. Built in 1874 of multicolored brick, stone and wood, the house is described as Victorian Gothic. It was gorgeously redecorated and enlarged in1881, to a total of 11,500 square feet. The family lived here until 1891. This period was the happiest and most productive of Twain's life, when he wrote his classic novels and raised three daughters. He made and lost a great deal of money, declared bankruptcy, and moved out to economize.

In fact, the house was built with his wife Olivia's inheritance. She had strong opinions on design, drew sketches and consulted experts. She also taught their children in a second floor schoolroom-playroom. The third floor was the author's domain, a billiards room and private study, where he could entertain male friends and smoke incessantly. His interest in technology was reflected in the plumbing and heating systems, a burglar alarm, and the telephone. Saved from demolition in 1927, restored from 1974 onward, it is now a museum and tourist attraction.

Taste is fickle, and what was derided as excessive when it was new is now called historic. In the United States, the years just before and after 1900 produced spectacular examples of residential luxury, houses which even today shape our definition of the dream house. Consider the mansions of Long Island, the "summer cottages" of Newport, and estates such as Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina.

Books offer an illustrated guide to these houses. The American Country House, by Clive Aslet (Yale, 1990, 2004) describes the economic and social forces that gave rise to the estates, as well as some prominent architects and their creations. The Houses of McKim, Mead & White, by Samuel G. White (Rizzoli, 1998) is a large-format book with color photographs. Stanford White was the partner best known for residences. His work and sensational life have received book-length treatment. From a generation earlier, Great American Mansions, by Merrill Folsom (Hastings House, 1963) covers the best-known examples, with history, anecdotes, and black-and-white photographs.

Under the influence of travel to Europe, the dream house could take the form of a castle. A personal favorite, from family vacations in the 1960s, is Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands, in the St. Lawrence River between New York and Canada. Boldt Castle also shows up in the Folsom book. George C. Boldt (1851-1916), the proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, now the site of the Empire State Building, began the castle in 1897. Designed by Hewitt, Stevens & Paist of Philadephia, constructed of granite, steel and concrete, with a profusion of gables and turrets, it boasts five stories and 90 rooms. Intended as a summer retreat, it was to accommodate 100 guests and their servants.

Boldt was a native of Prussia and was inspired by castles on the Rhine. He emigrated to America at the age of thirteen, achieved success and amassed a fortune. He halted construction on the death of his wife Louise in 1904. Never completed, the castle occupies an island reshaped in the form of a heart, to express the love of the married couple. It stood empty for 73 years, and is now open in the summer months for tours. Since 1977, some restoration work has been done. Is it kitsch, or is Boldt Castle the quintessential romantic ruin?

In Virginia, a corresponding example is Swannanoa. Perched atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was built in 1913 by James H. and Sallie Mae Dooley. Major Dooley (1841-1924) was a Richmond lawyer who made a fortune in railroads after the Civil War. The childless couple occupied the house briefly. In the years 1928-1932 it was a country club, with an 18-hole golf course which is still in operation. Then the house sat empty until 1949. Designed by the architectural firm of Baskervill and Noland, and based on the Villa Medici in Rome, it fulfills all the material demands of the dream house, while maintaining an air of dreamy unreality. The Virginia Landmarks Register provides a description.

"The exterior of the house is faced entirely in Georgia white marble, while the interior is richly appointed with costly materials. The outstanding interior feature is the huge Tiffany stained glass window at the landing of the grand stair, depicting Mrs. Dooley in the gardens. Typical of the period, each of the principal rooms has its own architectural character, ranging from the Louis XVI music room to the Turkish office. Completing the image of a Gilded Age estate is an Italian-style terraced garden."

The American sculptor, painter, architect, organist, writer, and self-taught scientist Walter Russell leased Swannanoa in 1949, and lived there until his death in 1963. Russell wrote books on his unconventional theories. He asserted that the mind of God produced all matter and energy, and that "the universe is founded on the unifying principle of rhythmic balanced interchange." He coined the term "New Age," and created the University of Science and Philosophy, a home-study course based in Swannanoa. His widow Lao Russell opened the house to tourists, and I saw it shortly before she died in 1988.

Crammed with Russell's sculptures, paintings, and copies of his self-published books, available for purchase, the house suffered from decades of neglect. Roof leaks, cracked plaster, peeling paint, and tattered drapes obscured the architectural treasures, as well as Russell's reputation. Lao Russell, on the day I visited, held forth in the main living room, to a throng of acolytes. Born and raised in England under the name of Daisy Cook, she calmly predicted that the island of Great Britain would soon tilt up on its western coast, in a geological catastrophe, and slide beneath the North Sea like a tea tray.

The Dooleys had earlier built a house for themselves in Richmond, Virginia, of rough stone with plenty of porches, turrets and chimneys. Maymont (1893) is described as "opulent" and typical of the Gilded Age. It is now open to the public as a house museum, with extensive grounds overlooking the James River, maintained as a public park. Interiors include Mrs. Dooley's bed in the shape of a white swan.

Although it was published earlier, in 1842, Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death" has a parallel to Swannanoa. It can even be read as a parody of the American mansion, with its eclectic style and over-decorated interiors. Washington Irving's Sunnyside, a Hudson valley mélange of Dutch and Italian influence, dates from 1837, and nearby Lyndhurst, a Gothic Revival mansion, from 1838. Poe implies that the story is set in Europe, but gives no time or place. He describes a masked ball held in an "imperial suite" of seven rooms, each decorated in a different color, and "irregularly disposed," rather than "a long and straight vista," so as to produce "a novel effect." Poe calls the house a "castellated abbey," and mentions Gothic windows and stained glass. He dwells on the heedless luxury and bizarre taste of the owner, Prince Prospero. In the end, Prospero gets what he deserves, a dose of the plague.

In his 1839 story "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe also uses a vaguely European setting. The narrator passes "through a singularly dreary tract of country" to visit his childhood friend, Roderick Usher. "I know not how it was-but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit." Descriptions of exterior and interior harp on darkness and decay. There is no plot to speak of. Usher is agitated, his twin sister Madeline is ill, she dies, they lay her body in a vault, and a week later she claws her way out. A storm rages as she falls on top of her hysterical brother. The narrator exits, and a "fissure" opens, "from the roof of the building in a zigzag direction, to the base." By the light of the "full, setting, and blood-red moon," the walls crumble and sink below the waters of the lake.

T. O. Mabbott, who edited the Modern Library edition of Poe, writes in a note: "as H. P. Lovecraft pointed out, the brother, sister and house share one soul, and so the death of any one brings about that of the others." This idea inverts the view that architecture, or a grand house, confers immortality on the builder. But Usher inherited his pile, and Poe is ringing changes on the theme of horror, with overtones of incest. Moralizing again, he makes the perverse, sickly and aristocratic mess vanish.

A different literary version of the dream house is found in St. Teresa of Avila's book Interior Castle or The Mansions. In Spanish, the title is El Castillo Interior o Las Moradas. A guide to meditation and mystical prayer written in 1577, the book describes the otherworldly place where the mind goes during a meditative trance. Near the beginning, Teresa writes: "I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are any mansions. . . . some are above, some below, others at the side. In the center, in the very midst of them all is the principal chamber in which God and the soul hold their most secret intercourse."

She adds that the center is a source of brilliant light. In developing the image, she orders the mansions as stages through which the meditating nun passes toward perfection. Or she says that the mind roams freely through the transparent rooms. The addition of movement to the image is striking. Instead of a static, crystalline structure, she offers a lively geometry.

The image suggests the ice palaces erected in northern countries, as part of a winter festival. Built entirely of ice in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, Quebec City and St. Petersburg, Russia, the palaces are open for tours and brightly lit, sometimes in colors that recall Poe's "imperial suite." One of the earliest known was built by order of Catherine the Great in 1739.

It is unlikely that the architects of the Modern Movement had the Spanish saint in mind when they created the glass-walled house. Yet there it is, a perfectly clear box. Two iconic examples are the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1945, and the house Philip Johnson built for himself in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1949. Large sheets of glass were difficult to make, and therefore a costly innovation. Later, the glass house became popular, especially in California, with architects such as Richard Neutra.

To judge by current architectural magazines, glass has lost none of its appeal to contemporary designers. It has even gotten a boost from the green movement, which favors sunlight, plain and planar surfaces, shiny metal and synthetic materials, and a mechanical precision akin to the computers that draw it.

At first glance, the glass house has nothing in common with the consumer-driven dream house. Where one is austere, the other is opulent. Where one is ethereal, the other is material. Yet the discussion in the press is the same, focused on details of construction, the materials and finishes, the relation to the site-slope, water, sunlight, and garden-and the aesthetic effect. If the role of fantasy is mentioned, it is only to dismiss it. We Americans want our houses to be practical, solid, and firmly grounded.

For all that, a wall of glass plays with perception. Glass denies that it has substance, and invites us to consider the idea instead of the structure. Detailing often conceals the edge, hides the gasket, and makes inside and outside appear to be the same. The conceit has a price. Contemporary design is notoriously more expensive than traditional, a fact that traditional architects love to point out. So we come full circle. Is the glass house the ultimate dream house? Or is it an expression of modern taste and economic clout?

It would be interesting to know what Poe would make of the transparent house, putting all its contents on display, including those who live in it. Blown up in scale, the Crystal Palaces of London and New York came too late. They were built in 1851 and 1853, and Poe died in 1849. Perhaps he would dislike all that sunlight and health. With his fondness for death and premature burial, he might see it as a glass coffin, like a ghastly exhibit. He would note that glass glares and reflects, creating doubles and illusions. He would see its dreamlike aspect and its fragility. In the end, ready with the proverb about people who live in glass houses, no doubt he would make it shatter, like a dream of wealth and arrogance.


Educated at Harvard University and Yale University, Robert Boucheron an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia (website boucheronarch.com).  He writes on housing, home improvement, communities, gardens, electric motorcycles, and love gone wrong. His work appeared in New England Review, Prime Number, 34th Parallel, and other magazines and newspapers.


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