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Curated by Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins, The American Style: The Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis was a delightful and instructive exhibition. In one ample room, divided by projecting vitrines and one partial transverse wall, they displayed paintings, drawings, prints, furniture, ceramics, glass, photographs, and even current wallpaper.
Various forms of classical revival became widely acknowledged from the late 1870s onward as the best and truest American expression in architecture and domestic design. Albrecht and Mellins suggested that the catalyst was the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, but they demonstrated that later expositions reinforced and developed ideas of American exceptionalism and American character. The style became ubiquitous around the turn of the century and has maintained its popularity, especially among the aesthetically conservative and among home developers who know that the style is enduring and uncontroversial. One sees it in banks, schools, houses, social clubs, and in the Museum of the City of New York’s own building (by Joseph Freedlander, 1932). A free folder prepared for visitors explained the typical stylistic features on the museum’s facade, and a map pointed to other examples in the neighborhood. Large-screen photographs of Neocolonial buildings and interiors flashed on one wall. Visitors encountered a large album showing houses of the late 1870s by McKim Mead & White, superb architectural photographs by Samuel Gottscho and the Wurts Brothers, photographs of early twentieth-century residences by Delano & Aldrich and Mott B. Schmidt, and recent color images of Neocolonial houses designed from the 1980s onward by Allan Greenberg, Robert A. M. Stern, Gil P. Schafer III, and others.
For a museum focused on New York City, the curators chose objects that reflected primarily the achievements of local designers, artists, and craftsmen, although they obtained important material made elsewhere. George Washington appeared several times, in work made from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twenty-first. Visitors even saw a late nineteenth-century replica of his desk. A porcelain vase (ca. 1876) depicts him in profile above scenes of Colonial-era woodsmen and Native Americans. John Ward Dunsmore’s sentimental painting of 1920 shows Betsy Ross presenting the first flag to Washington. Nearby was a pallid but popular image of Washington leaving Mount Vernon that appeared later on dinnerware. Even wallpaper displayed his image—and an identifying label in case visitors did not recognize him—near columns that supported flowers, as if forming an arbor. This was created by Nancy McClelland, an author and designer active from the early inter-war years. In 2008, Anne Reath and James Boyd designed “A Head By A Nose”—Colonial-style wallpaper with amusing silhouettes of famous people. Boyd conceived for this exhibition a witty multi-paneled mural, which appeared at first to be wallpaper; one image shows the first president as Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, although Boyd’s figure is fully dressed as befits a general and statesman.
Washington appeared again, taking the oath of office, in a diorama, one of several built by Edward J. (Ned) Burns for the museum in the 1930s. I wondered whether schoolchildren in the age of colorful animation would find it a useful addition to a lesson about the event. They might well have taken delight in the nearby Neocolonial dollhouse, fully furnished for its maker’s daughter, and they would surely have been excited to visit the World’s Fair of 1939–41, where the Town of Tomorrow featured Cape Cod cottages and versions of homes built during the early Republic. If their parents could not buy an entire house during the Depression, they might have been able to afford some of the Neocolonial products displayed in the show. They were promoted by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who supported Val-Kill Industries in the Hudson Valley to employ craftspeople to produce fine replicas of early American domestic objects.
The exhibition, then, emphasized not style alone but also fine craftsmanship, whether old or new. Duncan Phyfe himself might have approved a replica of one of his settees. A folding table thought in the past to be an eighteenth-century example is now known to be an imitation. Visitors saw several versions of Chippendale-style chairs along with well-made chairs with rush seats of a rustic character suggesting ownership by hardy settlers. My favorite, though, was a ladder-back chair by Warren McArthur executed in anodized aluminum. The objects on display included the very large and very small—a massive corner cabinet of mahogany and pine by Sypher & Co. of ca. 1875–80 intended to look Colonial despite telltale Victorian hinges, or a splendid bowl made in 2010 by Mottahedeh & Co. with scenes of Boston Harbor ca. 1800 painted on the outside. Some of the smallest objects were economical pewter salt and pepper containers designed by Russell Wright, and not much larger were candlesticks of silver planes commissioned by the Swid Powell firm from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
All this serious or light-hearted American achievement informed the public about the range of expression connecting it to the early American past. Visitors observed work created by those who cherished the past, studied and preserved it, and reinterpreted it often to the level of idealization. Examples from every decade between the 1870s and today made the point with force and with charm. But the curators’ wall labels also hinted at something else.
The Colonial Revival and Federal Revival derived some of their impetus from social changes resulting from mass immigration. The United States had experienced a wave of immigration from Germany and Ireland in the late 1840s motivated in part by economic opportunity or starvation and in part by oppression and political turmoil. But those immigrants were fair and they spoke English or a language used by philosophers and studied by the well-educated and well-traveled. Darker immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who came in great numbers after ca. 1880 were less familiar. In response, the well-intentioned set up settlement houses to teach newcomers to speak and read English and to tell them how to obey our laws, keep house, and raise children in American ways. Some settlement houses and homes of the benefactors were designed or furnished in the favored early American style. Patronesses of the Visiting Nurse Service met in Brooklyn, for instance, in a building designed in the American style. Other benevolent people exposed the venality of slumlords or exploitative employers. The less kindly criticized the immigrants for not conforming immediately to American norms, and published vitriolic descriptions of their habits and morals. But kind or nasty, the earlier-arrived turned to the aesthetics of their own Colonial or Federal-era American ancestors as a counterweight to the new people and tendencies that were changing their familiar way of life. This helps to explain the passion for Colonial and Federal objects, even if they were replicas or variants. It helps to explain the assemblage of buildings at Dearborn Village sponsored by Henry Ford, and at Colonial Williamsburg, sponsored by the Rockefeller family, and it reinforced the image of early America as being British rather than Spanish.
The country’s domestic turmoil following the Civil War and the social changes in the early mass-immigration era eventually subsided, so there was less intense motivation for exhuming a style from a remote era, even if it was an era thought to be populated by better men. After the universal patriotism exhibited during the First World War, the style became a default or background mode, a quiet and dignified—but sometimes just bland—setting for funeral parlors, women’s college alumnae houses, and exclusive golfing clubs. An artisan could still create beautiful versions of the originals, but aesthetics rather than a sense of social urgency seems to have prevailed.
As customs continue to change with time, the visual aspects of that past have become normative even for groups that were still abroad in 1840 when the Colonial and Federal Neoclassical styles fell out of fashion. Culturally assimilated grandchildren of the once-deemed objectionable immigrants now commission or design replicas of Neocolonial houses; in doing so, they imitate the actions of those who despised their grandparents a century ago. We may wonder whether the same pressures to assimilate will affect more recent immigrants from even more remote areas that had no prior relation to the Western classical tradition. It is one of the many virtues of this exhibition that it made one think about society as well as about art.
In the American Style exhibition, the aspirations and limitations of the style’s context came through clearly, with both sober and ironic examples. The exhibition was compact, full of information, visually varied, and not tedious for a moment.
Professor, Department of Art History, New York University
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