Aslet, Clive. The American Country House.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

The “country house” is an archetypal British phenomenon, a result of the strict class system that prevailed until the Great War, but does it have a counterpart in the United States? Aslet, one of the principle editors of Country Life, thinks so — but there are major differences.

A very few of the estates in Britain were purpose-built, and all at once, like Blenheim and Chatsworth, but most were accretive, being developed over a period of generations by a titled family, whenever it had the money (and sometimes when it didn’t). Mansions — palaces, almost — like George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore in North Carolina were a self-conscious attempt to bring the English country house to the New World, and it required the enormous wealth (usually acquired in a single lifetime) of America’s “Merchant Princes” (or “Robber Barons,” depending on how you saw them) of the late 19th century.

Aslet considers the various attempts at building “ancient” manors, mostly up and down the East Coast, from the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks to Philadelphia and Delaware and Florida, but also including Hearst’s San Simeon in California. He includes numerous plans and drawings in addition to several hundred color plates, and because each building was always a single project, he has access to architects’ and contractors’ records. He also spends much time on the personalities behind the various approaches to design, of which there were many. There are also chapters on “behind the scenes” in the biggest houses, and their sporting and farming activities (some of the millionaires involved seem to have been trying to recapture a nonexistent idyllic past, now that they had the money), and the tendency to spend almost as much on sprawling gardens as on the house itself. And, of course, few stately homes in Britain had serious swimming pools. Moreover, because the First World War had a far different effect on the economy and society of the U.S. than it did in Britain, the building of palatial homes continued right up through the 1930s, though at a somewhat smaller scale.

This is a beautiful and well-written book and should be of interest to anyone who has read Mark Girouard or Phyllida Barstow, and you don’t have to agree with all of Aslet’s conclusions (to which he sometimes seems predisposed by his own background) to learn quite a lot.


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