American idyll

The history of New York’s modern architecture is often abridged into a glorious march of streamlined towers. But that triumphal tale glosses over a more complicated story, full of digressions, recapitulations, red herrings and forgotten plot lines. A quirky show at the Museum of the City of New York, The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis, picks up one strand of that knotted narrative: the rise of neocolonial architecture, a retro style that flourished alongside the sleekest art deco structures of the 1920s and 1930s. Red brick mansions, pedimented post offices, porticoed churches and pilastered apartment buildings bedecked the urban landscape even as the Chrysler Building rose in all its glossy glory. Many of these antique-looking landmarks are so familiar that they’re easy to miss, scattered masterpieces camouflaged by urban clutter.

The show’s curators, Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins, make a compelling case that this undervalued style, far from hewing to a fossilised nostalgia, kept adapting to contemporary life. In the 1920s, revivalists and modernists drew on an austere neoclassicism, and their work sometimes overlapped in long, sharp lines and airy grace. The exhibition traces the sad descent of a refined practice into postwar kitsch, and then its resurrection in the 1970s at the hands of postmodernist architects looking for historical references. That argument unfolds in a gallery packed with photographs, furniture, publications, silver, wallpaper and even a full-scale, free-standing new doorway to a nonexistent house.

The colonial revival was just one bloom in a bouquet of historicising styles that flowered after the first centennial in 1876. In the wake of the civil war, patriotism commingled with nostalgia and anxiety. Citizens of the precariously reunified nation were wistful for pre-industrial times and disoriented by the rapid pace of urban change. They were ready for designs that invoked an unambiguously American idyll.

The tremendous influx of immigrants gave fresh urgency to those yearnings. When the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum opened in 1924, its first curator, RT Haines Halsey, spelled out the museum’s mission of cultural integration. He argued that the new period rooms would counter “the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic” by presenting “traditions so dear to us and invaluable in the Americanization of many of our people”.

The new wing proved popular and boosted the market for colonial furnishings, American-themed tea sets, and revolutionary tchotchkes. Its restrained airiness contrasted nicely with the lush and fusty tastes that New York’s plutocrats had previously borrowed from Europe. One journalist grumbled at having to traverse the “tawdry ... pomposity” of the “Italian gimcracks which JP Morgan assembled” in order to reach the “coolness and serenity of the [American Wing], a somehow real thing, so truly brave of spirit, so truly actual of concept, so truly beautiful of form”.

The malleable style could signify Waspy exclusivity, as in Delano & Aldrich’s Knickerbocker Club, a spare, elegant Fifth Avenue mansion. But the same features – red brick façade, multipaned windows, leaded fanlights – could betoken inclusiveness too. Delano & Aldrich also designed Greenwich House, founded in 1902 as a place to help New York’s immigrant poor adjust to their new country. That understated building, which borrows its vocabulary from the Knickerbocker Club and is almost as graceful, expresses the assimilationist philosophy that Americanness is an acquired trait.

When the depression gripped the country, colonial revival came to stand for unity and strength in the face of crisis. The 1932 bicentennial of George Washington’s birth was commemorated with reconstructions of two iconic buildings, Federal Hall and Mount Vernon, in New York City parks. Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady of New York state, spoke of their symbolic resonance: “It is good for all of us, in the trying times we are going through, to consider those early days, when the problems were probably even greater, and learn the lessons which the characters of the men who founded the United States have to teach us.”

Those lessons eventually diverged as radically as the founding fathers’ ideas of democracy had. For decades before the second world war, Alexander Hamilton’s urbanism guided the style’s successful mingling into the municipal landscape as it adapted to monumental civic institutions and small town homes. Then, in the 1940s, the colonial revival underwent a radical, more Jeffersonian rereading as the style oozed into the suburbs. “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man,” Jefferson wrote. Americans eventually agreed and scuttled away from the city, taking their repertoire of Monticello allusions with them.

The suburban version of colonial revival jettisoned brick façades and harmonious ornamentation, instead slapping little Greek temple fronts on white clapboard ranch houses with painted shutters and peaked roofs. Royal Barry Wills, the most popular architect of single-family homes, was a guru of the old/new style. By 1946 he had written bestselling books about neocolonial design, and Life magazine declared that he designed “the kind of house most Americans want”. From Wills, it was a short tumble to tract homes, malls and fast-food restaurants festooned with ye olde trimmings.

If the suburbs threatened to degrade a venerable design tradition, they also provided a reason to rescue it. As the country’s aspirations focused on the hearth, and the centre of American identity moved from the metropolis to the cul-de-sac, colonial revival became the style of leisure time. Cornices and columns adorned homes rather than public buildings, two-car garages instead of courts.

Why did the colonial look become the defining image of suburbia? Perhaps the cold war’s threats created a new hankering for pre-industrial life. Or maybe the steel heart of the working city needed softer surroundings. In the early seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper commuted from a Manhattan office tower to his cosy retreat in Ossining, New York, where dinner and children wait behind the colonial front door.

In the 1970s, when American cities were busy imploding, architects like Robert AM Stern and Allan Greenberg applied the principles of colonial revival to north-eastern houses built on the scale of town libraries. Within a generation it would become the default for the McMansions that now sit vacant all across the land. The exhibition makes it clear that this is only a pause in the saga of colonial revival. A style that has symbolised democratic ideals, cheap nostalgia, hope in the future, and ostentatious consumerism must surely have another few incarnations on the way.

‘The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis’, Museum of the City of New York until October 30,

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