Châteaux, mansions and manor houses: As modern-day magnates build up, up, up, a Dallas art historian rethinks the whole thing — and lauds the Dallas craftsmen who erected but one of these gilded cages, all 26,000 square feet of it.
Essay by RICK BRETTELL | Photography by NAN COULTER
I well remember the visit to Dallas of a very old friend, about 10 years ago. He lives in Virginia’s Hunt Country in a house once owned by the du Ponts, and he wanted to see the new crop of mansions in Dallas. We drove around on a gorgeous spring day and, after the tour of Park Lane, Meadowbrook Drive, Strait Lane and Rockbrook Drive, he turned to me and said, “It’s the [expletive]Loire Valley!” I laughed, he laughed — and we both felt smug in our cocoon of good taste.
Yet since that time, this smugness has begun to bother me. I decided to read the bible of American traditional good taste, The Decoration of Houses, by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr., published in 1897, well before the advent of modernism. As I looked at the photographs in it and began to think of the great traditional houses built by American millionaires in the Gilded Age or the Roaring ’20s, I realized that the houses our current crop of wealthy Americans are building are not very different — and many of the best no worse than the extraordinary houses designed by Stanford White, Horace Trumbauer, Carrère and Hastings, Maurice Fatio, David Adler and many others whose works those of us with “good taste” worship. The top 1 percent of our current gilded age, roughly a century after the first one, has decided to build traditional homes, châteaux, mansions, manor houses, palaces and other superdwellings that can be placed in a long tradition of the architecture of private wealth that stretches from the Roman Empire to today.
Yet, I turn now to two ideas.
First, our smugness and good-taste superiority are misplaced — even bullying. When anyone interested in architecture and interiors looks at design or style magazines, he or she is treated to “modern” houses with “modern” furniture. Occasionally, there will be an exception — such as a ’20s house redone by a good “modern” architect and furnished with a combination of “good” modern furniture and carefully selected traditional pieces. Rarely — except in glossy real-estate publications with their photos of overfurnished chintz living rooms, dining rooms for 30, libraries with fake or unread books and bedrooms with acres of expensive Pratesi softness — does one see the kind of houses and interiors that could have graced the pages of Wharton’s bible of good taste. But they exist, and we must look at them for what they are: high-quality evocations of a past that are no more worthy of being scoffed at than a modern performance of a Beethoven symphony or a Bach cantata. It is also important to dissociate this fascination with past luxury with Dallas and the supposed vulgarity of Texas. Indeed, there are many Loire Valleys in contemporary America: Greenwich, Conn.; Long Island; the hillside suburbs of L.A.; even the suburbs of our nation’s capital. What we learn from this is that because it is
traditional, it is not — by definition — bad or vulgar.
Two, it is still possible for craftspeople in our mechanized and industrial 21st century to cut and inlay stone, to perform wizardry with specially woven textiles, to create paneling and cabinetry at the highest level and to use paints and plasters with all the skill that their ancestors exhibited in houses that Wharton, in all her delightfully arch snobbism, admired. It is the presence of these craftspeople in Dallas that continues to amaze me and forces an admiration of the very Loire Valley in Texas that my friend and I derided. As I visit the homes of friends and go into the interiors of the best new traditional architecture in Dallas, I marvel at the skill of the craftspeople and want to celebrate the achievements of these talented individuals. The way I have decided to do that was to get to know one general contractor and the stable of people with whom he worked on one no-holds-barred house, presented here.
This is a tribute to these individuals. Indeed, the Dallas area has a sizable population of schooled and experienced artisans. This chance to celebrate their work will, hopefully, bring attention not only to them but to the viability today of traditional architecture and decoration.
Rick Brettell is the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies at UT Dallas and the founder of CentralTrak, the UT at Dallas Artists Residency & Gallery.