Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Edith Wharton's Beautiful Houses with Her Appreciation for Architecture and Design, She Set the Standard for Splendor

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Edith Wharton's Beautiful Houses with Her Appreciation for Architecture and Design, She Set the Standard for Splendor

Article excerpt

WHEN I think about novelist Edith Wharton, as I do often, it is not about her books, much as I admire them, but of her houses and gardens. A love of architecture, landscaping, and flowers was instilled in Mrs. Wharton as a child. She lived on the Continent during her formative years and was exceptionally bright and sensitive. She quickly developed a sense of order and an aesthetic responsiveness which were admirably expressed later on in her own houses and gardens.

Even Pencraig Cottage on her family's property in Newport, R.I., where she went as a bride, was totally unlike the houses of many Americans then, with their dark, stuffy, overembellished rooms. It was light and airy and its amiable furnishings included painted Venetian chests and chairs, discovered in Italy long before anyone else had recognized their decorative possibilities. A knowledgeable acquaintance observed that the little cottage was quite as beautiful, in its small way, as any of the great Newport mansions, which even today set a standard for splendor.

An inheritance soon enabled the young Whartons to buy a house of their own, on a promontory on the opposite end of the island from Pencraig. Its view of the Atlantic was magnificent and the house, although rather ugly and poorly arranged, was thought to have potential.

The couple asked Ogden Codman, a clever young Boston architect whose family also had a place in Newport, for assistance. This was somewhat of a departure. Architects of that day looked down on house decoration as a branch of dressmaking and as the province of upholsterers. Out of this experience came not only a gracious house but also the recognition that both Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman shared a dislike of "sumptuary excesses" and the conviction that decoration should be simple and architectural.

The result was their collaboration on a book credited with launching the interior-design profession as it exists today. Published in 1897, "The Decoration of Houses" sold out, went on from edition to edition, and still is in print. The book not only had the benefit of Mr. Codman's upbringing among the great examples of architecture in France, but also of Edith Wharton's photographic memory and ability to research 56 volumes on architecture and design in French, German, Italian, and English, not to mention her writing skills.

Before a year had passed Mrs. Wharton had begun to be depressed by the damp climate of Newport and what she referred to as its "watering place triviality." Moreover, she yearned for a real house in the country. In 1901, she bought a farm on the outskirts of Lenox, Mass., where, with Ogden Codman to help carry out her ideas, she began to plan a house.

Modeled after Christopher Wren's Belton House in Lincolnshire, England, it was situated to look out from the crest of a slope, over two miles of meadow and woodland, to a lovely little lake. Although she changed architects when she decided that Mr. Codman's fees were too high, she asked him to come back to assist with the interior.

Work on The Mount, as the house was called, followed closely advice given in "The Decoration of Houses." Though large, the frame and stucco house was informal and unpretentious. With its high-walled forecourt, enclosed stairways, ground-floor conservatory-reception room, and second story main floor, it had many of the features that distinguished the houses in Europe in which Edith Wharton had been most comfortable as a child.

A gray and scarlet marble and terrazzo-paved gallery opened into all the principal rooms which, in turn, were connected by French windows with a brick-paved, balustraded stone terrace. The wrought-iron stair rails and ormolu hardware were made for the house in France. All of the rooms had fireplaces with simple mantles of veined marble of various colors and cast-iron French firebacks, not only to reflect heat but also to produce lively patterns from the flames on their raised-surface decoration. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.