Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) was one of the foremost British architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though his name may not be particularly well known today, he was one of very few contemporaries of Frank Lloyd Wright whose work the American architect not only admired, but openly praised to his students, despite the vast difference in their styles. Lutyens was known for designing exceedingly beautiful classically influenced country houses with exceedingly British names like Little Thakeham (1902), Heathcote (1906), Great Maytham (1912), and Benedict Cumberbatch, but his grandest commission was the plan for New Delhi and the enormous Viceroy’s House there. But right now, I want to take a closer look at the smallest house Lutyen’s ever designed: The Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.
Like most good ideas, the dollhouse was conceived over glasses of champagne with a princess – in this case, Princess Marie Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who asked Lutyens to construct a massive dollhouse for her cousin Queen Mary. It took too three years for Lutyens and a team of 1,500 people –artists, craftsman, gardeners, and even vinters– to finish the project. It was constructed to be a paean to British craftsmanship and ingenuity and Lutyens insisted that every fixture be operable. The miniature gramophone plays, the sinks run hot and cold, and the library is filled with hundreds of tiny books (many written by prominent British authors specially for the library), and a wine cellar full of tiny, bottles of wine – perfect for those times you want to sit back and relax with a thimble full of wine. When it was completed in 1924, the Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. was exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition. Built at the scale of one-inch equals one-foot, the five-foot-high dollhouse serves as a particularly fine record of the era’s architecture and can still be seen at Windsor Castle.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Landor’s Cottage,” the author paints an idealized picture of his own New York Cottage. He describes the building in painstaking–some might even say excruciating–detail, but Poe also devotes a short paragraph to cottage’s furnishings:
“On the floor was an ingrain carpet, of excellent texture – a white ground, spotted with small circular green figures. At the windows were curtains of snowy white jaconet muslin: they were tolerably full, and hung decisively, perhaps rather formally, in sharp, parallel plaits to the floor – just to the floor. The walls were papered with a French paper of great delicacy – a silver ground, with a faint green cord running zig-zag throughout. Its expanse was relieved merely by three of Julien’s exquisite lithographs….One of these drawings was a scene of Oriental luxury, or rather voluptuousness; another was a ‘carnival piece,’ spirited beyond compare; the third was a Greek female head – a face so divinely beautiful, and yet of an expression so provokingly indeterminate, never before arrested my attention.”
This description doesn’t exactly match with the spartan furnishings that currently fill Poe’s cottage, nor is it likely that it corresponds with its decoration during Poe’s residency. However, it does line up exactly with Poe’s personal tastes and his very strong opinions on interior design, which he described in his authoritative, humorous, and confidently written piece of design criticism “The Philosophy of Furniture,” originally published in the May 1840 issue of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine.
In Poe’s view, the interior of the English apartment is the pinnacle of good taste. Everything else is hardly tolerable. With great wit, Poe decries the aesthetic tastes of the Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Italians, who “have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours and Dutch, who in Poe’s opinion, “ have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage.” But no culture has worse taste than Americans. Poe believes that because there’s no aristocracy to imitate or aspire to, Americans created an “aristocracy of dollars” resulting in a display of wealth in lieu of a display of taste.
Like any good critic, Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t just condemn, he offers solutions. He describes his ideal room, a place where every piece of furniture, every painting, and every fabric work together to create a harmonic space. And it all begins with the carpet. Carpet selection is of paramount importance. It is the soul of the room, for its color, thickness, and design influence everything else – “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man,” says Poe, “a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” But an ideal room is more than just carpet of course. It must be shaped to afford “the best (ordinary opportunities for the adjustment of furniture.” Poe prefers “massive” floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a veranda.
Once upon a morning dreary, I left Brooklyn with eyes bleary, Wearily I took the subway to a poet’s old forgotten home.
In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe and his young wife Virginia moved to New York City. It was Poe’s second time living in the city and just one of many homes for the peripatetic author. Unfortunately, after two years and several Manhattan addresses, Virginia fell ill with tuberculosis. With the hope that country air might improve her condition, or at least make her final days more peaceful, Poe moved the family out to a small, shingled cottage in the picturesque woods and green pastures of Fordham Village - better known today as the Bronx.
The six-room cottage was built in 1812 as worker’s housing for farm hands. Poe rented it from landowner John Valentine for $100 per year – no small sum for the constantly struggling writer who sold “The Raven,” his most famous work, for a flat fee of $8. During his time at the cottage, Poe cared for his ailing wife, who died three years after they moved in, and wrote some of his most celebrated poems, including the darkly romantic “Annabel Lee”
This modest building also served as the inspiration for the final Poe story published during the author’s life, “Landor’s Cottage,” which appeared in the June 9, 1849, issue of Flag of Our Union, four months before his death. A far cry from the tales of woe and horror Poe is widely known for, the story of “Landor’s Cottage” is quite simple: a man hiking through the bucolic setting of rural New York comes across a small house and marvels at its picturesque perfection, finding that it “struck me with the keenest sense of combined novelty and propriety — in a word, of poetry”. What follows is the narrator’s depiction of the cottage. Warning: in the following excerpt, there’s no secret rooms, no woe-begotten protagonists or menacing visions. Just pure, straightforward, even banal description:
The main building was about twenty-four feet long and sixteen broad- certainly not more. Its total height, from the ground to the apex of the roof, could not have exceeded eighteen feet. To the west end of this structure was attached one about a third smaller in all its proportions:-the line of its front standing back about two yards from that of the larger house, and the line of its roof, of course, being considerably depressed below that of the roof adjoining. At right angles to these buildings, and from the rear of the main one-not exactly in the middle-extended a third compartment, very small- being, in general, one-third less than the western wing. The roofs of the two larger were very steep-sweeping down from the ridge-beam with a long concave curve, and extending at least four feet beyond the walls in front, so as to form the roofs of two piazzas. These latter roofs, of course, needed no support; but as they had the air of needing it, slight and perfectly plain pillars were inserted at the corners alone. The roof of the northern wing was merely an extension of a portion of the main roof. Between the chief building and western wing arose a very tall and rather slender square chimney of hard Dutch bricks, alternately black and red:-a slight cornice of projecting bricks at the top. Over the gables the roofs also projected very much:-in the main building about four feet to the east and two to the west. The principal door was not exactly in the main division, being a little to the east-while the two windows were to the west. These latter did not extend to the floor, but were much longer and narrower than usual-they had single shutters like doors- the panes were of lozenge form, but quite large. The door itself had its upper half of glass, also in lozenge panes-a movable shutter secured it at night. The door to the west wing was in its gable, and quite simple-a single window looked out to the south. There was no external door to the north wing, and it also had only one window to the east.
The blank wall of the eastern gable was relieved by stairs (with a balustrade) running diagonally across it-the ascent being from the south. Under cover of the widely projecting eave these steps gave access to a door leading to the garret, or rather loft-for it was lighted only by a single window to the north, and seemed to have been intended as a store-room….
The pillars of the piazza were enwreathed in jasmine and sweet honeysuckle; while from the angle formed by the main structure and its west wing, in front, sprang a grape-vine of unexampled luxuriance. Scorning all restraint, it had clambered first to the lower roof-then to the higher; and along the ridge of this latter it continued to writhe on, throwing out tendrils to the right and left, until at length it fairly attained the east gable, and fell trailing over the stairs.
The whole house, with its wings, was constructed of the old-fashioned Dutch shingles-broad, and with unrounded corners. It is a peculiarity of this material to give houses built of it the appearance of being wider at bottom than at top-after the manner of Egyptian architecture; and in the present instance, this exceedingly picturesque effect was aided by numerous pots of gorgeous flowers that almost encompassed the base of the buildings.
Despite the patoral setting, it seems clear that Landor’s cottage is an idealized vision of Poe’s own Fordham residence. Beyond the formal resemblance, the interior layout of Landor’s cottage, described briefly by the narrator, is very similar to Poe’s cottage, with a kitchen, main room and bedroom on the first floor. Poe ends his architectural fiction by noting that another article may elaborate on the events that transpired at Landor’s cottage. Had he not died, perhaps we might have discovered more about the kind but enigmatic residence and his picturesque cottage.
We were sketching outside the Eglise Sacré-Cœur de Casablanca when a small man slowly shuffled out of the strange, Deco-Gothic structure and gestured for us to come inside. How could we resist? We stepped through the enormous cathedral door and our host smiled wide, saying in hesitant English, “a church with no chairs,” before disappearing. It was a profound sentiment but one I think probably sounds more poetic in arabic.
We slowly strolled down the empty nave, letting ourselves feel the full scale of the vaulted space and looking up at the surprisingly secular stained glass windows, which depicted the flags of every nation. We felt compelled to speak in whispers, telling each other tales of the abandoned cathedral and its protector. Maybe he was a homeless man who, only seeking shelter, was inspired to become the guardian of this forgotten space? Perhaps he was a priest unable to abandon his church though his congregation had long ago disappeared? A human relic and this his reliquary? Was there ever a congregation? Or was this just some mad architect’s folly?
A strange humming filled the cathedral, a constant white noise. At first we assumed it was the wind, but outside all was still. Not a leaf was rustling in Casablanca. Suddenly a pigeon flew down from the rafters. Another glided across the nave. Dozens of others followed and we realized that the noise we heard was an endless echo of coos and fluttering wings. The cathedral was filled with a perpetual avian hymn. Inspired to contribute my own verse, I whistled the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The abandoned cathedral repeated the tune in medley and the echo hung in the air for an impossibly long time. Surprised by the response, I laughed a true, honest laugh and the cathedral laughed with me.
At the conclusion of our service, we climbed the narrow, spiraling stairwell leading to the top of the church’s tower. It was the first time in years that I felt really scared. The stairs were bordered on one side by enormous unobstructed air vents designed to release the sound of ringing bells, and on the other by a very low railing that looked—and smelled!—like it was built from pigeon shit. There was very little separating us from a very, very long fall. What’s more, every turn brought some unexpected hazard – a kit of surprised pigeons flying past our heads, some twisted rebar, or a giant hole in the floor. We walked slowly. Halfway up, we stepped through an empty doorway and onto the roof of the church, standing eye-to-eye with the top of its buttresses before continuing our dangerous trek up to its bell tower. Finally, the stairs led through another empty door and suddenly we were blinded by the blue sky and radiant white city. There were no guards, no railings, and no tourists. It was just the two of us and Casablanca. In the distance, the mosque and the ocean beyond. I stuck to the wall for a few minutes, afraid some misfiring synapse might compel me to leap over the edge. As my nerves faded, I felt exuberant and kissed her at the edge of the world and started laughing again. There was no echo this time, just the sound of ringing joy calling out to all parishioners.
Billboards Are Almost All Right
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