It is as impossible to give a signed and sealed prescription for the selection of a style for an American house as it is for the style of a portrait. A rough and rugged man must be painted in a different way from a frail and delicate girl, and the circumstances governing each house may change its character as widely. The site, the relative importance of the house, and the individuality of its occupants are potent factors in the determination of its style. Dignity, elegance, picturesqueness, simplicity and homeliness are not determining factors of style but merely attributes. Kinds, quality and availability of materials are details in the technique of architecture - not determining factors of style.
The illustrations shown are examples of houses having the elusive quality called "style," without being necessarily recognizable as essays in any of the historic styles. They show some of the characteristics of what has been sometimes referred to as the Chicago School. They are sufficiently unlike to raise, perhaps, some question as to just what the Chicago School is, and the question is hard to answer. They show, however, a common freedom from the restraint of accepted academic formulas of design and a general inclination on the part of their designers to build simply from local conditions, expressing logically the governing functions and developing the nature of the materials employed in a manner simple and at the same time interesting.
The chapter by Mr. Frank E. Wallis, "The Colonial House," is so well written and is so largely true that it compels our admiration and convinces us, at least, that a Colonial house by Mr. Wallis would be very lovely indeed. He deals some doughty knocks at what he calls "the so-called misnamed Mission" style, yet even Mr. Wallis would not advise Colonial for the hot and arid places whose local conditions produced and made lovely the old Missions that we still delight to see. It is the modern "Mission" style, the importation, that Mr. Wallis resents, and when he raises his little hammer, I, for one, wish more strength to his elbow. The old Missions were true to their time and place, truly and beautifully built, and we still find them good. The lesson is always the same - to build closely to the lines of need, of environment, is always to build truthfully and nearly always beautifully. Failure to do so always results in pretension, and generally in artistic chaos. The make-believe is never truly or permanently beautiful. As surely as a "Mission" house looks out of place in Massachusetts, just so surely does a Colonial house look ridiculous in New Mexico or Southern California.
The argument that Colonial is indigenous, American, and therefore to be preferred for use to-day could not be better presented than it is in the first chapter, nor could a fitter argument against its too literal use be advanced than the illustration facing page 7. This picture shows the living-room of a remodeled farmhouse at Pocasset, Mass. It is a beautiful room, perfectly typical of a Colonial farmhouse.
It has the old-fashioned wide and high fireplace, with iron crane suspending a large copper pot and tea-kettle. On the chimney-breast hangs a powder-horn and in the corner of the room an old flint-lock rifle. Beside the chimney rests a mortar and pestle for grinding grains, on the wall a warming-pan and over one of the doors the model of a ship. These, with a dozen other implements, including chairs, table and clock, serve now to decorate the room, just as they probably did in the days when this house was occupied by its builder. But in those days each item of what is now decoration was then a living vital implement in the life within that house. Does my lady of to-day boil the water and turn the roast over this fire on this crane and roasting spit? Does she grind her flour in this mortar, does she warm the beds with this warming-pan, and does the lord of this manor keep his rifle clean and his flint sharp and ready with powder and ball to repel the prowling savage who threatens the integrity of his scalp? I doubt it. Hidden away in the basement is probably a furnace; in the kitchen a gas stove and a sink, with hot and cold water; the grocer delivers the flour already ground, and the policeman takes care of the prowling redskins. This room then is a museum - not the living-room of a family of to-day. There is no trace here of the individuality of the present occupants; this room bears the imprint of the life of people long dead and gone, and no other. And why should the present lady of this house be denied her expression in her home? Because, gentle reader, she does not belong in the Colonial picture; she is of to-day, and her living-room is of another day. This is art for art's sake with a vengeance, and it is just stage-setting, not architecture.
If you will look into any of the beautiful old creations of the historic styles or periods, you will find that the sweet and human qualities we now admire are entirely due to a faithful and free interpretation of their needs and environment. We in our work to-day are ignoring this great principle which is the life of architecture.
Mr. Wallis says, "I can think of no other style for a house." Is he, then, to search only his memory? Every creative artist is something of a prophet, a pioneer. Is it not reasonable, then, for him to search also his consciousness of the present and the future? The grape-arbor, the formal garden, the water pool with the green frog, the dainty napery, cut glass and old silverware, so much admired by Mr. Wallis and by all of us, are not the exclusive accessories of a Colonial house. But I do not argue against the Colonial style or against any style, but only for the honest method of design that produced those styles and which, if practiced to-day, would produce something different but just as good and certainly vastly closer to us and to our needs. The influence of beautiful things and a beautiful home on people, and especially upon children brought up amid such surroundings, is of incalculable benefit, but it is important that this influence be founded upon a sound and logical base. The sham and the make-believe in architecture do not furnish such a base. Good traditions are excellent, but are the generations to come to have nothing vital of ours to remember with gratitude, excepting the wonderful machines which we have invented and disdained to use in our arts? The truth is that our civilization grows more and more definite by increasingly great strides, until the call for an artistic expression of it becomes imperative. We are no longer content with the plan or domestic arrangements of the Colonial house; we have outgrown it. Our list of building materials is vastly richer, our machinery for working materials is marvelously capable of newer and better uses than the imitation of handwork to which we now endeavor to restrict them. We have changed and improved our manner of heating and lighting our houses. Every sanitary arrangement has undergone change and development. Indeed, our entire life to-day is so radically different from the life of the Colonial builders that it would be strange indeed if their houses could in any way satisfy us except superficially for their prettiness, their scenery value.
What else is there, then? Certainly nothing ready-made or easily made; nothing more than a right method of working. Any skilful architect knows when he is violating the style traditions. It becomes his duty now to violate them more radically, to examine more critically modern needs, and to interpret them in terms of his art. I am unwilling to believe that this is a great stumbling-block. Our painters, sculptors, musicians, writers and actors have passed it long ago. Architecture is the only one of the arts which is still struggling to escape from the Classic period.