WHEN the editor asks the most fitting style for an American country house - by which presumably he means the style proper to the major part of the United States, not South America or Southern California, with their different materials and traditions - the self-evident answer seems to be, "That style which is the natural expression of our building materials and constructive problems".
A house, after all, is an enclosure of walls with a roof over it. Now, no matter what the material, walls are vertical always, and windows and doors are merely holes in them. But the roofs vary in character with the material used, and seem to give the first broad impression. An Eastern house, and one pictures high parapet walls and hidden behind them a flat, clay roof where the master walks in the cool of the day; a house of the romance countries, Italy, Spain or Southern France, and one sees gently sloping tile roofs and broad eaves; Northern France suggests the excessively steep slate of Normandy farms or the chateaux of the Loire; Germany and Britain, and whatever the so-called "style," the roof-slope is neither steep like the Norman or flat like the Southern, but a half-way pitch, generally ending in gabled walls. A child draws a house on his slate and though one cannot tell whether it be "Gothic" or "Colonial," still it never fails to show the roof-slope. Perhaps the roof should be the standard of classification, that just as a fossil-hunter ignores at first all other structure and broadly classifies his skeletons by the tooth formation, so the philosopher-architect should look to his roofs for guidance - the teeth of the house, as it were.
First floor plan, "Swarthmore Lodge," Bryn Mawr, Pa. Charles Barton Keen and Frank Mead, architects.
Roof-slope seemingly should be determined by the materials used. Tin we have apparently discarded; interlocking tile is so expensive that for the immediate future it will not be common enough to count in the average; so the slope must be determined by slate and shingles. Build the roof flatter than thirty degrees, and rain and snow will drift in; steeper than forty-five degrees or fifty, and space is wasted and money with it; narrow limits indeed - enough, it seems, to form a dominant character.
If this argument is just, then the conclusions must have been reached long ago. They should be found crystallized as a type in use ever since building with these materials began. Fads and fashions might assert themselves for awhile, but after each there should be a recurrence to the type.
Second floor plan, "Swarthmore Lodge," Bryn Mawr, Pa. Charles Barton Keen and Frank Mead, architects.
If we follow the history of country houses in a northern country, England for example, as it is best known, we find striking proofs of this surmise. The builder of the Middle when certain men masked their roofs with high parapets, as at Hatfield or Bramshill; a few years, and under King James the fad is forgotten and the true tradition revives. The high Renaissance comes with its artificiality and the type is banished to the simpler houses of the countryside or the colonies. These recognize the Classic Revival by veneering a pilaster each side the entrance door, by inventing a sort of pediment to put over them, by elaborating the eaves into a cornice and perhaps adopting a more orderly arrangement of windows, but otherwise the type is little altered.
Ages knew nothing of distant lands, had nothing to copy, and therefore his houses should obey this natural law as to slope without attempt at concealment, and so they do; so do the later houses without exception down to Elizabeth's time,
A house at Villa Nova, Pa. Charles Barton Keen, architect.
Then why not this for the answer to the question - this nameless basic type which one writer calls the "English Tradition," though it was the tradition equally of Scotland, of Ireland, of the American colonies and, it seems, most northern countries? Its characteristics are its roof-pitch, its gables (for gables are simpler than hipped roofs framed to slope back at the ends of the house), the moderate overhang of roof (for broad eaves shut out the sunlight which in the north we need), and the importance given to chimneys. Examples of it are the Tudor country houses, the simpler of the Georgian, the Colonial of the northern states, barring those houses showing the worst artificialities; the Dutch Colonial, with its thrifty gambrel roof, framed to get most with least expense, and, purest of all, the farmhouses and barns here and in Northern Europe. Just now the type seems undergoing a curious development in England, a complication of many gables, of strange and restless oddities of contorted, half-developed forms, the picturesque run wild. In America, Procrustes-like, we stretch it to fit a repertoire of "styles" - loaded with false half-timber to wear its appearance of some centuries ago; decked with pilasters in the fond hope that it will appear "Classic" or what is called "Colonial"; shorn of its gables, with roof depressed and wide eaves, it is "Italian".
A house at Woodmere, L. I. Charles Barton Keen, architect.