ONE of the greatest pleasures of life is to build a house for one's self. There is a peculiar satisfaction even in planting a tree from which you hope to eat the fruit, or in the shade of which you hope to repose. But how much greater the pleasure in planting the roof-tree, the tree that bears the golden apples of home and hospitality, and under the protection of which you hope to pass the remainder of your days! My grandmother said the happiest day of her life was when she found herself mistress of a little log-house in the woods. Grandfather and she had built it mainly with their own hands, and doubtless with as much eagerness and solicitude as the birds build their nests. It was made of birch and maple logs, the floor was of hewn logs, and its roof of black-ash bark. But it was home and fireside, a few square feet of the great, wild, inclement, inhospitable out-of-doors subdued and set about by four walls and made warm and redolent of human hearts. I notice how eager all men are in building their houses, how they linger about them, or even about their proposed sites. When the cellar is being dug, they want to take a hand in it; the earth evidently looks a little different, a little more friendly and congenial, than other earth. When the foundation walls are up and the first floor is rudely sketched by rough timbers, I see them walking pensively from one imaginary room to another, or sitting long and long, wrapped in sweet reverie, upon the naked joist. It is a favorite pastime to go there of a Sunday afternoon and linger fondly about: they take their friends or their neighbors and climb the skeleton stairs and look out of the vacant windows, and pass in and out of the just sketched doorways. How long the house is a-finishing! The heart moves in long before the workmen move out. Will the mason and the painter and the plumber never be through?
When a new house is going up in my vicinity, I find myself walking thitherward nearly every day to see how the work progresses. What pleasure to see the structure come into shape, and the architect's paper plans take form and substance in wood and stone! I like to see every piece fitted, every nail driven. I stand about till I am in the way of the carpenters or masons. Another new roof to shelter somebody from the storms, another four walls to keep the great cosmic out-of-doors at bay!
Though there is pleasure in building our house, or in seeing our neighbor build, yet the old houses look the best. Disguise it as one will, the new house is more or less a wound upon nature, and time must elapse for the wound to heal. Then, unless one builds with modesty and simplicity, and with a due regard to the fitness of things, his house will always be a wound, an object of offense upon the fair face of the landscape. Indeed, to build a house that shall not offend the wise eye, that shall not put Nature and all her gentle divinities to shame, is the great problem. In such matters, not to displease the eye is to please the heart.
Probably the most that is to be aimed at in domestic architecture is negative beauty, a condition of things which invites or suggests beauty to those who are capable of the sentiment, because a house, truly viewed, is but a setting, a background, and is not to be pushed to the front and made much of for its own sake. It is for shelter, for comfort, for health and hospitality, to eat in and sleep in, to be born in and to die in, and it is to accord in appearance with homely every-day usages, and with natural, universal objects and scenes. Indeed, is anything but negative beauty to be aimed at in the interior decorations as well? The hangings are but a background for the pictures, and are to give tone and atmosphere to the rooms; while the whole interior is but a background for the human form, and for the domestic life to be lived there.
It may be observed that what we call beauty of nature is mainly negative beauty; that is, the mass, the huge rude background, made up of rocks, trees, hills, mountains, plains, water, etc., has not beauty as a positive quality, visible to all eyes, but affords the mind the conditions of beauty, namely, health, strength, fitness, etc., beauty being an experience of the beholder. Some things, on the other hand, as flowers, foliage, brilliant colors, sunsets, rainbows, waterfalls, may be said to be beautiful in and of themselves; but how wearisome the world would be without the vast negative background upon which these things figure, and which provokes and stimulates the mind in a way the purely fair forms do not!
How we are drawn by that which retreats and hides itself, or gives only glimpses and half views! Hence the value of trees as a veil to an ugly ornamental house, and the admirable setting they form to the picturesque habitation I am contemplating. But the house the heart builds, whether it be cottage or villa, can stand the broad, open light without a screen of any kind. Its neutral gray or brown tints, its wide projections and deep shadows, its simple strong lines, its coarse open-air quality, its ample roof or roofs, blend it with the landscape wherever it stands. Such a house seems to retreat into itself, and invites the eye to follow. Its interior warmth and coziness penetrate the walls, and the eye gathers suggestions of them at every point.
We can miss almost anything else from a building rather than a look of repose. This it must have. Give it a look of repose, and all else shall be added. This is the supreme virtue in architecture. Go to the city, walk up and down the principal thoroughfares, and see what an effort many of the buildings make to stand up! What columns and arches they put forth where no columns or arches are needed! There is endless variety of form and line, great activity of iron and stone, when the eye demands simplicity and repose. No broad spaces, no neutral ground. The architect in his search for variety has made his façade bristle with meaningless forms. But now and then the eye is greeted by honest simplicity of structure. Look at that massive front yonder, built of granite blocks, simply one stone top of another from the ground to the roof, with no fuss or flutter about the openings in the walls. How easy, how simple, and what a look of dignity and repose! But probably, the next time we come this way, they will have put hollow metal hoods over the windows, or otherwise marred the ease and dignity of that front.
Doubtless one main source of the pleasure we take in a brick or stone wall over one of wood is just in this element of simplicity and repose; the structure is visible; there is nothing intricate or difficult about it. It is one stone or one brick top of another all the way up; the building makes no effort at all to stand up, but does so in the most natural and inevitable way in the world. In a wooden building the anatomy is more or less hidden; we do not see the sources of its strength. The same is true of a stuccoed or rough-cast building; the eye sees nothing but smooth, expressionless surface.
One great objection to the Mansard roof in the country, now happily nearly gone out of date, is that it fails to give a look of repose. It fails also to give a look of protection. The roof of a building allies it to the open air, and carries the suggestion of shelter as no other part does; and to belittle it, or conceal it, or in any way take from the honest and direct purport of it as the shield, the main matter after all, is not to be allowed. In the city we see only the fronts, the façades of the houses, and the flat and Mansard are less offensive. But in the country the house is individualized, stands defined, and every vital and necessary part is to be boldly and strongly treated. The Mansard gives to the country house a smart, dapper appearance, and the effect of being perked up and looking about for compliments; such houses seem to be ready to make the military salute as you pass them. Whereas the steep, high roof gives the house a settled, brooding, introverted look. It also furnishes a sort of foil to the rest of the building.
What constitutes the charm to the eye of the old-fashioned country barn but its immense roof, — a slope of gray shingle exposed to the weather like the side of a hill, and by its amplitude suggesting a bounty that warms the heart? Many of the old farmhouses, too, were modeled on the same generous scale, and at a distance little was visible but their great sloping roofs. They covered their inmates as a hen covereth her brood, and are touching pictures of the domestic spirit in its simpler forms.
What is a man's house but his nest, and why should it not be nest-like both outside and in, — coarse, strong, negative in tone externally, and snug and well-feathered and modeled by the heart within? Why should he set it on a hill, when he can command a nook under the hill or on its side? Why should it look like an observatory, when it is a conservatory and dormitory
The domestic spirit is quiet, informal, unceremonious, loves ease, privacy, low tones; loves the chimney-corner, the old arm-chair, the undress garb, homely cares, children, simple pleasures, etc.; and why should it, when it seeks to house itself from the weather, aim at the formal, the showy, the architectural, the external, the superfluous? Let state edifices look stately, but the private dwelling should express privacy and coziness.
Every man's house is in some sort an effigy of himself. It is not the snails and shell-fish alone that excrete their tenements, but man as well. When you seriously build a house, you make public proclamation of your taste and manners, or your want of these. If the domestic instinct is strong in you, and if you have humility and simplicity, they will show very plainly in your dwelling; if you have the opposite of these, false pride or a petty ambition, or coldness and exclusiveness, they will show also. A man seldom builds better than he knows, when he assumes to know anything about it.
I think that, on examination, it will be found that the main secret of the picturesqueness of more simple structures, like fences, bridges, sheds, log-huts, etc., is that the motive, the principle of construction, is so open and obvious. No doubt much might be done to relieve the flatness of our pine-box houses by more frankness and boldness in this respect. If the eye could see more fully the necessities of the case, — how the thing stood up and was held together, that it was not pasteboard, that it did not need to be anchored against the wind, etc., — it would be a relief. Hence the lively pleasure we feel in what are called “timber-houses,” and in every architectural device by which the anatomy, the real framework, of the structure, inside or out, is allowed to show, or made to serve as ornament. The eye craves lines of strength, evidence of weight and stability. But in the wooden house, as usually treated, these lines are nearly all concealed, the ties and supports are carefully suppressed, and the eye must feed on the small, fine lines of the finish. When the mere outlines of the frame are indicated, so that the larger spaces appear as panels, it is a great help; or let any part of the internal economy show through, and the eye is interested, as the projection of the chimney-stack in brick or stone houses, or the separating of the upper from the main floor by a belt and slight projection, or by boldly projecting the chamber floor-joist, and letting one story overlap the other.
As I have already said, herein is the main reason of the picturesqueness of the stone house above all others. Every line is a line of strength and necessity. We see how the mass stands up; how it is bound and keyed and fortified. The construction is visible; the corners are locked by header and stretcher, and are towers of strength; the openings pierce the walls and reveal their cohesion; every stone is alive with purpose, and the whole affects one as a real triumph over Nature, — so much form and proportion wrested from her grasp. There is power in stone, and in a less measure in brick; but wood must be boldly handled not to look frail or flat. Then unhewn stone has the negative beauty which is so desirable.
I say, therefore, build of stone by all means, if you have a natural taste to gratify, and the rockier your structure looks, the better. All things make friends with a stone house,— the mosses and lichens, and vines and birds. It is kindred to the earth and the elements, and makes itself at home in any situation.
When I set out to look up a place in the country, I was chiefly intent on finding a few acres of good fruit land near a large stone-heap. While I was yet undecided about the land, the discovery of the stone-heap at a convenient distance, vast piles of square blocks of all sizes, wedged off the upright strata by the frost during uncounted ages, and all mottled and colored by the weather, made me hasten to close the bargain. The large country-seats in the neighborhood were mainly of brick or pine; only a few of the early settlers had availed themselves of this beautiful material that lay in such abundance handy to every man's back door, and in those cases the stones were nearly buried in white mortar, as if they were something to be ashamed of. Truly, the besmeared, beplastered appearance of most stone houses is by no means a part of their beauty. Mortar plays a subordinate part in a structure, and the less we see of it the better.
The proper way to treat the subject is this: as the work progresses, let the wall be got ready for pointing up, but never let the pointing be done, though your masons will be sorely grieved. Let the joints be made close, then scraped out, cut with the trowel, and, while the mortar is yet green, sprinkled with sand. Instead, then, of a white band defining every stone, you have only sharp lines and seams here and there, which give the wall a rocky, natural appearance.
The point of union between the stones, according to my eye, should be a depression, a shadow, and not a raised joint. So that you have closeness and compactness, the face of your wall cannot be too broken or rough. When the rising or setting sun shines athwart it, and brings out the shadows, how powerful and picturesque it looks! It is not in cut or hewn stone to express such majesty. I like the sills and lintels of undressed stone also, — “wild stone,” as the old backwoodsman called them, untamed by the hammer or chisel. If the lintels are wide enough, a sort of hood may be formed over the openings by projecting them a few inches.
It seems to me that I built into my house every one of those superb autumn days which I spent in the woods getting out stone. I did not quarry the limestone ledge into blocks any more than I quarried the delicious weather into memories to adorn my walls. Every load that was sent home carried my heart and happiness with it. The jewels I had uncovered in the débris, or torn from the ledge in the morning, I saw in the jambs, or mounted high on the corners at night. Every day was filled with great events. The woods held unknown treasures. Those elder giants, frost and rain, had wrought industriously; now we would unearth from the leaf-mould an ugly customer, a stone with a ragged quartz face, or cavernous, and set with rock crystals like great teeth, or else suggesting a battered and worm-eaten skull of some old stone. dog. These I needed a sprinkling of for their qaintness, and to make the wall a true compendium of the locality. Then we would unexpectedly strike upon several loads of beautiful blocks all in a nest; or we would assault the ledge in a new place with wedge and bar, and rattle down headers and stretchers that surpassed any before. I had to be constantly on the lookout for corner stone, for mine is a house of seven corners, and on the strength and dignity of the corners the beauty of the wall largely depends. But when you bait your hook with your heart, the fish always bite. “The boss is as good as six men in the woods, getting out stone,” flatteringly spoke up the master-mason. Certain it is that no such stone was found as when I headed the search. The men saw indifferently with their eyes, but I looked upon the ground with such desire that I saw what was beneath the moss and the leaves. With them it was hard labor at so much per day, with me it was a passionate pursuit; the enthusiasm of the chase venting itself with the bar and the hammer, and the day was too short for me to tire of the sport.
The stone was exceptionally fine, both in form and color. Sometimes it seemed as if we had struck upon the ruins of some ancient structure, the blocks were so regular and numerous. The ancient stonecutters, however, had shaped them all to a particular pattern, which was a little off the square; but in bringing them back with the modern pitching-tool the rock face was gained, which is the feature so desirable.
I like a live stone, one upon which time makes an impression, which in the open air assumes a certain tone and mellowness. The stone in my locality surpasses any I have ever seen in this respect. A warm gray is the ruling tint, and a wall built of this stone is of the color of the bole of the beech-tree, mottled, lively, and full of character.
What should a house of undressed stone be trimmed out with but unpainted wood? Oak, ash, cedar, cherry, maple, — why import pine from Michigan or Maine when nearly all our woods contain plenty of these materials? And now that the planing-mills are so abundant, and really do such admirable work, an ordinary-priced house may be trimmed out mainly in hard wood for nearly the same cost as with pine.
In my case I began at the stump; I viewed the trees before they were cut, and took a hand in sawing them down and hauling them to the mill. One bleak winter day I climbed to the top of a mountain to survey a large butternut which some hunters had told me of, and which now, one year later, I see about me in base and panel as I write. One thus gets a lively background of interest and reminiscence in his house from the start.
The natural color and grain of the wood give a richness and simplicity to an interior that no art can make up for. How the eye loves a genuine thing; how it delights in the nude beauty of the wood! A painted surface is a blank, meaningless surface; but the texture and figure of the wood is full of expression. It is the principle of construction again appearing in another field. How endless the variety of figures that appear even in one kind of wood, and, withal, how modest! The grainers do not imitate oak. They cannot. Their surface glares; their oak is only skin-deep; their figures put nature to shame.
Oak is the wood to start with in trimming a house. How clear and strong it looks! It is the master wood. When allowed to season in the log, it has a richness and ripeness of tone that are delicious. We have many kinds, as rock oak, black oak, red oak, white oak, — all equally beautiful in their place. Red oak is the softest, and less liable to spring. By combining two different kinds, as red oak and white oak (white oak takes its name from the external color of the tree, and not from the color of the wood, which is dark amber color), a most pleasing effect is produced.
Butternut is the softest and most tractable of what are called hard woods, and its hue is eminently warm and mellow. Its figure is pointed and shooting, — a sort of Gothic style in the grain. It makes admirable doors. Western butternut, which can usually be had in the Albany market, makes doors as light as pine, and as little liable to spring. The Western woods are all better than the Eastern for building purposes. They are lighter, coarser, easier worked. They grow easier and thriftier. The traveler through northern Ohio and Indiana sees a wonderful crop of forest trees, tall, uniform, straight as candles, no knots, no gnarls, — all clear, clean timber. The soil is deep and moist, and the trees grow rank and rapid. The chestnut, ash, and butternut grown here work like pine, besides being darker and richer in color than the same woods grown in leaner and more rocky soils. Western black ash is especially beautiful. In connection with our almost bone-white sugar maple for panels, it makes charming doors, — just the thing for chambers, and scarcely more expensive than pine. Of our Eastern woods, red cedar is also good, with its pungent, moth-expelling odor, and should not be neglected. It soon fades, but it is very pleasing, with its hard, solid knots, even then. No doubt some wash might be applied that would preserve its color.
There is a species of birch growing upon our mountains that makes an admirable finish. It is usually called red or cherry birch, and it has a long wave or curl that is found in no other wood. It is very tough and refractory, and must be securely fastened. A black ash door, with maple or white pine panels set in a heavy frame of this red, wavy birch, is a most pleasing chamber finish. For a hard-wood floor, in connection with oak or ash, it is to be preferred to cherry.
Growing alongside of the birch is the soft maple — the curly species — that must not be overlooked. It contains light wood and dark wood, as a fowl contains white meat and dark meat. It is not unusual to find a tree of this species, the heart of which will be a rich grayish brown, suggesting, by something in the tone and texture of it, the rarer shades of silk, while the outer part is white, and fine as ivory. I have seen a wainscoting composed of alternate strips of this light and dark wood from the same tree that was exquisite, and a great rarity.
The eye soon tires of sharp, violent contrasts. In general, that which is striking or taking at first sight is to be avoided in interior finishings or decorations, especially in the main or living rooms. In halls, a more pronounced style is permissible, and the contrast of walnut with pine, or maple, or oak is more endurable. What one wants in his living-rooms is a quiet, warm tone, and the main secret of this is dark furniture and hangings, with a dash of color here and there, and floods of light, — big windows, and plenty of them. No room can be cheerful and inviting without plenty of light, and then, if the walls are light too, and the carpets showy, there is a flatness and garishness. The marble mantel-piece, with its senseless vases, and the marble-topped centre-table, add the finishing touch of coldness and stiffness. Marble makes good tombstones, but it is an abomination in a house, either in furniture or in mantels.
There remains only to be added that, after you have had the experience, after the house is finished and you have had a year or two to cool off in (it takes that long), you will probably feel a slight reaction. Or it may be more than that: the scales may fall from your eyes, and you may see that it is not worth while after all to lay so much emphasis on the house, a place to shelter you from the elements, and that you have had only a different but the same unworthy pride as the rest, as if anything was not good enough, and as if manhood was not sufficient to itself without these props.
You will have found, too, that with all your pains you have not built a house, nor can you build one, that just fills the eye and gives the same æsthetic pleasure as does the plain unpainted structure that took no thought of appearances, and that has not one stroke about it foreign to the necessities of the case.
Pride, when it is conscious of itself, is death to the nobly beautiful, whether in dress, manners, equipage, or house-building. The great monumental structures of the Old World show no pride or vanity, but on the contrary great humility and singleness of purpose. The Gothic cathedral does not try to look beautiful; it is beautiful from the start, and entirely serious. London Bridge is a heroic resolution in stone, and apparently has but one purpose, and that is to carry the paved street with all its surging masses safely over the river.
Unless, therefore, you have had the rare success of building without pride, your house will offend you by and by, and offend others.
Perhaps after one had graduated in this school and built four or five houses, he would have the courage to face the problem squarely, and build, much more plainly and unpretentiously, a low, nestling structure of undressed boards, or unhammered stone, and be content, like the oyster, with the roughest of shells without, so that he be sure of the mother-of-pearl within.