‘Perfectly comfortable to live in when the hour means idleness’
Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer (Mariana Griswold), Augustus Saint Gaudens, 1888
From The Design Observer:
Many of Van Rensselaer’s essays focus on country houses, and can be read as offering a counter-narrative to the better-known contemporaneous essays on high-rise architecture by Louis Sullivan and Montgomery Schuyler. In his seminal “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” from 1896, Sullivan described the skyscraper as a peculiarly American invention that offered architects the opportunity to create a new language based on the new functional requirements of the tall building; he makes a painstakingly detailed argument that the design should result from the program. In “The Evolution of the Sky-Scraper,” from 1909, Schuyler traces the rationale for the tall office building’s evolution in size and material, from the steel frame to the safety elevator. Neither essay “solves” the problem of the skyscraper, but each anatomizes the difficulties of the type. Van Rensselaer applies an equally searching method to her discussion of the house, from the Colonial era to the 19th-century innovations of architects like R.M. Hunt and McKim, Mead & White as well as Richardson. Van Rensselaer did not avoid the public realm: her series for The Century on “Recent Architecture in America” included public and commercial as well as domestic buildings. But much of her writing on commercial buildings, including warehouses and skyscrapers, seems somewhat rushed and comparatively tentative, with little of the insight she brings to the design of residences. (It is — correctly, I think — rarely in the anthologies.) In one of her Century pieces, for instance, Van Rensselaer identifies the new importance of the hall in American domestic design, the transformation of this room from humble entryway into a new kind of living area.
In our climate and with our social ways of summer living, we absolutely require just what it can give us — a room which in its uses shall stand midway between the piazzas on the one hand and the drawing-rooms and libraries on the other; perfectly comfortable to live in when the hour means idleness, easy of access from all points outside and in, largely open to breeze and view, yet with a generous hearthstone where we might find a rallying-point in days of cold and rain.
She also devotes attention to the staircase, as an open and architectural element in these new halls. As you read, you realize that Van Rensselaer is developing a dialogue between the domestic architecture and culture of her day and the experience of Americans in their houses. She is explaining how the innovations of the home — along with those of the skyscraper — were forming the core of a new American architecture. I don’t know if this was Van Rensselaer’s style and subject by interest or necessity, but it feels to me that her analyses benefitted from attention to the small-scale as well as to the myriad choices Americans were making — and still make — in our daily domestic lives. And even now, which is a better representation of who we are: our skyscrapers or our kitchens?