Novelist Edith Wharton documented the lifestyles of America's emerging aristocracy at the turn of the last century. In her books The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Buccaneers, she wrote of the social conventions and recreations of the Industrial Age's elites. Other novels, such as Summer and Ethan Frome, explored the conflicts that developed when the values of the new rich clashed with those of their more modest neighbors. But readers of Wharton's novels may not be aware of her prominence and influence in the world of architecture and interior design.
Before any of her novels were published, Wharton penned The Decoration of Houses with Boston architect Ogden Codman Jr. Published in 1897, the book describes in detail Wharton's ideas of classical style -- concepts that she and Codman would apply later to her own home, The Mount, built in 1902 in Lenox, Massachusetts. An expanded centennial edition of The Decoration of Houses was published in 1997 by W. W. Norton; the same year, the nonprofit Edith Wharton Restoration began fund-raising to renovate the author's home. Following a nearly $35 million restoration, The Mount reopened in June 2002, just in time for its centennial.
Born in 1862 to a wealthy and prominent New York family, Edith Jones Wharton came of age during the Civil War and its aftermath. Because of her family's social standing, however, she grew up in leisure and luxury, with private tutors and frequent trips to Europe. Her early exposure to literature and the culture of the upper classes both here and abroad helped her develop a keen eye for the mores of high society. Along the way, she formed her own opinions on what constituted good taste, particularly in the home.
Reacting to the heavy-handed and eclectic nature of Victorian decor, Wharton espoused a return to the clean lines of classical architecture, drawing upon the artistic and philosophical influences of the ancient Greeks and Romans. She advocated a discipline of interior decoration that would grow out of a building's architectural structure rather than being tacked on in haphazard fashion. She offered the book as a study of "house-decoration as a branch of architecture," with emphasis on "architectural proportion" rather than what she saw as the contemporary trend toward the "superficial application of ornament."
Wharton was not alone in her love for all things classical and European. At the time of the American centennial in 1876, when the country was emerging as an industrial power with its own aristocracy, many longtime prominent families wanted to differentiate themselves from the masses of immigrants newly arrived in the nation's cities and factories. Pride in the American past, complete with roots in England and France, surged into a fervor of nationalism. Because American democracy was seen as a descendent of ancient Greek democratic ideals, architects and their well-to-do clients returned to the classically influenced designs of the colonial and early federal periods.
Homes of this classical or colonial revival stressed symmetry, proportion, and balance, principles that Wharton embraced and applied at The Mount. The house itself is modeled after a Georgian-style English estate house, but it is sited to take full advantage of the surrounding bucolic countryside. Codman and Wharton drew upon English, French, and Italian influences for both the interior and the lushly landscaped grounds. Architectural historian Scott Marshall, who served as vice president at The Mount, writes, "Much of the genius of Edith's design of The Mount is in the skillful blending of the best of French, English, and Italian classical design elements to create a new American vocabulary."
Wharton may have used an American vocabulary, but the examples she used definitely reflect the tastes - and the budgets - of the upper crust. Illustrations from French chateaux, Italian villas, and English palaces demonstrate her favored design principles. She defends her selections by saying that she chose homes more likely to be open to public view, although she also favors a kind of architectural trickle-down theory:
"... [R]eform can originate only with those whose means permit of any experiments which their taste may suggest. When the rich man demands good architecture his neighbors will get it too. ... [E]very carefully studied detail, exacted by those who can afford to indulge their taste, will in time find its way to the carpenter-built cottage."
Ironically, Wharton only lived at The Mount for a few years, although they were very productive writing years for her. She continued her frequent travels to Europe and eventually settled in France. She seldom returned to the United States and spent the rest of her life as a French resident. Wharton died in France in 1937.