A mini-tour of historic American homes
Mar 13, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Instagram can become quite the distraction if you let it – after all there’s something inherently romantic about visual storytelling. It’s so easy to get captivated. With the digital canvases beckoning you, soon you find yourself completely unaware of time constraints. Instead, you’re on a quest, bravely scrolling as you delve deeper into various plot lines. Recently, I’ve become a bit obsessed with imagery involving historic & mid-century American homes. It’s fun to ponder what it might be like to live in such environments. Some are streamlined, some are bold and eccentric, and others are opulent. Regardless of their aesthetic, they awaken the dreamer in me and I’d like to take you on a virtual mini-tour of historic American homes. The three I selected today represent a small portion of the diversity that’s out there and I look forward to hearing about your favorite historic homes in the comments…
Isaac Bell House | Newport, Rhode Island
Believe it or not, this grand home was built for one purpose: Summer vacations. This historic abode (also known by the noble title of Edna Villa), takes its design cues from the Shingle Style. This aesthetic choice was a bit of a hybrid, combining proper English influences with Colonial architecture. Given that the key tenets of the style called for a “return to one’s roots”, it’s not hard to see how the Arts & Crafts Movement followed on its heels. While the style’s origin story often traces back to Harry Hobson Richardson, the firm of McKim, Mead, and White is heralded as a key champion of the 1880’s movement. This famous trio is also responsible for the first home on our mini-tour (and other summer “cottages” for the East Coast’s rich and famous).
I think my favorite thing about this home (and other homes built in this style), is that they don’t try to be timeless. They embrace a life well-lived. You see it in the weathering of the exterior shingles – one continuous mass, united in material – standing strong against whatever storms come its way. Not afraid of a little gray, a little wearing around the edges – its beauty is none the lesser.
Check out this photo gallery for a more intimate look at this revolutionary home
But I digress, back to the tour! Isaac Bell, Jr. was a prominent figure in East Coast society and would probably fit in well with the modern-day Silicon Valley scene. A Harvard dropout, he used his smarts to invest in cotton and the early days of telecommunications. That wealth made him a fixture of the Newport Summer set and his appointment as U.S. Minister to the Netherlands secured his place in the well-heeled society of the day.
His diverse background and interests probably made him an ideal architectural client – the home definitely mirrors its cavalier owner, taking design risks here and there. For example, you see Asian motifs, open floor plans and nontraditional interior material choices (like rattan). The Asian (particularly Japanese) influences are picked up again in the Arts & Crafts Movement and by that quintessential American architect: Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Bell House, in addition to being beautiful, was considered avant-garde for its day. After all, proper houses had proper rooms with structure. This idea of flowing space was entirely revolutionary and then to add to all that – bamboo-styled columns on the porch – shocking! This house offers proof that even when you look to your past for inspiration, the desire to create something new & unique is never overshadowed completely. Legacies often get re-fashioned in the eyes of the present generation. We can consider ourselves the future generation in the case of this historic house, so tell me – what’s your impression of the Bell House?
Winterthur | Wilmington, Delaware
Winterthur finds its place on this mini-tour because it is uniquely positioned. This estate isn’t just a celebration of the interior – but a triumph for the exterior environment as well. The estate’s thousand acre site is home to some of the finest examples of naturalistic gardens in the world! Unlike the Bell House, Winterthur was built for reflection, rather than relaxation. This perspective is thanks to its owner, Henry Francis du Pont. Descended from the famous du Pont family, Henry studied horticulture and even listed his occupation as farmer (after all, his herd of Holstein Friesian cattle is legendary).
This love of things that grow is celebrated throughout the estate. But in the early 1920s Henry developed another passion – collecting Americana. Henry was able to indulge in his newfound love of furniture and Winterthur became the place to house his growing collection. His keen eye for furniture and interior design even garnered the admiration of one first lady in particular – Jackie Kennedy. (She went on to ask for his help in renovating portions of the White House!)
Take a spin through some of the 175 rooms here
Winterthur wasn’t set on an untouched site – this plot of land in the Brandywine Valley was passed down in the family from generation to generation. While each ancestor left their mark on the estate, Henry’s vision is the one that is preserved in the Winterthur we see today. The home itself has been expanded over the years to make room for the growth of Henry’s collection and while that could have created a disjointed experience, it didn’t. One could say that’s a credit to his design genius, but he saw each room (and there are nearly 200 in all!) as a vignette. He created a museum for the American design experience. When you think about it – Henry shows us that we can find harmony in diversity. While his exact medium of choice was design (landscape, furniture, interiors) – I think the lesson is applicable to other areas of life!
Alden Dow House | Midland, Michigan
This final destination on our mini-tour takes us to the great state of Michigan. Like our other two homes, the owner of this residence was affluent. We’ve already met a man who was a titan of industry, another who was a champion for preservation, and as we meet Alden Dow I think you’ll see why this magic mix works! Alden was the son of the founder of Dow Chemical and was born with an eye for design. After his collegiate studies, he worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. The tenure, while brief, awakened his love of organic forms and with that inspiration, Alden returned home to create what’s now known as Michigan Modern.
His home and studio, built in the mid 1930s, removed the barriers between the inner realm and the outer (something that would speak to Henry du Pont’s heart!). The house is beautifully knit within the landscape and its shape and materiality speak to location. The cinder blocks that make up the building are from Dow Chemical plant leftovers. These blocks are arranged in a way that encourages curiosity. This “Dow Unit Block” system is the basis for many of the homes in the Midland area and while each design is uniquely curious in its own way, this common building block quite literally ties them together.
As I sit here, I wonder how it would feel to live in a city where the design aesthetic is so connected – would it be a comfort or a constraint? But then I pause, that’s suburban America isn’t it? As you stare across strip malls and parking lots, the landscape can feel faceless and maybe even thoughtless. From my perspective, the only time this connection/sameness feels comforting is when it’s rooted in something real. Alden Dow knew that instinctively and that honest vision was recognized by his peers. His home won the Grand Prix for residential design at the 1937 Paris Exhibition and elevated the conversation about good design.
The other two homes we toured today share in that distinction. The Bell House shocked the system – celebrating both the passage of time with the flow of space; Winterthur sees the worth in all vantage points, and the Dow House invites us to create harmony within and without. Of the three homes we’ve virtually toured, which is your favorite and why?