Learned amateur architecture in our country antedates our republic. From the builders of early manor and plantation houses, who followed the latest pattern books shipped from England, to celebrated amateurs such as Gabriel Manigault of Charleston and Thomas Jefferson, Americans with limited or no professional education in drafting or engineering have fancied themselves architects in the European tradition, erecting along the way some of the most celebrated buildings and, in ensemble, towns in the country. In and around Charleston, South Carolina, a vestige—or perhaps a revival—of that practice continues today. Witold Rybczynski, an emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, in his latest book, Charleston Fancy, engagingly tells the story of a group of like-minded friends whose understanding, curiosity, and whimsy fit squarely within this very American tradition.
We are first introduced to George Holt, a self-taught contractor with an art historian’s understanding of the neoclassical. His house, a Byzantine fantasy hidden in the middle of a city block, had just gone up in flames right before Christmas 2015. So Rybczynski’s book is part memorial, one in which he reveals how this strange small house, with its domed living room and colonnaded indoor pool, and its neighbors came to be. Tully Alley, what Holt and his friends dubbed the driveway-cum-street they developed, became their fantasy of a Mediterranean town, as each friend designed his house in the style he preferred—one a Roman villa, another with a Moorish veranda, and others built to fill the odd spaces of their small lots. This alley became one of the first urban “infill” projects in Charleston, in a neighborhood that was at the time riddled with crack dens and is now—thanks to similar projects to Tully Alley—one of the most desirable in the city. Rybczynski touts, among other projects, Holt’s construction of a pleasing, contextual, and surprisingly undemonstrative Palladian villa amid a twentieth-century suburb of nondescript ranch houses and split-levels.
Holt soon gathered friends and comrades, including Vince Graham, one of the earliest developer-proponents of New Urbanism. We meet Graham first through his commission of a Gothic Revival chapel repurposed as a medieval fantasy house, dubbed “Mugdock Castle” after his family’s ancient Scottish clanstead. This chapel was to be moved to I’On, his new large-scale development in the wealthy suburban town of Mount Pleasant, but the beach town of Sullivan’s Island prevented the chapel’s removal from its original location by declaring that it stood in a historic district. I’On itself was a New Urbanist project in the middle of a car-commuter town, and Rybczynski describes many of the tussles with the nimby-minded citizens, some of whom would eventually move into the development they once spurned.
Then there’s Andrew Gould, a former student of Rybczynski’s who first took on the Mugdock commission and later that of a Russian Orthodox church at I’On. He soon joined Holt’s inner circle, helping to develop another infill block in downtown Charleston. Gould also is the only formally trained architect to feature in the book, and yet his story is mostly about rebelling against the Modernist ethos of almost every architecture school in the country in favor of a structured classicism.
In Charleston Fancy, we learn how the Holy City’s unique urban landscape came to be, and we also learn some of the history of Palladianism in colonial America.
Holt and Gould are the most developed characters in the book, befitting their respective roles as builder and architect. Rybczynski portrays the two of them as a bit of an odd couple, with Holt the more affable and improvisational and Gould the more doctrinaire. In building his suburban Palladian villa, Holt refused to be confined by the strict rules of materials, layout, and scale, and the result is a house that is formal without being stiff; one could imagine John Ruskin singing its praises. As Rybczynski writes, “Andrew was born a craftsman, fastidious, and, at heart, a conservative. George was an artist, intuitive and emotional, always willing to upset the apple cart, an iconoclast.”
Rybczynski has a gift for seamlessly integrating history and theory into his books. In Charleston Fancy, we learn how the Holy City’s unique urban landscape came to be, and we also learn some of the history of Palladianism in colonial America. He makes frequent reference to the antecedents of New Urbanism, such as G. K. Chesterton and Ralph Adams Cram, as well as Christopher Alexander’s four “cornerstones” of organic urban growth—that it is piecemeal, unpredictable, coherent, and “full of feeling.” The result is an enjoyable series of mini-lessons in history, urbanism, and aesthetics that go down as easily as cool summer cocktails on a Charleston piazza.
Charleston Fancy is not perfect. Rybczynski is an outsider—“from Off” in the local parlance (much as Mainers semi-suspiciously refer to those from other states as from “away”)—and this can sometimes circumscribe his perspective. For example, he gives scant notice to the widespread presence of secondary outbuildings, most often carriage houses, throughout downtown Charleston. In many ways, the new back-alley developments, which are often on the same scale as their forebears, are fully in keeping with an established, and occasionally adventurous, style of secondary structure in the city. Rybczynski also misses a few major local precedents. In discussing the Dutch-style stepped gables featured to excellent effect on at least two of the friends’ houses, he fails to mention Medway Plantation, a Dutch fantasy in pink stucco and one of only two seventeenth-century structures remaining in South Carolina. These are, however, minor quibbles, and Charleston Fancy otherwise delivers a compelling argument in favor of an urban aesthetic that is contextual, traditional, organic, beautiful, and human. In his preface, Rybczynski defines “fancy” as an expression of attraction, a flight of imagination, or an improvisational early-music composition. For George Holt, Vince Graham, Andrew Gould, and their circle of fellow-travelers, the title is apt.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 10, on page 83
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