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Frivolous On Purpose

Americans are serious and pragmatic even about our follies, even in our park and garden decorations.

From the New York Public Library/Public Domain

Follies in America: A History of Garden and Park Architectureby Kerry Dean Carso (Cornell University Press: 2021), 128 pages.

The folly is perhaps the most self-aware term in the whole taxonomy of architecture, a knowing embrace of a term of ridicule and more importantly a retort to the idea that a built structure must display some proof of a serious line of work. Their first associations are obviously with the profligacy of the continental landed gentry, but we should not overlook their proliferation in our putative land of utility, and have no excuse to any longer, thanks to Kerry Dean Carsos excellent study, Follies in America: A History of Garden and Park Architecture. Carso, a professor of art history at the State University of New York at New Paltz has filled a gap you might well not have noticed, writing in her introduction that “no serious studies of this building type in the United States exist at this time, perhaps because of the ‘frivolousnature of follies.”

Frivolity rests in the eye of the beholder, and follies across the world and the country accentuate the landscape and provide a variety of uses (more on the latter point shortly). Carso quotes Gwynn Headley, a former President of the U.K. Folly Fellowship in establishing some of their nature: “The properly trained architectural historical needs to verify the context and category of buildings, to know where they stand in the order of things. Follies, however, are riotous and undisciplined, seductive and irrational. They are going to cause problems.”

Most people are not architectural historians, and so for most people coming across a folly is generally the reverse of a problem. Among these number were Thomas Jefferson, whose travels to English estate gardens (among them Alexander Popes) left him suitably impressed to overcome his general Francophilia. He found these gardens, frequently ornamented with faux-historicist structures “peculiarly worth the attention of an American because it is the country of all others where the noblest gardens may be made without expence [sic] We only have to cut out the superabundant plants.” He planned but did not realize over 20 folly-like structures for the Monticello ground, including grotto, a belvedere, a temple, and other English garden elements. He built only one, a summerhouse, which Ken Burns later recreated in his Massachusetts backyard.

There is a parallel strain of finding this all rather silly, represented well by another garden visitor, John Adams, who wrote, “It will be long, I hope, before ridings, parks, pleasure grounds, gardens and ornamented farms, grow so much in fashion in America; but nature has done greater things and furnished nobler materials there; the oceans, islands, rivers, mountains, valley, are all laid out upon a larger scale.”

Jeffersons view frequently won out in an early boom of follies whose architecture drew on the early iconography of American democracy. Mock mini temples were common; James Madison built one over his icehouse, and other freestanding neoclassical structures of Greek, Roman, or Egyptian stamp became widespread. Painter-soldier-politician-polymath Charles Wilson Peale built a temple dedicated to George Washington near Philadelphia, as many of these open-air structures sought to cement early ancient iconography of democratic revival. Some of these rapidly became entangled in larger myths; Washington is depicted in multiple paintings of a neoclassical summerhouse at Mt. Vernon—despite the fact that it was built by his nephew after his death. This was far from the only depiction of Founding Fathers in temples they couldnt or cant have been proven to visit.

Follies rapidly took on broader forms, from an orientalist campanile at the Colt estate near Hartford to Gothic Revival structures to a Temple of Love in Cincinnati (still there in Mount Storm Park). Many of these were efforts to provide some framing to the landscape, to address what Thomas Cole described in his Essay on American Scenery as its “want of associations.” These associations were provided, as with about everything in the early United States, by importing elements from elsewhere, generally on European models but also fairly often Middle Eastern or even Chinese.

Carso reads other impulses into the folly trend as history advanced, seeing a Jeffersonian anxiety over the advance of industrialization in the later boom of summerhouse construction. We also soon collide with and challenge the implicit sense of uselessness of follies. Washington Irving wrote in a New Jersey summerhouse; Twain declared the summerhouse at his in-laws home in Elmira “the loveliest study you ever saw.” These structures provided important grounding to various gardens: unspoiled nature is a very fine thing but we had quite a lot of it in the early U.S.—a fanciful structure or two can recontextualize their whole surroundings. Not inconsequentially, they might also encourage the exploration of nature by rendering clear that they were part of some ordered realm and not just the neighboring forest. Such was the case at the Mohonk Mountain House where, Carso writes, “the existence of the summerhouses throughout the landscape surely enticed guests out of the confines of Mohonk mountain house and into nature and healthy recreation.”

Other structures had clear uses, the rise of various belvederes and viewing platforms, typically designed to provide views of existing landscapes. Obelisks were a common form, from Bunker Hill to the Saratoga battlefield to the Washington Monument. Pagoda towers rose in various locations. Castles abounded, such as the Belvedere in Central Park. Carso points out a strong undercurrent of American functionalism even in these caprices; most spent almost no effort on filling out themes of Egypt or China or Scotland in their interior. Some were modelled on lighthouses, a more native antecedent but still obviously a bit of fakery—but fun without doubt! Mary Colters Grand Canyon watchtower is a completely fabricated mock Native American viewing tower, yet very nice.

In contrast to most pergolas or viewing towers or other structures which do have leisure uses, fake ruins might be the exemplary folly type, and seem to cut most acutely against American self-imagery. As Carso puts it, “A ruin is the ultimate folly in that it serves purely as a landscape ornament. In a new nation as rational and enlightened as the United States who would build a ruin?” The answer is many, to be sure, craving the implicit aging of the landscape that ruins provided, counterfeit or otherwise. There is a school of criticism of all follies that is particularly critical of the fraudulent ruin, but Carso provides a more complex accounting concerning “the fascination of fictitious narrative.” The effort was not generally to dupe—many of these ruins would be literally impossible to explain in their locations— but rather to adorn.

Amusingly, time and again ruins were deemed too useless not to regret. One ruin on the estate of Nicholas Biddle, near Philadelphia, was later enclosed as a vault. A gatehouse at Hollywood Cemetery near Richmond was later refurbished for use. As Carso wryly comments. “When Americans built ruins, oftentimes their pragmatism ironically lead them to rebuild ruins as permanent structures.” Eventually, we began to have real ruins: the abandoned Fort Ticonderoga helped to encourage Hudson River tourism. It doesnt take long for any society to generate buildings it doesnt use which fall apart in evocative ways.

Carso carries the story of follies to the present, noting the revival of their appreciation in recent decades.

As postmodernism gained traction, follies were the perfect antidote to the stringent orthodoxy of high modernism. Follies are useless, outrageous, and above all, historicized, in direct contrast to the functionality, clean lines, and ahistoricism of the international style.

Theirs is a story of outlandish ornament, of a determination to beautify garden-like settings with stylistic inspiration from just about anywhere. It’s left numerous locations looking far better than they would have. Seward’s Folly turned out rather well; so have these.

Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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