The American Country House
THE AMERICAN COUNTRY HOUSE
July 18, 1990, Wednesday
Architecture: Let’s go have a game in the playhouse; What turn-of-the-century American country homes lacked in suits of armour, they made up for in sports facilities.
ENGLISH gentlemen have always prided themselves on their sportsman-like qualities but, at the turn of the century, they placed little emphasis on sport architecturally compared with their counterparts across the Atlantic.
Clarence H Mackay’s Harbor Hill, for example, which might well have been transported from a French provincial grande place, profoundly impressed the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) when he visited Long Island in 1924. “Paintings, tapestries, old china and armour would have been commonplace enough in a British country house,” he concluded after having attended a ball. “What was surprising was to find on the same property a squash-racquets court, a gymnasium, an indoor swimming-pool and a Turkish bath.”
In this, Harbor Hill was by no means unusual. Foreign visitors frequently remarked on the determination with which sports and games were pursued in turn-of- the-century America. In more ways than one they could be seen as the obverse side of the business coin: the more arduously a man worked to make money, the more urgently he needed exercise. “We Americans are too officious about our diversions,” observed Harry Desmond and Herbert Croly in their Stately Homes of America in 1903, “and the appropriate habitation for a contemporary house-party, far from consisting of a series of well-fashioned rooms, would consist rather of a casino with billiard and card tables, bowling-alleys, a tank and a tennis-court as the chief items of equipment.”
Desmond and Croly’s hint was soon taken up. In 1904 Mrs Vincent Astor had a private “casino”, or playhouse, built at Ferncliff, New York. The central figure of the Astor playhouse is an indoor tennis court the size of a small cathedral, vaulted, tiled and top-lit, with an elaborate system of shades against the sun. Legend grew up that the Astors had originally asked for no more than a ping- pong court but, according to the now forgotten journal Country Life in America, founded a couple of years after our own Country Life, “the plan which Stanford White submitted included an indoor tennis court, two squash courts, swimming pool, great hall, living room, library, five bedrooms, two dressing rooms, three baths, a kitchen and servants’ quarters. This plan was accepted at once.” The idea had found its time.
The playhouse is an entirely American phenomenon, which knows no European equivalent. When a tennis court is combined with a swimming pool, the result is bound to be big, so one should not be misled by the apparent childishness of the term playhouse, which was the one most commonly used at the time. These were very grown-up undertakings indeed.
The two-level playhouse on the Whitney estate of Greentree, Long Island, is actually larger than the main house. The Casino (as it was called) at George Jay Gould's Georgian Court, New Jersey, capped even this, having been constructed around an arena for exercising the polo ponies. The space could also be used for pageants, circuses, galas and so on. Grouped around the periphery were a swimming pool, ballroom, bowling alley, racquets court, tennis court, two squash courts and a handball court.
The Rockefeller playhouse at Pocantico Hills, in a rambling half- timbered style, was not as large as Gould’s building, though still considerable. Built in 1925, it included a kitchen and the grounds outside were gaily planted with flowerbeds. It became an attractive and self-contained element of the estate—an ideal escape for the young. Perhaps too ideal in some ways, for in 1930 John D Rockefeller Jr was compelled to tell his children that, “having in mind the church-going habit of the community and the traditions and attitude of the family and our joint responsibilities to the grandchildren as they come along”, it should not be used on Sunday mornings.
By this date there cannot have been many country houses beyond striking distance of a good country club, making it less necessary for the owner to provide private sports facilities. Nevertheless, playhouses continued to be built until the Second World War.
The various elements that made up the playhouse could also, on less wealthy estates, be found individually. While, to begin with, lawn tennis was thought of as an English game, swimming was more popular in the United States, covered swimming pools being a rarity on English country estates of this date. Oddly, this had little to do with the weather, since open-air bathing pools were relatively common.
Bowling alleys were even rarer in England than covered swimming pools, since skittles was considered a rather low game. In America, however, bowling was not only fashionable but almost as popular with women as with men.
Strictly speaking, these activities were games rather than sports. The importance of field sports such as fishing and shooting went beyond the buildings constructed specifically for them. They were central to encouraging that new interest in the country which persuaded people they wanted to live there. Long Island again provides a paradigm of their influence. It had been little more than scrub and dune before being parcelled into estates, and without the existence of the elite South Side Sportsmen’s Club, there would have been little reason for rich men to explore it.
As country life developed, the wild pleasures of wading through swamps in pursuit of game lost popularity to more organised pursuits, in which the horse took centre stage.
Four-in-hand driving enjoyed a great vogue among millionaires and this was a spur to the landscaping of many estates.
The beauty of a well-kept, well-built stable was something the owner might well wish to share with friends. Gambrill and Mackenzie, authors of Sporting Stables and Kennels, 1935, were fully alive to the pleasure, and seem to have understood the psychology of both owner and guest: “There is nothing more delightful than the good old-fashioned custom of ‘morning stables’…when the owner and his guests visit the stables and inspect every horse and detail throughout…the interest in such things is growing so rapidly in this country….”
It was an interest that produced some of the most remarkable and little-known buildings in America.
– Clive Aslet's book ‘The American Country House’ will be published by Yale University Press next month, pounds 22.50.