When is a folly not a folly?

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A folly on the grounds of Bellevue House, in Newport. (David Brussat photo)

What’s in a name? I’ve always loved a folly, but some follies are not as useless as their definition suggests. The London Times has an article about follies called “It’s not bonkers to be fond of a folly,” by Norman Miller. The leading exponent of follies in Rhode Island – or at least the one with the most follies on his property – is Ronald Lee Fleming, whose Bellevue House, on the avenue of the same name, is in Newport.

The follies in Miller’s article seem no more useless than the follies in Fleming’s garden. Fleming’s follies are not as useful as Fleming’s Bellevue House, but that hardly makes them useless. The definition of folly in the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, by James Stevens Curl and Susan Wilson, is:

Eye-catching, usually a building in a contrived landscape, often otherwise useless. It might be in the form of a sham ruin, Classical temple, oriental tent, Chinoiserie pagoda or other charming fabrique set in a Picturesque garden. It might provide seats and shelter from which an agreeable view can be enjoyed, but more often simply demands attention/gives pleasure by its eccentricity. … [T]he folly is more than whimsical: it encapsulates creative longing, often in the realms of fantasy, with many allusions, far removed from the prim, joyless Modern Movement.

In short, no, they are not useless, any more than decoration itself is useless. At least a folly provides seating and shelter; beyond that it offers additional reason to love a place and to commit time, energy and resources to its perpetuation. By this standard, modern architecture is useful only in the narrowest sense of the word, and that is why so few people have any affection for it.

My post “Library of place in Newport” describes the work in progress that is Fleming’s Bellevue House and its magnificant grounds. From there you can click to an earlier post, “Flemish park on Bellevue.” Both have quite a number of photos and they give a good idea of how many and what sort of follies enliven Fleming’s estate.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to When is a folly not a folly?

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Ron Fleming’s house and gardens (including several follies) are a delight and has many precedents in architectural history. The buildings are not at all useless, having purposes like guest quarters, a dining pavilion, a pool house, a library, a greenhouse, etc. The main thing is that they delight the senses, along with the rest of the garden, which is a joy to walk in. The idea that architecture should give pleasure is, of course, contrary to the Puritan orientation of the Modern Movement, but is for that reason all the more important to assert whenever possible.


    • So true, Steve. And referring to the puritanism of the modernists may be the best way to bend the narrative away from the utilitarian meme, which sounds good unless someone points out that something can be both useful and beautiful, which the modernists cannot be relied upon to mention.


  2. Clay Fulkerson says:

    Most Americans are too practical and/or aesthetically mpoverished to appreciate follies, I’m afraid.


    • Even more, Clay, most people have never heard of a folly before, and the word itself probably dissuades those who have to consider it less than admirable. Look at Steven Semes’s comment above. The modernists are puritans – they are against joy and only appreciate architecture that is utilitarian. This they say themselves. I have long used the word sterile and cold to express this reluctance of the modernist to embrace pleasure, joy and beauty. I think it’s time to start rubbing that in.


      • Clayton Fulkerson says:

        Which brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”.


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