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.