Hunting the Bristol baluster

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Linden Place, in Bristol. (discovernewport.org)

Some collections grow slowly. My collections of miniature buildings and of historical balusters are moribund. I have about twenty or thirty of the little buildings (gathered mostly on overseas trips) and two balusters – one from the Rhode Island State House and the other from the John Brown House, both of which had seen better days.

Here I do not count a fake baluster used as a prop in a RISD seminar (titled “On Being David Brussat”), whose purpose was to look down the academic nose at my support for new classical architecture. I had attended, and asked when it was over to keep the fake baluster. It was kindly given to me, but unlike the other two, which serve respectively as a pedestal for our finest table lamp and as part of a sculptural folly at the base of our TV set, the fake baluster is stored in our basement.

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State House baluster.

So I was not going to go out of my way for any but the best of crumbling old balusters. On Saturday I drove down to Bristol to attend a sale of old, unused architectural ornaments swapped out during a recent renovation of Linden Place. I got there early and learned that all of it would be too expensive, so I left without seeing the entire set of items for sale. I was told that the least of the items might run up to $200. My State House baluster, whose granite was in a fair state of erosion, cost only the effort of putting my John Hancock on a list of those who might be willing to lug away one of the massive balusters being retired from the balustrade that surrounds the building. I did not have a car at the time, but the car I borrowed for the job almost suffered a heart attack after I had managed, with a sturdy handtruck, to wrestle the baluster into the back seat. The Brown House baluster, broken into base, shaft and capital, was a gift from museum staff who enjoyed a column from long ago in the Providence Journal in which I described a nocturnal visit to the venerable mansion, during which I had “molested” a baluster in its garden on my way home after an evening on Thayer Street. In “The beauty of the baluster” (Aug. 8, 1996) I wrote:

There must be some quality about the baluster, however, that compelled these [Renaissance] revivalists to use it even after they discovered that, technically speaking, it wasn’t classical. What could that quality be?

I think I discovered what it is on a visit to the John Brown House (1788) on Benefit Street late Saturday night. Balustrades of slender elegance adorn its portico and cornice, but its best balusters are the voluptuous ones between the house and the lawn facing Benefit. These balusters, recently replaced by beautiful Vermont marble molded in Carrara, Italy, are Rubenesque in appearance – soft, sensual objects that are easily touched and, as I found, inevitably caressed. Marble they may be, but after rubbing off the dust they feel as smooth as a woman’s round breast, and just as enticing. Had it been broad daylight, I might’ve been arrested for molesting a baluster!

Perhaps the baluster is the clearest example of the quality that causes people to revere classical or traditional forms of architecture. Columns strain to lift, arches bend to carry, spires reach to glorify – the major features of classical architecture all seem to be engaged in actions familiar to the human body and mind. Such inanimate features of classical architecture as the bays that separate sections of facades, or the mullions in windows and panels in doors, bring the scale of major structures down to human size. Ornament brings life to otherwise flat, featureless surfaces. All of this makes classical architecture more humanistic. That is why most people find it more appealing than abstract “modern” architecture.

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John Brown House baluster.

I suppose I will be forced to suppress that daring gambit of reportorial self-revelation if I ever seek political office.

But we have strayed somewhat from the point of my trip down to Bristol on Saturday morning.

In the end, I did not leave Bristol empty handed. I got what I always get from even a mere drive through the town on its main drag, Hope Street (Route 114). Hope and its environs express the beauty inherent in all cities and towns built before the curious onset of modern architecture after World War II. They are generally expensive places inhabited by the well-to-do. But that is not because they are (leaving aside houses like Linden Place) intrinsically costly to build; they are merely rare because so many old ones are torn down and modernists have browbeaten most people into thinking new ones are inappropriate to build today, however pleasant they may seem. Whenever on some I hope not so distant tomorrow, a critical mass of people are able to shed this fallacy, the world will almost instantly become a more beautiful place.

That is what I took home from Bristol, which I could have taken home from a visit to so many towns and villages throughout Rhode Island.

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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6 Responses to Hunting the Bristol baluster

  1. John says:

    By the way: I would suggest that this site needs a so called lightviewer or ‘lightbox’, a means to enlarge the photos which are posted on it. After all, it is about visual art. be aware: the opposition (modernists) do use all the slick technologies.

    Like

    • WordPress provided such a mechanism until a couple of years ago. Go back and you can click on a little photo on my blog and it will expand. But then they took it away. I’ve tried to get it back, but it seems you have to undertake a procedure for every photo you want to have that feature, which has undermined my urgency. The terms “lightviewer” or “lightbox” may be helpful, I’d never heard of them. Maybe they will help me find a way to do this that is less cumbersome. Thanks for the suggestion. I will get right on it.

      Like

  2. Ed Iannuccilli says:

    Excellent column. Thank you.

    Like

  3. LazyReader says:

    Before buildings became the massive supertall juggernauts you see today, the most distinguished feature looked at above was the cornice.

    Because it stuck out it was the most wowing feature. Entablature died when technology allowed buildings to get taller. You cant see the details well from 700-800 feet up yet I applaud the effort. The solution was making the pieces larger. The Chrysler building abandoned classical engraving for metal partitions and scaled them.
    For buildings, the only detailed ones ended after 20-30 stories

    The Skyscraper was never meant to mix with classical, the proportions are not in sync with classical orders or scale. So came the dawn of Neoclassical, or as we call it’s resurgance today New classicism. Cass Gilbert McKim, white, mead were the best architects of their day, they had to apply their so called “Antiquated knowledge” with the development of modern building design.

    Quinlan Terry is the single most distinguished and prolific architect at work in the Classical tradition today.
    Terry has said that he enjoys working for American clients because: “… apart from the fact that [they] have got the money [they have] no moral hangups against building a building in an ‘outdated style,’ as they put it. … To Americans, morality is morality, architecture is architecture”

    Like

    • John says:

      “To Americans, morality is morality, architecture is architecture””

      “moral hangups against building a building in an ‘outdated style,’”?

      This then points to the love of classical style of some of the top Nazis, hence the moral association?
      If so, any one who is politically a liberal is to some extent an accomplish to large perception management campaigns regarding Europe and the Nazi period, in the form of liberalisms’ vast long term media campaigns which are intended to hold the minds of people in Europe in a guilt-blame grip (‘moral hangups’), a control which is deliberate. The issue as such is ideological and is much larger than the area of architecture, the ‘mind control’ in the form of historical association comes in handy for a great amount of people in a wide range of areas.
      Without these targeted campaigns, for Europeans: morality is morality, architecture is architecture.

      Like

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