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.
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.
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.