Wharton’s “House of Mirth”

14 W. 23rd St., where Edith Wharton was born.* Bottom, two of 5th Ave. from 1905. (Untapped Cities)

Being about two-thirds through Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, I am still not quite sure I’ve actually encountered the “house of mirth” she gives as its title. What follows is a passage in which a secondary character, Van Alstyne, in Wharton’s set of Upper East Side socialites, describes to another character, Lawrence Selden, his understanding of the feelings expressed through architectural styles chosen by the families that have built new houses on a stretch of Fifth Avenue across from Central Park.

Van Alstyne prided himself on his summing up of social aspects, and with Selden for audience was eager to show the sureness of his touch. … [A]s the two men walked down Fifth Avenue the new architectural developments of that versatile thoroughfare invited Van Alstyne’s comment.

“That Greiner house, now – a typical rung in the social ladder! The man who built it came from a milieu where all the dishes are put on the table at once. His façade is a complete architectural meal; if he had omitted a style his friends might have thought the money had given out. Not a bad purchase for Rosedale, though: attracts attention, and awes the Western sightseer. By and bye he’ll get out of that phase, and want something that the crowd will pass and the few pause before. Especially if he marries my clever cousin—”

Selden dashed in with the query: “And the Wellington Brys’ [house]? Rather clever of its kind, don’t you think?”

They were just beneath the wide white façade, with its rich restraint of line, which suggested the clever corseting of a redundant figure.

“That’s the next stage: the desire to imply that one has been to Europe, and has a standard. I’m sure Mrs. Bry thinks her house a copy of the Trianon [at Versailles outside Paris]: in America every marble house with gilt furniture is thought to be a copy of the Trianon. What a clever chap that architect is, though – how he takes his client’s measure! He has put the whole of Mrs. Bry in his use of the composite order. Now for the Trenors, you remember, he chose the Corinthian: exuberant, but based on the best precedent. The Trenor house is one of his best things – doesn’t look like a banqueting hall turned inside out. I hear Mrs. Trenor wants to build out a new ball-room, and that divergence from [husband] Gus on that point keeps her at Bellomont [their Hudson River estate]. The dimensions of the Brys’ ball-room must rankle: you may be sure she knows ’em as well as if she’d been there last night with a yard-measure.”

For sheer beauty of language and subtlety of thought I’d rather have quoted from the scene in the garden outside the Brys’ ballroom between Selden and Lily Bart, the novel’s protagonist. Readers of this book will know the scene to which I refer. But I will only say that even though the above passage doesn’t necessarily reflect the noblest thoughts that might spring from façades along Fifth Avenue, Edith Wharton’s deft control of the English language certainly resembles the control applied by the best architects to the façades of their clients’ mansions.

Maybe in the near future I will post the quotation that I have resisted posting this evening, on pages 137-38 (Penguin 1993). It is certainly superior to the speech Van Alstyne, an unartistic man, uses to describe the mansions of his friends. The passage quoted above merely describes how a typical man of the Gilded Age might think of what architects hired by the wealthy design their houses for (pages 159-60). The passage from the Wellington Brys’ garden describing the romantic scene between Lily and Selden (including a gentle kiss and a squeezed hand) comes much closer to the summit of the novelist’s art, and probably suggests, in parallel, a higher level of the architect’s art than the houses along Fifth Avenue, lovely as they were then and, to a degree, still are. (See my recent post consisting of a video of Fifth Avenue in the early 1930s.)

(*Regarding the photo atop this post, I can only assume that among these buildings is 14 W. 23rd. There is no caption, and no way in the text of the article on the Untapped Cities web site to tell which, if any, of them is either where Wharton was born or where she lived with her husband after marriage. The building at the right is 16 so possibly 14 is in the middle with a Starbucks.)

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 Wharton’s “House of Mirth”

  1. Eric Daum says:

    NYC property records indicate a date of 1910 for the current building at 14 West 23rd.


    • That looks about right, Eric. It would have been nice were it one of a string of traditional buildings of more recent vintage, but it would have been sucn a novel phenomenon that even I would already have been aware of it.


  2. Thomas Hayes says:

    The Starbucks building is definitely 14 West 23rd St. However, the loft structure seen in the photo replaces the brownstone where Edith Wharton was born and lived as a child. Teddy and Edith Wharton lived in a brownstone at 884 Park Ave. (just north of 79th St.), the interiors of which she turned into her interpretation of 18th century French. They were the beginnings of her evolving taste to eventually co-author with Ogden Codman “The Decoration of Houses” in 1897 and to build The Mount, her splendid 1902 classical house in Lenox, MA, which is open to the public. It was a great pleasure to live in her gatehouse with my family when I was president of Edith Wharton Restoration. One always felt that you were working for her.


    • Thanks so much, Thomas, for the backstory on Wharton’s birth location. I wonder whether the house might be incidentallly pictured in one of the photographs at the bottom of the post. When do you suppose the buildings in the photo atop the post, on West 23rd, were built? Perhaps well after she was born but before 1930, or after 1990, when developers were willing to erect new traditional buildings. Yet I think I would have heard of such a set of buildings in NYC if they had been built that recently.


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