Stair Landing, Lee Mansion, Marblehead
A master builder lives in a bustling New England harbor town. He is well established, much in demand for projects of all sizes and complexities. He has a shop, a ready supply of wood and brick, the latest tools, and apprentices eager to learn and share in his expanding business. Like many of his fellow townspeople he is prosperous, although he shares with them a mounting anxiety over recent policy enhancements imposed by the taxing authority overseas.
The builder’s merchant friend is at a comparable stage in his life. He has built up a substantial fleet, but after years of spending more time at sea than on land, has opted to have his younger captains take command of most of its expeditions, especially the ones requiring months away from home.
The builder and the merchant talk frequently. This is easy for them because the builder’s shop and the merchant’s warehouse share a large building near the wharves. The merchant admires the builder’s skill as he witnesses him transform raw lumber into finished columns and friezes, cupolas and finials, crown moldings and wainscots, even the figurehead of one of the merchant’s own vessels. The builder is equally intrigued by the occasional glimpses he gets of his neighbor’s inventory, which he notices becoming larger and more exotic with each completed voyage.
The merchant wants to settle down, and he wants to do so in style. His ambition and vanity are expanding with no apparent limit. He has a proposition for the builder. He wants a new dwelling with all the latest signifiers of wealth and status. No stranger to ambition himself, the builder eagerly accepts.
The builder and merchant live far from European centers of academic life and refinement. This is a circumstance cheerfully accepted by them and about which they are sometimes boastful, but they have an equally profound desire not to be taken for colonial rubes. They are well aware that the stuff of the old world, despite giving off a lingering and distasteful whiff of aristocracy, carries prestige.
The merchant has visited numerous ports of call in England. During a recent trip he has acquired some finely worked furniture, including a set of authentic Chippendale side chairs, and an armful of the latest architectural pattern books.
Not for the first time in the behavioral history of the client class, and certainly not the last, the merchant has some gentle suggestions. He has folded down the corners of several pages in the pattern books in order to direct the builder to particular motifs he likes. He does not trouble himself with whether they will cohere under some rule based esthetic. It seems that there is an authority on the current style named Palladio, but the merchant and the builder correctly surmise that he is both Italian and dead, and hence not in a position to be strict with them on matters of form.
The builder is happy to accept the challenge of giving materiality to the design elements the merchant prefers. He understands he will need to use his full woodworking expertise to imitate forms first realized in stone and plaster. He is excited to see if he can achieve the graceful curves and counter-curves, the crisp and precise lines he sees in the book plates.
But, like most people who work with their hands, the builder has an independent streak. He has his own eye. He is convinced that the merchant will not notice or care if some of the decorative profiles are slightly stretched or compressed, or jut out a little extra, or are doubled up or halved. It is exhilarating to know it has been left up to him to combine all the things the merchant likes in a satisfying way. He believes he can make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The builder designs a symmetrically imposing brick manse with slate roofs and prominent chimneys. He sets to work on the interior. He places doors and windows, alcoves and fireplace openings, and fills the rest of the wall surfaces with a grid of wood paneling. He employs a basic, repeating profile for the panels’ edges, but uses variations to weave articulated corners, arches, and medallions into the grid. He discovers that pilasters, not actually required to hold anything up, are nonetheless useful to further subdivide and frame the wall space.
The builder invites the merchant for the penultimate tour of the rooms before move-in. They congratulate each other, but a crucial finishing touch remains. “What color shall we paint the paneled walls?” the merchant asks, “for people would laugh at me if I left them bare.” (the term “natural” not having yet attained wide currency).
At this the builder’s heart sinks. For every competency he possesses with plane and router he experiences a great welling up of inadequacy with respect to paint. He remembers a previous triumph with blueberries, fermented goat’s milk, and lime, but fears that it was dumb luck and, besides, blueberries are out of season. Nonetheless, he puts on a brave face. “I will mix something for you for each room, colors unique in the world; they will be yours and yours alone...”