Author Q&A with Michael C. Kathrens: American Splendor

By Steve Kroeter September 26, 2012

Michael C. Kathrens

Architectural and interior design historian Michael C. Kathrens (Newport, Rhode Island)


Architectural  and interior design historian Michael C. Kathrens discusses the newly revised edition of his book American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer (April 2012, Acanthus Press; originally published 2002), which brings the work of one of America’s most influential residential architects of the Country House era—from the late 19th century to 1930—to a new audience.

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American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer, revised edition, 2012 (Acanthus Press)

Designers & Books: What originally led you to do a book on Trumbauer—and why the new edition?

Michael C. Kathrens: I had been collecting information on Trumbauer and his houses for many years, because I felt he was one of the best Classical Revival architects this country had produced. None of his peers ever executed houses of such elegance and refinement. The original volume came about when Barry Cenower, publisher at Acanthus Press, suggested we work together on the project because of my passion for the subject. After the first edition had been out of stock for several years, Barry and I felt a revised edition would be welcomed because I discovered new information on several of the houses and because I wanted to include three houses that had not been included in the initial work.

D&B: Horace Trumbauer (1868–1938) has been described as publicity-shy, and in many ways he seems not so well known today—certainly not as well known as McKim, Mead & White, Carrère & Hastings, or Richard Morris Hunt. Yet you call him perhaps the greatest classical revivalist that has ever practiced in the U.S. What would you point to, to justify this assessment?

MCK: You just have to review the body of Trumbauer’s work to see that he understood period proportion and scale better than most of his peers. This is even more astonishing given that he did not study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then the world’s leading architectural school, which most of his fellow architects attended. In fact, Trumbauer was not able to experience European travel until well after his firm was established. His education came through the study of books and architectural journals, with his architectural library eventually growing to over 1,000 volumes. When comparing Trumbauer’s residential work to that of Hunt or Carrère & Hastings, you see a lightness of form and a purity of line that is often lacking in the generally more ponderous works of these other architects.

Drawing of stair hall for Elstowe, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, designed by Horace Trumbauer for William L. Elkins, 1898–1900

D&B: Much of Trumbauer’s work was in the style of the grand French chateaus and English country houses. What was new or unique in his version of this building type?

MCK: What makes his houses so successful is that he adhered closely to the original period proportions he was recreating. Trumbauer is often criticized for his lack of experimentation, but I feel that this is the very essence of his success, particularly in his 18th-century-inspired works. This authenticity was also found inside his houses, with rooms replicating European proportion and scale. Trumbauer usually dealt with high-profile sophisticated clients who often stayed in European houses and who wanted to recreate authentic period ambience in their American houses.

D&B: You note that “Trumbauer often collaborated with internationally acclaimed decorators from France and England. He maintained extremely open and cordial relationships with these professionals, both sides appreciating the taste and artistic contribution of the other.” This way of working was certainly not characteristic, for example, of Frank Lloyd Wright—who tended to control all aspects of his commissions. Was Trumbauer unusual at the time for embracing collaboration with decorators?

MCK: The collaboration between architects and decorators goes back to the 19th century when Parisian firms such as of Maison Leys under the direction of Georges Hoentschel and Jules Allard et Fils created extravagant Second Empire interiors in Paris. They often used boiserie and other recovered elements taken from houses demolished under Baron Haussmann when he was creating the city’s boulevard system under Napoleon III. Prior to that the architect of a project generally designed interior finishes, but they were executed at workshops not owned by the practitioner. Two of the earliest examples of an American collaboration with a European decorator are the dining room and library found at Chateau-sur-Mer in Newport, Rhode Island, which were executed in 1878 by Luigi Frullini of Florence. Architects such as Wright expressed themselves in a more restrained manner that did not require the skill of highly trained sculptors and artisans.

D&B: You document in detail how Trumbauer’s social background was dramatically different from that of the other major architects of the day—in that he came from a modest family situation and his formal education ended when he was 14. How do you explain his success given the factors he had to overcome? Given where he began in life, what he achieved is somewhat remarkable, or at least unexpected, isn’t it?

Whitemarsh Hall, Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, designed by Horace Trumbauer for Edward T. Stotesbury, 1990–20. Garden facade with French parterre.
Rough Point, Newport Rhode Island, designed by Horace Trumbauer for James B. Duke, 1922–23. Music room

MCK: Trumbauer is an anomaly. Most successful architects, particularly in the great house field, came from affluent families with abundant social connections from which to cull clients. Trumbauer succeeded by determination, an excellent eye, and pure genius.

D&B: During his career, Trumbauer took on more than 1,000 commissions. What were his “big break” commissions?

MCK: His first break came in 1893, when the architect was only 23. Philadelphia sugar manufacturer William Welsh Harrison commissioned Grey Towers in Glenside, Pennyslvania, that when finished was considered the third largest house in the country. Two years later Trumbauer began a series of houses for the allied Elkins and Widener families, which culminated in the 110-room Palladian style Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (1898–1900).

Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, designed by Horace Trumbauer for P.A.B. Widener, 1898–1900. Entrance portico
Elstowe, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, designed by Horace Trumbauer for William L. Elkins, 1898–1900. Music room

The Wideners, who had made a large part of their fortune in street cars and subway systems, led Trumbauer to coal baron Edward Julius Berwind, who commissioned a summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, called The Elms (1899–1901). That commission, in turn, connected the young practitioner to the deep pockets of New York’s elite who summered in Newport. By 1901 Trumbauer’s firm was well established and would continue to be successful until the early 1930s when the Great Depression stopped most new construction.

The Elms, Newport Rhode Island, designed by Horace Trumbauer for Edward J. Berwind, 1899–1901. Garden facade
The Elms. Entrance hall

D&B: Trumbauer’s stepdaughter, Mrs. Edward H. Fennessy, is quoted as saying that Trumbauer “was a great reader . . . when he came home for dinner he never took time to change or relax. He and started to read. He sat in a stiff-backed chair and read French history and French novels mostly. And, of course, we had a superb architectural library at his office.” Do you know anything about the composition of his library—or about his favorite books?

The Elms. Library

MCK: Because he was a private man who never allowed interviews and did not court the architectural journals of the day, there is very little documentation of Trumbauer’s personal life. During the 1973 interview with Mrs. Fennessy she states that the task of describing Trumbauer was impossible. “A task that would require the wisdom of Solomon, the pen of Shakespeare, and the help of a good psychiatrist. He possessed all the temperamental vagaries of genius.” After his death, there was an auction of his books in Philadelphia that included works from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century in the sale. I reviewed a copy of the catalogue years ago but do not remember exact titles except for Colin Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus, from which inspiration for the Knight house in Newport was derived.

D&B: What is your favorite Trumbauer quote?

Horace Trumbauer’s tombstone, West Laurel Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania

MCK: “Madam, if I built the house you want, you wouldn’t live in it, and I wouldn’t want it to be seen.” Unfortunately, I was not able to find out to whom this remark was addressed.

D&B: What was the most gratifying result from the publication of the original edition of your book? What would you most like to happen as a result of the publication of this new edition?

MCK: As this was my first book, I was delighted that Acanthus Press so successfully transferred my view of the architect and his works to such an exquisitely beautiful framework. It was exactly the book I wanted it to be. With the new edition my hope is to introduce this remarkable man to an even larger audience so that more people can appreciate Trumbauer’s substantial contribution to American architecture.

D&B: Are you working on a new book?

MCK: Next year Acanthus will be releasing Great Houses of New York: Volume II, which will be a companion to Great Houses of New York, 1880–1930 (Acanthus Press, 2005). I am currently working on a project on the houses of Ogden Codman Jr., which will document 25 complete commissions, not limited to interior work alone. In 2009, W. W. Norton released my book Newport Villas: Residential Styles, 1885–1935, documenting the great European Revival summer houses in that community, and currently I’m writing a volume to be called Newport Cottages, which describes the earlier seasonal houses erected between 1835 and 1890.

All images taken from American Splendor, courtesy of Acanthus Press.


Note: Michael C. Kathrens will give a lecture, followed by a book signing, on American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer

Thursday, September 27: 6:30 p.m. cocktails; 7:00 p.m. lecture

The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art 20 W 44 Street New York, NY

Register for the event


View Michael C. Kathrens’s Profile

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