29 May, 2014

A Few Words on Charles A. Platt

It falls me by that it has been awhile since I have written anything about Charles A. Platt, the man responsible for creating Villa Turicum. Writing about him does present a daunting task, as Platt was not only an architect, but also an accomplished artist of merit and that leaves a lot of ground to cover. In contrast to this, I'm reminded of what Platt once told a friend: "At bottom I am a practical man." Perhaps that is what made him such a great architect and artist. That, and his passion for beauty.

Charles A. Platt, self-portrait

The salient facts of Platt's life begin with his birth in New York, on October sixteenth of 1861. He was the son of a successful lawyer and his mother was one of the Cheneys of Manchester, of silk producing fame. He was educated in New York, and in his youth disclosed the artistic predilections which were soon to govern him altogether. He entered the school of the National Academy of Design and later frequented the Art Student's League. There were architectural premonitions from the start - he used to make paper imitations of objects, and houses were conspicuous among them.

His primary concern in his early years; all he cared to do, was to paint and to etch. He had very good luck with the latter, as he fell into the hands of the etcher Stephen Parrish, and by 1881, when he was only twenty, he had produced in his "Gloucester Harbor" a highly creditable plate. A year later he was in Paris, studying at Julien's under Boulanger and Lefebvre. On his return to New York in 1887 he rapidly won recognition. The Society of Amerian Artists was then in the heyday of its secession from the Academy. Platt was promptly made a member.

It was apparent from the get-go that his work displayed amazing technical proficiency; sound in craftsmanship and firm in their workmanlike design. This technical certitude would hold well for the career in architecture that would lay ahead, although he would never give up the brush nor the needle for his entire life. He once confided to a friend that as a student at the Ecole, "painting with all his might," he spoke with the architects amongst his companions, and he himself enjoyed studying architecture "from the point of view of the artist."

At Villa Lante, in Bagnaia, Italy c.1892 - evident inspiration for the tea house at Villa Turicum

During his early years as an artist Charles Platt and his brother went to Italy to explore the gardens there. They photographed and drew them, and thoroughly mastered the subject. Platt mastered it in dual fashion. He appreciated the beauty spread before him, and he appreciated the practical issues involved. No one knew better than he the romantic glamour of places like the Villa D'Este or the Villa Lante, but when he published his pioneering and wildly successful Italian Gardens in 1894 he made it plain therein that, for him, the true formal garden was an affair of balanced design, of thoughtful building, of the right adjustment of the garden to the site.

This period embraced the turning point of his career, and, so to speak the writing was on the wall with regard to Villa Turicum. In the midst of writing about gardens and houses he started to build them, and thenceforth his destiny was set. He remained an architect to the end of his days - an architect who was also an artist.

 Charles Platt's first architectural commission; High Court, for Miss Annie Lazarus in Cornish, NH (1890). Platt was a part time resident of Cornish, and the Cornish Colony from 1889 to 1933.

I have no doubt that Edith Rockefeller McCormick devoured Platt's Italian Gardens, and the high repute he soon won with the book was furthered with his designs for country houses, which were always enhanced by their gardens - examples of dignity and grace. His own taste was for symmetry and a classical reserve harking back to Italian precedent. He like an orderly distribution of his rooms. He was particulsar about preserving a perfect equilibrium in his fenestration, and indeed there are few who have ever equalled him in the handling of architectural accents, in the designing and placement of a porch, a veranda, a dormer, or a cornice.

The loggia at Villa Turicum

And instinct for a fine simplicity was at the very core of Charles Platt's art - yet it did not interfere with his love of precious thing, such as rugs, furniture, picture, tapestries, etc., nor did it stay his hand from striking a sumptuous note when it was called for in the organization of a luxurious interior. With impeccable judgement and restraint he served his ideal of beauty.

His abilities would extend beyond the country houses to the magistrale designing of a monumental edifice such as the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. and the stately yet serene academic buildings at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Perhaps his resourcefulness flowed from a mind rich in reading, from a temperament abundantly fertized by experience in travel and contact with tradition. He once noted that in preparing for making his renderings for the National Gallery project - before putting pencil to paper - he ransacked Europe for the ideas bearing upon lighting, means of public circulation, ventilation, etc., which at the time were embodied in museums abroad.

The Library at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Charles Platt definitely had something to say. What was it? Nothing recondite or obscure, nothing arbitrarily idiosyncratic, nothing mannered. What he had to say consisted simply of a conception of beauty expressed in terms fitted to the needs of his own epoch, of beauty in landscape masterfully painted or etched, of beauty in buildings exquisitely refined in line and mass. He was faithful to tradition. When he died in 1933, he was President of the American Academy in Rome - where he upheld the austere principles that Charles F. McKim founded the institution with. Platt's was a rare individuality. He had all the traits of a commanding, constructive artist, and throughout them there ran the golden strain of consummate taste.

See also:
The Italian Style
Edith's Museum, Redux
Villa Turicum's Alter Ego


Unknown said...

Platt also laid out the plan for the classic central U.of Illinois plan in Urbana-Champaign, with its great library there by him. Unlike VT, the U. of I. survived the economic ravages of the mid 20th C. And fortunately a few elements of his garden design in the Italian manner survives on the site, in part thanks to landscape architect Marshall Johnson who worked diligently to preserve those elements in his informal re-envisioning of the VT site for a subdivision in the 1950s, developed then from the 1960s to the 1980s as the income taxes came down (max. rate 1962 down from 91% to 70%, 1969 to 50% and 1986 to 33%, again up to 39% now). Edith also was a committed antimodernist, and the biggest customer for the doves Bindery in England, one of those works commissioned by her at the LF Collegelibrary special collections. And Platt's impact on the North Shore went beyond VT, to inspire other architects--Bnjamin Marshall at the Cuneo Museum and Gardens (1914-18) and David Adler at 955 N. Lake, Lake Forest, and at Villa Terrace in Milwaukee.

Tamas L Orban said...

That is a really fascinating portrait of an architect. It's not easy to imagine house building before, seeing how you can now create new and durable homes within months, whereas it took so much longer to do such in the past. Good thing there are reliable services that we can acquire for that regard.

Tamas L. Orban @ Palm Beach County Contractor