I Should Live Here: Low House -- McKim, Mead & White, Bristol, RI, 1886

As some of you may know, I've been looking for a house to live in. And I've found the perfect one: Low House, of Bristol, RI, by McKim, Mead & White and built in 1886. Observe:

Admit it. You were underwhelmed. What can he be thinking, you ask? It's homely, an absurdly long ranch house-y thing with little to recommend it. But then you turn, just a bit, and see the sea. Hey, this isn't all bad.

Let's walk around the house and see the rest of it, shall we?

Circling around to the street facade:

Opposite side of the street facade:

And the sea facade, opposite from the first image:

It's not an easy sell. It's weird and low, Low, and long -- 140 feet, with little articulation. Simple in the extreme: slate roof, chimneys without any ornament, shingles covering everything else. But I'm not sure that Prairie style could exist without this house, and I'm from Chicago. It's sacrilege for me to say it.

Let's look at the interior. If entering from the sea side, you would see this:

Your view, indicated on the first floor plan in red:

You're probably standing in the doorway from the drawing room to the hall, looking past the fireplace to a row of doors. All of these are service doors: hall to the kitchen, servant's hall and cloakroom. They are mirrored on the opposite wall of the hall, by the door to an ante chamber, and the two legs of the stair. 1, 2, 3. Balance, balance, balance -- and startlingly, fascinatingly, that stair is utterly mitigated -- of a grand scale, but buried, with no grand view, no place to be viewed artfully descending. No grand window or chandelier, only light filtering through an overhead skylight. The view from the landing:

Clean lines and flawlessly executed details -- not even the top of a newel post protrudes above the banister! Imagine the pleasure of running one's hand up the entire thing, uninterrupted.

Don't make the mistake of associating this austerity with a low budget -- this was a very, very expensive house, designed by one of the most prominent, costly firms in the country, busy slapping up the most excessive houses being built in the world, just across the bay in Newport.

This is minimalism before minimalism. If Donald Judd were a Victorian, this is the house he would own.

The upstairs hall:

Your view of the hall indicated in red:

The hall changes orientation on the second story, and the bedroom (there aren't really that many by current suburban standards, 5 not counting servants) take on the architecture of the roofline, with wonderful diagonals and rather odd angles in plan -- I would want the lower right bedroom, with a view of the water and the chopped bay window. I love it.

What I'm trying to get at, and what makes me love this house so, is that it's not designed to be looked at, but to be lived in. The plan is perfection, with a certain slant symmetry -- like but slightly unlike parts are paired, as in the servant's doors to the stairs in the first floor hall -- the calm and balance of symmetry, but without the fuss and weight.

The detailing is almost too much to handle, with a level of simplicity that must have seemed heretical for a house of this scale.

This is not easy, slap it down work -- and it shows the hand of a master. Or several.

Sadly, sadly, sadly I cannot have this house, even if I could afford it. It no longer exists. The photographers of these rooms were the last to see them before it was demolished. It was destroyed in 1962.

Ours is a backward glance -- let's look once more:

One more thought. This is where it stood (I think) in red:

Just next door is Blithewold, a very pretty but wholly pedestrian Edwardian mish-mash of English country, continental Medieval and Colonial Revival. It's meticulously preserved as it has been for the last 100 years, and a fun place to go for an afternoon. The grounds are beyond reproach, but the the house itself is little other than pretty. It is in no way important, and it's loud, flashy, money writ large:

It proposes an American idea of how the rich in other places lived, rather than proposing a new way to live, a distinctly American way to live. I'm no patriot, but Low House was exceptional where Blithewold is not. The doctor cut off the wrong foot.

If Low House would rise from the ashes, I would gleefully raise a torch to Blithewold.


The Devoted Classicist said...

The loss of the Low house is a great tragedy, but before you even think about sacrificing Blithewold, consider the odds; it would probably be replaced by something worse! The exterior of the Low house is in every book on American architecture, but I do not think I have seen these interior shots. Thanks!

Nachokitty said...

This was a fabulous house. I love the exterior simplicity. I like how it hugs the ground, as if it's melting down into it, trying to hide. So much better than many modern day monstrosities!

Nick Heywood said...

I agree that Blithewold would probably be replaced with something even worse today than what took the place of Low House when it was torn down in the 60s.

I'm very fond of Blithewold, despite the meanness of my comment. I dream of having a cutting room with marble cabinet doors just like those in Blithewold, however improbable that dream may be ... I would only ever consider toasting the sweet, ostentatious old thing if by divine intervention (surely, God must be an architect) Low House were to spring into place from the ashes.

findingfabulous said...

Nick I cannot wait to see the wonderful house that will surely be yours one day. You really make me me miss the Northeast.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this blog while searching for Low House pictures. You've captured my own attitude towards this house better than I could have. I created a series of screen prints in homage to the work of McKim, Mead, and White in Rhode Island, and featured the Low house as one of the four subjects, purely out of righteous indignation that it had been lost. I must admit that it's my worst-selling print, likely as it is so unfamiliar. But I have no regrets!

Peter Nielsen said...

When I was a kid we traveled from West Barrington where my family lived to Grandma's in Newport for Thursday night dinner... We never tired of drive by to see it from afar. When it burned our trip to Grandma's went a lot quicker, but were never as much fun... I too have never seen interior shots, this is great! I have actually called the City of Bristol to try and track down the plans, but with no success... Thanks for sharing.

Michael said...

Hi Nick. I recall seeing this house in Scully's Shingle Style book. I think it was one of the images which spurred me to become an architect. That was 40-odd years ago. Thanks for posting the plans. I had never seen them before.

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