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Trickle-down Aesthetics


“Provenance” in art is the unbroken sequence of ownership from the artist’s studio or gallery to the auction house floor. It is usually taken as proof of authenticity, not unlike the chain of evidence in prosecuting a crime. Works of art attributed to renowned artists — Picasso, for example, or Whistler — can command significantly higher prices when they come with an unblemished provenance.

An architectural idea can leave a similar record; its trajectory, so to speak, from a supposed point of origin, a “smoking gun”, to a second iteration and to the next and the next, often exhibiting evolutionary change along the way — like the passing on of a rumor. In the case of Chester Motte’s modest home imagined on West Avenue — an exceptionally skillful exercise in platonic geometry, if you ask me — its antecedents are reasonably easy to trace. The most likely candidate for “smoking gun” (or “patient zero” in the realm of epidemiology) might be the 1886 William Kent cottage at Tuxedo Park, New York, by architect Bruce Price.

While Price is hardly a household name, one of its earliest offspring was the first suburban home of the recently-married Frank Lloyd Wright, whose notoriety is sufficient for him to become a question on “Jeopardy”. The Kent cottage was widely published but not the sole Shingle Style example, surely, to have crossed Wight’s line of sight. The young Wright was, if nothing else, a stylistic sponge, absorbing and making over in his own evolving idiom a phenomenal amount of current architectural work.

For the twenty-two year old Wright, someone inculcated with the educational methods of 19th century German educator Friedrich Fröbel, the Shingle Style was a cake walk; Wright’s personal touch was the stylized Palladian window motif in the front gable. So when the C. T. Mott’s “Country Cottage” came along, I knew its family tree at least two generations back. In fact the sequence here isn’t 1, 2, 3, that is, Price-Wright-Mott, because the dates put Mott between the other two. The provenance of an idea is an ever broadening tree, not a single knotted rope.

This simple (simplistic?) case is even less predictable, because the Mott and Price designs are so close in date that an even earlier expression of that platonic composition may yet to be found lurking in the shadows.


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