19 December 2010

Archive: A House By Any Other Name

The Hunting Lodge, Odiham Common, near Odiham, Hampshire, England, the country house of interior decorator Nicky Haslam and, before him, of John Fowler. Photograph by Hugh Chevallier from Geograph British Isles.

"Well that's pretty pompous!" I overheard someone say with an unpleasant snicker when they learned an acquaintance's otherwise modest country house—a cottage, really—had a name. Not just an address, mind you, but an actual name. As the condescending critic went on, christening one's home is something only a person putting on airs would do. But why shouldn't a dwelling be more than just a number?

In the good old days, back when addresses didn't really exist, especially in rural areas, one's residence had to be identified somehow. Often it was by the inhabitants' surname, such as the Miller place or the Collins farm. Relatively humble properties were given formal appellations too, such as Ferry Farm, the quite modest house in which George Washington spent his childhood, a wood building much smaller than the average suburban dwelling of today and so-called because of its proximity to a ferry landing. Only in the mid to late 19th century did the naming of houses begin to elicit sneers, especially in class-conscious Britain, the mockery triggered by ghastly-good-taste types who flocked to the newly built suburbs and declared their gimcrack-laden homes The Elms or The Laburnums.

For several years I lived in a 1760s shingled farmhouse in Westchester County, New York, which was dubbed Beggar's Bog, a name combining my cash-strapped existence with the house's location on the edge of a mosquito-infested wetland. (It was simply referred to as The Bog in casual conversation.) The name also, I thought, inventively echoed Beggar's Bush, aka Jordan's Journey, a 17th-century ancestor's fortified plantation near Jamestown, Virginia. That place was reportedly the first residence in the Virginia colony to be given a name. My current home, a 1801 Federal farm house, has been given several names since we took up residence; none have felt exactly right, so we're still pondering.

Residential history is full of charming names for houses. There's Pook's Hill in Bedford, New York, a lovely brick manor built in the 1920s by and for architect Mott B Schmidt; he took the name from Puck of Pook's Hill, a 1906 novel by Rudyard Kipling. Little Ipswich was the name interior decorator Ruby Ross Wood gave her country house in Syosset, New York, in honour of her husband's ancestral town, Ipswich, Massachusetts. The couple's residence in Manhattan, on the other hand, was called Star House, because the decorator collected stars and mounted a collection of brass ones on its painted front door. A mansion built by one of Wood's clients, the beautiful Swan House in Atlanta, gets its name from the owner's favorite bird, which also shows up throughout its rooms in the form of porcelain, paintings, and tapestries.

Prosaic names work quite well, especially if you are fearful of appearing too grand. Nicky Haslam's mock-Gothic country place (for many years it belonged to John Fowler) is known as The Hunting Lodge, because the picturesque redbrick folly is reputed to have been erected as a gamekeeper's cottage. Fowler's business partner Nancy Lancaster's final residence, The Coach House, formerly stored carriages and the like. I once attended a rather wine-soaked luncheon at the home of a delightfully ribald, cigar-smoking grande dame, Rose d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, whose place in Kent was called simply The Old Laundry—it had been just that, a stately Victorian laundry building, before Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid moved out of the estate's Jacobean mansion and renovated the awkwardly scaled utility structure for habitation.

If you do choose a name for the place you live, however, steer clear of the queasily whimsical. Even houses have feelings. How would you like to be called Dun Roamin'?

Originally published on 29 May 2009 in An Aesthete's Lament.


Fagsworth said...

I live next to " 'Oleo Acres' - One of the Cheaper Spreads" ugh!

Jane Kilpatrick Schott said...

I love that homes get names...I have a name for my car. Inanimate objects should all be given the courtesy of names. Especially a home where you live and love.
Nice reminder to us all.

Claudia Juestel said...

A most enjoyable post!

I like when homes have names. If someone did not inherit a home with a name and has a choice in the matter, surely the name would reflect the owner's personality. Whether pompous, humble, romantic or humorous, the name of a home may tell us a lot about the person.



debra @ 5th and state said...

the anglophile in me adores house names. back in the states i reside in the village of wayne, il.
this once rural, equestrian and tradition bound treasure has many older homes on large tracts of land, most named.
my favorite in england, was a delightful cottage with the name 'stickey wicket' charming and a tad whimiscal

Penelope Bianchi said...

Such a great post......Thank you for doing the "archives"!!

You have no idea how we all appreciate!

Every house my husband has lived in in California since he was born...(including this one....he was born in San Francisco) has been named "Matraia" after the teeny town outside of Lucca where his grandfather was born in the late 1800s and when he was 11 emigrated (was sent) to San Francisco with 3 friends. (they had to go around the horn!!) 14 when they arrived!

When growing up; my mother, a widow married a fabulous landscape designer.......who designed a fabulous Japanese house with the most amazing pool and garde......His stationary and cards were in "Japanese style writing (not in Japanese)saying the name "Laterthan".........Pretty good! As in.........
"It's later than you think!"

I didn't even get it when I was young! Now I do!!

My favorite is "Beggar's bog"! You made that up?
Lordy!!! That is so good.

I may change the name of my house .......the pond is spilling over........(you didn't know about mosquito fish)........I see "Beggar's Bog" on a sign.......LOVE IT!!!

Anonymous said...

My new mother and father-in-law's home has been named, and they are the most generous, unpompous, loving, kind people I've ever met.
Lovely blog, funny, too ~ Alexandra

Unknown said...

My Mother's house in England was named "Buderim Cottage" named for the place in Queensland, Austalia where she lived prior to that. It is a common British custom to name houses and often the names are puns or plays on words, verbal "follies", and not pompous at all. My British step-father's country home was called "Twizzletwig" I LOVED that name!

The rustic home I bought in the Guatemalan countryside is called: "El Retiro".."The Retreat" named that by the city professor who loved escaping the city life to his former coffee finca now filled with fruit trees instead. I have left it "El Retiro" not that I believe in the superstition that it is unlucky to rename a boat or a house, but because the name "fits" my tiny bit of paradise.

DM said...

I love when there homes are named. But agree with the over-whimsical! I have dreams of one day owning a home to name, with a list down to there of prospective names.

Ree said...

Houses SHOULD have names...They are unique entities...You wouldn't have a cat without a name?...The "Hunting Lodge" is one of my fav houses...I want a house-in-miniature just like it...aka a doll's house...