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.