Sunday, November 13, 2005

I've seen the greatest view in the world.


I've seen the greatest view in the world.

Now there's a bold statement. But it's true, I think. I guess, how would I know if it wasn't? I am reminded of the question: "Where did you find the car keys?" The answer is always: "In the last place I looked," because of course, you stop looking when you find them, unless you're very strange. Well, I'm still looking around for a better view, but I've never seen its like.

Now I'm no globetrotter, but I've seen some things. I've stood in a gorge in Guatemala, at the base of a waterfall, as the torrents of water pound the rocks and jump up into rainbows that drift skyward, interrupted only by the darting trajectory of damselflies, and framed by verdant green fronds the size of tent flaps. I've stood at the top of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and gazed over the clay tiled Florence roofs, basking in the Tuscan sun. I wandered over to the Uffizi Gallery from there, past the statue of David in the square, and admired a painting by Da Vinci. I got so wrapped up in looking at it, I backed into some daub by Michaelangelo Buonnarotti on the opposite wall and got scolded in fast Italian. You begin your reply, in slow motion: "Io non parlo l'Italiano molto bene.. " like a dimwitted kindergartener, and the docent switches, quick as a wink, into English- "Get away from the painting, will ya?'

I've stood on the verandah at Mount Vernon, the great green lawn rolling down to the mighty Potomac, while shaded by George Washington's own roof. That was nice. I've watched the water roar over the falls at Niagara by the hurricanefull, haunted only by the niggling feeling: "Well, what else would it do when it got to the edge of a cliff?" I've slept out in the Arizona desert, with the cobalt night sky spattered with all the stars of the galaxies. Yosemite? Check.

Then, ten years ago, I went to Marble House.

Marble House is what William K. Vanderbilt called a cottage. He built it in Newport, Rhode Island before the turn of the 20th century, with the money his crotchety grandfather Cornelius made in shipping and transportation. It's a pretty gaudy pile, I must warn you. It sits right on the rocky ocean shore, with the mighty Atlantic Ocean gaping at it all day. The grounds make a pretty walk, as apparently he had money left over for landscaping when he was finished, unlike every homeowner who builds a custom house nowadays, and furniture too. It's had what no man can buy, too, which is time; and time has bestowed on the visitor the spectacle of really enormous trees and shrubs, that have reached their full potential, for us to walk under and around and look at and marvel over.

Go inside. The ceilings are up there, somewhere, like the top of an elevator shaft, and they're not painted flat white, neither. (Please do not send me an e-mail correcting that "neither". That's my best Jethro Bodine impression.) There's gilt by the ton, ormolu by the slab, fine fresco by the billboard lot; enormous paintings hang everywhere, of just the sort of people who get their portrait painted, and are exactly no-one to anyone but their distant relations now, just like your relatives are to you. And there are statues, real ones, and not just a little Saint Mary in an upturned bathtub, surrounded by pansies in the yard. . The dining room is fitted with chairs the poor old Bill V. must have mistakenly ordered by weight, so the greedy manufacturer made each so heavy that two footman were required to move it, just so you could sit down. And if you were paying attention to the name of the place, believe me when I tell you they didn't skimp on the marble.

And when you're all done gaping and gawing at the piles of money transubstantiated into woodwork, you realize that ol' Bill V. ended up with a three bedroom, two bath house, and that's it, same as you and me.

Just because his architect, Richard Morris Hunt, lingered a little too long at lunch, and they opened the extra bottle of claret, and then returned to his office a little tipsy and mixed up the plans he had going of the dirigible shed, the Doges palace, and the seaside house, doesn't mean it's not fun to look at. And we are the descendants of the people from the stratum of society who used to have to stand in pairs, dressed like swiss guard fops, and move the chairs for the stringy old matrons dressed like Marie Antoinette, and then stand at attention, wordless, or else find yourself working in a rendering plant for a penny a day. Now the house is there to amuse us, not its builders, and such is the way of the world.

Oh yes, the view. None of that is it.

That's not a view dear reader. That's expensive stuff to look at. And you do, and it's interesting and all that. But then you go into the daughter's bedroom. I'm pretty sure she's the Vanderbilt that married Winston Churchill's uncle, or cousin or something, and became the Duchess of Marlborough, because what good is money if you can't have a title too? It's smaller than the caverns of the public rooms. Many McMansions have bigger bedrooms these days. Big bedrooms with high ceilings are dreadful to sleep in, and the architect knew it. So he brought the ceiling down lower and cozied the room up with ornate but delicate coffering, and wall paneling, and fabric upholstery on the walls, until it looked like you could almost live in there. A big canopy bed, a dressing table, some assorted regal looking furniture to put your nighties in, and that's about it. It was pleasant, really. And it had two windows that overlooked the "back yard," if that's what you can call a couple of acres of grass sprinkled with 100 year old oaks, with a Japanese style teahouse at the edge of a granite cliff, and half the world's ocean stretching off to the horizon.

That day, one of the windows was open, which is a rare thing indeed in the museum business. The heavy curtains were drawn back, along with the gossamer lace liner, and it made the most extraordinary frame around the most lovely scene of that lawn, and that teahouse, and that ocean, all resplendent in the summer sun. And you walked two more paces, and it was gone, and you're all of a sudden looking at some stranger's ivory hair brush and pancake cosmetic puff on a gaudy table that wouldn't look out of place in a Saudi sheik's powder room.

Now that architect knew his business. And the Vanderbilts didn't buy their house plans from the back of a magazine. But all the money in the world, which it seems like was spent on the place, didn't make that view. Someone understood that you must frame and define the world, and put it in perspective, and show it partially, and make it so you are made to feel inside, before showing you the outside, and knew to place the items in the landscape just so, to make a view like that. And that sort of view is what Mr Hunt's contemporary, Frederick Law Olmstead, was carving out all over Boston, which we brought to your attention a few days ago.(see sidebar for Mr Olmstead Book).

If a dotcom millionaire knucklehead bought that piece of land today, he'd build a house triple the size, and the back of it would have acres of sliding glass, the worst door and the second worst window design in the world, to gape at the ocean and make it so boring you'd watch reality TV rather than look out the window. Because we've lost the touch, I'm afraid.

But you saw that scene, as it should be shown, and you're in shock from that view, disoriented, and it's etched in your head, and you could paint it in oils, even though you can't paint a fence with whitewash, because you can still see every bit of it in your mind's eye, forever.

Which is good, because I've visited that place a half dozen times since then, and the windows are always shut, and the curtains always drawn, and the docent spies you sidling towards that corner, because you're desperate to see it again, that view, and he says:

"Get away from the window, will ya?"

The Marble House