American Splendor

Lynnewood, great hall.
by Brad Emerson, The Downeast Dilettante

A new revised edition of Michael Kathrens's American Splendor, the Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer has been released by Acanthus Press. Trumbauer was the architect of choice for many of the leaders of American society and finance in the early 20th century, and his houses in Newport, New York, Philadelphia and Washington (and beyond) set a standard for elegance in the early 20th century. We caught up with Michael Kathrens to discuss the new book, Trumbauer, his houses, and the people he designed for.

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Horace Trumbauer, c. 1901.
Michael, American Splendor was a groundbreaking study of one of fashionable Society’s favorite architects. You’ve just published a new revised edition, new material, including new houses.

Yes, Acanthus Press and I wanted to update the existing chapters and add a few of my favorite houses that we didn’t include in the original book.

He designed some of the finest houses ever built in America, but little had been written about his work. How did you come to Trumbauer?

When I was 11 or 12, I discovered an image of The Elms in a 1963 volume entitled Great American Mansions and Their Stories by Merrill Folsom. I was intrigued by the classical elegance of the Newport, RI structure, which inadvertently also introduced me to another passion — 18th century French architecture.

His background and training were humbler than of many of his Gilded Age peers, who were often of 'good' family, with l’Ecole des Beaux Arts training, and apprenticeships with fashionable firms. Did this affect him?

According to Trumbauer’s stepdaughter, the architect felt insecure about his lack of a formal education, feelings which may have been heightened through comments made by some contemporary architects who were probably jealous of his success. In Philadelphia, the architect’s work was not considered part of the “Philadelphia School” but more closely attuned to the “New York School” and the works of Carrére & Hastings and McKim, Mead & White.

What gave Trumbauer his big break?

As far as his great house work was concerned, he received the Harrison commission for Grey Towers when he was only 23 years old. Richard Morris Hunt was well into middle age before receiving any residential commission of this scale. That Trumbauer could accomplish this without having previous experience is quite remarkable and exemplifies not only his design talent, but also his extraordinary organizational skills.

Peter A.B. Widener.
Five years later came his first true palaces, neighboring estates for traction magnates William Elkins and Peter A.B. Widener. Was he prepared for this, or did the moment find him and he rose to the occasion?

Trumbauer was only eight years into his practice when he received the major Elkins and Widener commissions, and with only two major houses under his belt, it’s difficult to speculate that he had been preparing for this, but when called he was certainly up to the task. While apprenticing at the prestigious firm of George W. and William D. Hewitt during his youth, he worked on large upscale houses, but nothing on the scale of the Elkins and Widener commissions.

Architects have taken inspiration from each other, since the beginning of time. The great hall at ‘Lynnewood Hall’ copies that of the 'The Breakers’, at Newport, designed by Hunt. Is this Architectural ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, or homage?

Trumbauer, or perhaps his client, was indeed inspired by Hunt’s great hall at the Breakers, but the younger architect took the classical Renaissance shapes of this space and created a hall of much smaller dimensions, but still keeping the general proportions. When you look closely at both designs there is no exact copying of details, Trumbauer judiciously choosing different moldings, capitals, swags, etc. Such is the boundless nature of Classical detailing and its limitless combinations.

Plans are included in the book. Through them, one traces hierarchies of public, private, and service spaces for households often as complex as ‘Downton Abbey’.

One of the most interesting things about Trumbauer’s work is his ability to create intelligent and functional floor plans. Rooms are invariably where one would expect them to be. Another aspect is his incorporation of generously scaled windows, giving even his largest houses light-filled spaces.
Lynnewood, a 110-room Neoclassical Revival mansion in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
Houses of this scale, settings for the social campaigns of their owners, required sophisticated planning and execution. Below stairs were mechanical systems and services sufficient for hotels. And above stairs, teams of top craftsmen and designers were organized to create interiors of the highest quality.

To create the lavish interiors of his larger houses Trumbauer relied on the assistance of noted international decorators like Jules Allard, Lucien Alavoine, and Sir Charles Allom because they could replicate the correct proportioning needed to recreate a period room. When reviewing plans you find that the architect spent a great deal of time developing the service areas of his houses. The owners needed large staffs to turn the houses but did not want to see them constantly underfoot. Trumbauer had a knack for integrating family and staff areas, which allowed both spheres to seamlessly interact with each other, but at the same time keeping them two distinct areas.

And the great art dealers, like Duveen, were waiting in the wings to fill the private art galleries.

Joseph Duveen in the 1920s.
Joseph Widener refined his father’s art collection, and asked Trumbauer return to Lynnewood to update the house, correcting some awkwardness in the original design.

I don’t think it quite accurate to state that Trumbauer returned to Lynnewood Hall to “correct” mistakes, but more to bring the house up to current standards particularly for a connoisseur like Joseph Widener. At the time of its completion in 1900 the house was a perfect example of Beaux Arts taste, exemplified by its decorative excesses. That Trumbauer was engaged to redo the inside of the house and to assist Parisian landscape designer Jacques Greber to frame it with formal French parterres must have been a delightful experience for the architect. Here we have the unique opportunity to observe how the architect’s own taste evolved over the intervening years.

At its peak, with the Greber gardens and the Widener art collections, Lynnewood Hall was one of the showplaces of America. A pity it could not have been preserved in situ.

‘The Elms' at Newport, built in 1901 for coal magnate Edward J. Berwind, is Trumbauer's breakout house, a cool and refined classical French chateau. Once again, Trumbauer had come a long way in just a few years.
The Elms (Edward J. Berwind House), Newport Rhode Island.
The Elms was a seminal work for the architect, not only in its superb design, but because it also brought him to the attention of New York’s moneyed elite. He soon began receiving commissions from the Vanderbilt, Burden, Clews, and Belmont families, as well as one for the home of J. P. Morgan’s mistress Adelaide Townsend Douglas. For a time Trumbauer had so many New York commissions that he even opened a satellite office at 23rd and 5th Avenue.

Not to mention the James B. Duke mansion, one of the finest on Fifth Avenue. Or the elegance of 18th century Paris reflected in his houses for Eleanor Elkins Widener Rice and James Speyer, both on Fifth Avenue.


Trumbauer’s New York houses were in a class by themselves. The sophisticated elegance of these French neoclassical structures was matched by none of his peers, excepting perhaps Ogden Codman, who spent a great deal of his youth living in France and absorbing the style. Trumbauer didn’t have this advantage, but he could still outflank most the large New York firms working in this vernacular.
James B. Duke mansion.
Whitemarsh Hall, the legendary Stotesbury estate outside Philadelphia was huge, yet simply proportioned and designed to run smoothly and invisibly despite staff of over 100 for house and grounds.

Whitemarsh Hall is considered by many to be Trumbauer’s residential masterpiece. Not since Lynnewood Hall had he executed anything on such a massive scale. Here the proportions are superb and the details quietly dignified. Just as at the Widener house, Greber created wonderful parterres that encircled the house — augmenting its visual splendor, while at the same time helping to root it to its elevated site.

Duke entrance.
You say ‘considered by many’. Should we infer from this that you have another choice?

After spending several years studying the architect’s residential projects, and finding extraordinary elements in many of them, I find it difficult, nay impossible, for me to narrow it down to a single Masterpiece. I admire Lynnewood Hall for its monumentality and Ronaele intrigues me because of its wonderful Tudor inspired colors and textures, while Briar Hill (for William Elkins) has a compelling floor plan that revolves around four different courtyards. It is enough to state that there is certainly more than one masterpiece within the architect’s oeuvre.

America’s taste for French classical houses lasted but a short time. After World War I, the taste of the wealthy trended toward an English model. Trumbauer designed several such houses on the Main Line and on Long Island, but he was also possibly the last architect commissioned to build palace style houses, even into the Depression.

Although the palatial French classical house in America had its heyday from the 1890s to the beginning of World War I, it still had a few adherents, albeit on a smaller scale, during the 1920s. In the late 1920s and beginning of the 1930s (remember the stock market rallied in 1930 and didn’t bottom out until 1933) with stock market portfolios overflowing, Trumbauer was designing some of his finest French classical revival houses. Included in this remarkable list are Herbert T. Parson’s Shadow Lawn in West Long Branch, NJ, George McFadden Jr’s Bloomfield in Villa Nova, PA, Raymond Baker’s Marly in Washington, DC, and Rose Terrace for Anna Dodge Dillman in Grosse Pointe, MI. None of these would probably have been built without the stock market boom of the twenties.
Perry Belmont House in Washington, D.C., now the International Temple.
It is said that Trumbauer was travel adverse. Washington to Newport was apparently his real turf.

I’m not sure that Trumbauer was averse to travel; we are now finding out that he did travel to France at least once, perhaps to work with Ernest Sanson on the design of the Perry Belmont house in Washington. We do know that he traveled widely in the mid-Atlantic and lower New England States and he even built a summer home for his wife in Standish, Maine. Although Trumbauer specialized in French classicism he also did many houses in other European and American Revival styles. He also designed major houses as far to the west as Colorado and in West Virginia, but RI to Washington DC was where most of his commissions lay.

The embassy-like opulence of the Belmont House was another surprise of the book, a marvelous stage set for the former Mrs. Henry Sloane in her new life in Washington.

The mention of France brings to mind Julian Abele, Trumbauer’s assistant. Abele was African American and attended the Beaux Arts. It was a very different time, and that Trumbauer hired him speaks volumes about the Trumbauer the man. How do you feel Abele’s own talent and taste affected Trumbauer’s?
Ballroom at Belmont House.
No architectural firm as large as Trumbauer’s can survive without talented designers to implement and enhance the early rough sketches of the principal. Like other important designers within the firm, such as Frank Seeburger and Joseph Lowery, Julian Abele was instrumental to the long-term success of the firm, eventually rising to chief designer. Abele graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, but the École des Beaux Arts in Paris has no record of him ever attending. I once thought that Abele might have studied at an atelier associated with the École, rather than at the school itself, but this now seems unlikely.

When looking at a published residential design that Abele executed while at the University of Pennsylvania, we see a rather heavy interpretation of a Beaux Arts design. Certainly decent for the time, but not nearly up to the sophistication of Trumbauer’s contemporary works like Chetwode in Newport and the New York home of John R. Drexel. For this reason I believe that Trumbauer affected Abele’s work far more than the other way around – at least initially. The two architects eventually developed a strong bond based on professional respect and a shared passion for French architecture and the decorative arts.
Julian Abele and Horace Trumbauer, mid 1930s.
Was it difficult to decide which houses to add for the revised edition of American Splendor? With such a dazzling variety to choose from I would be like a kid in a candy store.

I chose the houses mainly because I liked them and was sorry they weren’t included in the original edition. A secondary reason was because of their diversity in style. Charlton Hall is of 17th century English design, while Lynnewood Lodge represents the elegance the 18th century royal architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel. The last, Craig Hall in Haverford, Pennsylvania is a mixture of neo-Palladianism and American Federal.
Bloomfield on South Ithan Avenue in Philadelphia. Sadly, the Horace Trumbauer-designed chateau was totally gutted by a fire early last month.
In any age, there is finite clientele for palatial houses. A few of Trumbauer’s houses survive as private homes or museums; others have been adapted as schools, country clubs and embassies. Others have been demolished. In the new edition are color photos of Bloomfield, the George McFadden house in Villanova, still in private hands, which burned last month.

Sadly, early reports indicate that Bloomfield has been totally gutted by fire. It just goes to show that even a house as well maintained as this one is still vulnerable to destruction. In the end American Splendor documents this remarkable architect’s upper-class residential works. Even if the house no longer exists, future generations can study and appreciate Trumbauer’s remarkable contribution to American architecture.
Bloomfield entrance hall.
Do you have a favorite Trumbauer House?

I think we have to refer back to the earlier masterpiece question ... I like different houses for different reasons. My opinion invariably changes, with my favorite being the house I’m currently focused on. Like a parent with many beloved children, how can you ask me to choose ...?

Good answer. Thank you for talking to us.
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