2016-11-17 / Front Page

Gilded Age Architecture Finds New Purpose

By Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA


"The Nutcracker" by the Island Moving Company has become a tradition of the holiday season. This year will mark its 15th anniversary. Rosecliff will be transformed into a winter wonderland through the Dec. 2 performance. Rosecliff will reopen on Dec. 4 for tours. Other Preservation Society mansions that will be decorated for the holidays are The Breakers, Marble House, and The Elms. (Photo courtesy of Island Moving Co.) "The Nutcracker" by the Island Moving Company has become a tradition of the holiday season. This year will mark its 15th anniversary. Rosecliff will be transformed into a winter wonderland through the Dec. 2 performance. Rosecliff will reopen on Dec. 4 for tours. Other Preservation Society mansions that will be decorated for the holidays are The Breakers, Marble House, and The Elms. (Photo courtesy of Island Moving Co.) Architecture, like painting and sculpture, has been recognized as a form of art from the time of the Greeks. But unlike painting and sculpture, architecture must serve a practical purpose. It must conform to building standards, zoning codes, be technologically constructible, structurally sound, and financially feasible. That is a lot of extra baggage to carry when creating a “work of art.” And a really great work of architecture not only serves its original function, but later accommodates uses that were not even imagined at the time of its construction.

The mansions along Bellevue Avenue were designed to be private homes for entertaining friends of the owners for a few short weeks each summer. Today many of these buildings have been converted into year-round condominiums, school buildings and house museums. Rosecliff, designed in 1900 for the Oelrichs family by Stanford White of the noted firm of McKim, Mead and White exemplifies houses constructed during the Gilded Age. In previous Archi-Text articles, it has been described how some houses along Bellevue (like Kingscote and Beechwood) had ballrooms added to them long after they were originally constructed. In the case of Rosecliff, the ballroom was central to the design and basically is the house. It dominates the central part of the building’s H-shaped plan, with the other public spaces arrayed at either end. In contrast, the family bedrooms are laid out in an almost hotel-like way off a, central hall on the second floor and the rooms are surprisingly modest in feeling particularly in comparison to the grandeur and soaring height of the central ballroom.

The ballroom is the grand living space that links all the other rooms on the ground floor together. To the east and west, the ballroom opens onto terraces: the west is enclosed by the two wings at the front of the house and the east terrace overlooks the magnificent fountain and lawn and the water beyond. Rosecliff is an archetype of the Classical Revival style, with all of its main characteristics present: smooth cut masonry, paired Ionic columns and a flat roofline with a balustered cornice. The model for the building is the Grand Trianon garden château at the Versailles Palace in France. Befitting its exterior style, the interior was fabricated in a lavish French Ancien Régime style by the Parisian firm Allard et Fils. This year, for the 15th time, the Rosecliff ballroom will serve as the setting for the holiday performance by the Island Moving Company of "The Nutcracker," Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet on the theme of children’s Christmas toys coming to life. Unlike the typical ballet presentation, where the theater audience is situated on one plane and the dancers are on another, in the performance done at Rosecliff, the audience and the dancers are able to intermingle and interact directly. The ballroom is both the orchestra and the theatron (to employ the words the Greeks used for the stage and seats). Don’t miss your chance to see the collaboration of these different art forms and how a private summer ballroom can become the perfect setting for a winter ballet. Tickets for the performances from Nov. 25 through Dec. 2 typically sell out quickly, visit islandmovingco.org to check availability. Rosecliff reopens for public tour on Jan. 28.

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