Cornell University Press

Architectural Follies Help Us Enjoy Nature

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Recently, people have spent more time outdoors exploring nature as a safe activity during the pandemic, including such pursuits as hiking and gardening. Architecture often accentuates our experience of nature: for instance, gazebos and prospect towers frame the view and guide us to lookout points with particularly fine scenery. Perhaps we give little thought to these diminutive buildings, but as human marks upon the landscape, they have a fascinating history and can tell us a great deal if we look a bit closer.

Architecture often accentuates our experience of nature: for instance, gazebos and prospect towers frame the view and guide us to lookout points with particularly fine scenery.

My illustrated book, Follies in America: A History of Garden and Park Architecture, examines an understudied building type, the architectural folly. Follies are small-scale buildings that are non-essential in that they do little more than ornament a landscape and provide a view (they are often referred to as “belvederes” for this reason). Follies originated in eighteenth-century England where aristocrats built temples, towers, summerhouses (today known as gazebos), and sham ruins to lead viewers through the landscape through a series of views. These follies were historicized and were meant to spark reverie about the passage of time. With its democratic founding principles, the United States might seem an unlikely place to find follies. But my research led me to discover that this building type was very popular in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century America, especially as a symbol of gentility. Having a folly on your property suggested you had the leisure time to enjoy it. A particularly elaborate folly suggested great wealth.

A single building sparked my interest in looking for American follies: Kingfisher Tower in Cooperstown, New York, designed by the architect Henry Hardenbergh in 1876 for Edward Clark, who made his fortune with the Singer Manufacturing Company. When I first saw this little medievalized tower on Otsego Lake, it reminded me of the follies that ornament the famous landscape gardens of Stowe and Stourhead in England. Now featured on the cover of my book, Kingfisher Tower inspired me to look for other nineteenth-century follies in America (and I found a lot of them!). Not all are extant, of course, so I relied on nineteenth-century photographs, prints, paintings, architectural drawings, and written descriptions to uncover their stories.

Follies can be idiosyncratic and even eccentric, and their playful nature appealed to architectural sensibilities bored by the orthodox tenets of high modernism.

Even before the pandemic, a resurgence of interest in follies took shape in the late twentieth century with the advent of postmodernism in architectural design. Follies can be idiosyncratic and even eccentric, and their playful nature appealed to architectural sensibilities bored by the orthodox tenets of high modernism. In recent years, folly exhibitions have taken place at Olana, the historic house museum of famed Hudson River School artist Frederic Church; Storm King Art Center, featuring the follies of contemporary artist Mark Dion; and the Winterthur Museum, among others (my recent exhibition review details the latter two). Follies have made appearances in film and television, including Downton Abbey. And follies—fun, fantastic, and inherently photogenic—make perfect backdrops for selfies in the age of Instagram. In other words, the interest in follies shows no evidence of slowing down. So, get out there and enjoy the views. Follies will show the way.

*Featured photo: W. H. Bartlett, C. Cousen. Caldwell (Lake George), 1838. Credit: George Virtue, Publisher. Hand colored lithograph.

Follies in America
Cover image of Follies in America.
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Kerry Dean Carso is Professor of Art History at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is the author of American Gothic Art and Architecture in the Age of Romantic Literature. Follow her on Twitter @kerrydeancarso.

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