A taste for cushioned opulence has never rested comfortably on the hard springs of the American conscience. It is not so much that we are less enamored of luxury than our European cousins, who accept privation and privilege as inexorable facts of existence (and are unapologetically happy to have a larger share of the latter than the former); it is, rather, that the egalitarian ideal hatched among our antecedents and handed down to us struggles against the pleasant impulse to indulge, leaving us embarrassed by the material excess that our relentless industry has spawned and spread. As a result, our decadent impulses sometimes assume ambivalently democratic forms.
I was reminded of this fact on a recent visit to Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain Vineyard (see “Unspoiled Vines,”), where I shared a bottle of wine in the dining room of the estate’s Victorian home with the general manager, Tom Ferrell. He pointed out, as we talked, the stained-glass panels that crown the otherwise simply framed windows. Commissioned in the 1880s, the jewel-like demilunes depicting ripe plums, oranges, grapes, and peaches blazed against the afternoon sun with soft, fleshy colors so vivid I was inclined to reach out and pluck them. Except for the crystal chandelier, these were the only concessions to the dizzying ornamentation one associates with the Victorian period: Unlike stately homes of the same era found in the United Kingdom, this sprawling residence—despite the complex assemblage of stonework, carved pillars, gables, and belltowers that fashion its exterior—exhibited a remarkable restraint, its extravagance discreetly conveyed through the spaciousness of its rooms and the glowing, varnished grain inlaid floors. Had this house been built in London or Edinburgh, the full force of 19th-century decorative arts would have been unleashed upon its surfaces, leaving in its wake torturous Lincrusta moldings and piles of wedding-cake plaster, and the unpretentious fruit clusters adorning the windows would have been replaced with more ponderous tableaux—personifications of the arts or scenes from Horace Walpole. But this represented a conspicuously American—and, therefore, ambivalent—concept of luxury: expensively clean, proudly self-effacing.
Other significant American homes echo this paradoxical note. The imposing Greek columns and soberly rectilinear chambers of James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia yoke together by force patrician pomp with virtuous understatement, as did the fourth president himself. And though our most professedly liberal founding father, Thomas Jefferson, lifted the floor plan of his beloved Monticello from a catalogue of homes designed to house English middle classes, his elitist leanings persuaded him to build the house on a mountaintop (unusual for the time, not to mention quite inconvenient) and to embellish this Olympus with a Palladian facade.
As with Monticello, the flamboyant modesty of Spring Mountain’s house suggests the incongruous personality of its original owner, Tiburcio Parrott. The illegitimate son of a U.S. consul, he gratified his domestic caprices with abandon, constructing his home on a baronial scale and hiring armies of gardeners to plant thousands of olive trees, as well as citrus orchards, rosebushes, and vineyards, on its extensive acreage. Parrott satisfied his amorous interests as well: In the course of his daily errands, he would drive his carriage into nearby St. Helena with a liveried servant who blew an English hunting horn at the appropriate moment to alert the “ladies” of the local bordello of his imminent arrival. Yet, despite his earthier urges, this Victorian dandy also displayed a high-minded determination, once paying enormous fines for refusing to fire Chinese workers at his Sulfur Creek Mine when a law was passed by the California legislature preventing corporations in the state from employing these immigrants. He later filed a suit that eventually won equal protection for these workers.
Naturally, not all members of this classless society’s upper class, during this era, allowed democratic conscience to check or balance their excesses. American magnates of the Industrial Age constructed on the beaches of New England and the streets of New York City palaces of such terrible garishness they would have made a czarina wince. Some affected the patrician protocols of their European betters, emblazoning their carriages with family crests and frosting their footmen’s heads with powdered wigs. But the heirs to that particular generation were not entirely inured to its offenses, and the youthful profligacy of American capitalism soon found its temporary antidote in war, depression, and that national restlessness that leaves us always a little uneasy with the status quo, however privileged.