The Carson Mansion in Eureka, Calif. – perhaps America’s most recognized Victorian house – is so preposterously ornate that it approaches caricature.
Lumber magnate William Carson was anxious to showcase the marvelous versatility of his California redwood, so he made sure his architects, the brothers Samuel and Joseph Newsom, pulled out all the stops in his mansion’s design. And did they ever: Since its completion in 1886, Carson’s soaring gingerbread confection has remained the last word in Victorian bombast.
The Carson Mansion is a good example of what might be called an architectural extravaganza – a design that represents the zenith of its era.
Such works usually arose in the most prosperous times, which accounts for their frequent appearance during the 1880s, the Roaring Twenties and the supremely confident decades following World War II. Whether we call such buildings outrageous, way out or over the top, we know an extravaganza when we see it.
“Over the top” rather literally describes the works of architect John Eberson, the inventor of the “atmospheric” movie palaces of the 1920s. In Eberson’s theaters – Florida’s Tampa Theater is a fine example – the audience was seated in a mock outdoor garden or courtyard, surrounded by antique building facades complete with statuary, fountains, fake ivy, and stuffed birds perched on the windowsills. Overhead, mechanically projected clouds drifted lazily across the auditorium’s vaulted “sky.” When the show was about to begin – or should I say continue? – the clouds slowly yielded to darkness and constellations of twinkling electric stars. Today, thanks to their endearingly high-kitsch concept, Eberson’s atmospheric theaters are among the most celebrated of all movie palaces.
The Roaring 20s also gave America one of its most outrageous Spanish Revival houses, improbably named Scotty’s Castle, and just as improbably located in California’s Death Valley. The castle was built by a wealthy Chicago insurance executive, Albert Johnson, though it was named for Johnson’s longtime companion, Walter Scott. In 1926, after amassing some 1,500 acres of Death Valley land, Johnson began work on the main buildings of his 12,000-square-foot house. A construction engineer and two architects collaborated on the design, which included custom furniture and hardware. A crew of craftsman was imported from Europe to carry out the detail work, and no expense was spared in the castle’s construction: Johnson spent more than $50,000 on a pipe organ for his music room, while Scott bragged that the wrought iron work alone had cost $168,000.
By 1931, however, with the Depression rapidly sapping his fortunes, Johnson had to call it quits with some 20 percent of the project still unfinished. Even at that, Scotty’s Castle represented such a high-water mark of Twenties-era optimism that it was eventually acquired by the National Park Service and opened for tours.
But don’t think that more recent times haven’t given us some architectural extravaganzas as well. Though we may not appreciate it yet, the vast indoor shopping malls and high-rise-atrium hotels of the 1970s, the theme bar-restaurants of the ’80s, and the dot-com-billionaire mansions of the ’90s will likely all yield candidates for such honors in the future. And of course pretty much any hotel casino built in Las Vegas during the past decade – those brazenly ersatz renditions of Paris, New York, Rome or Venice, complete with Eberson-like indoor streets under artificial skies – are sure to find a place in this boffo hall of fame.
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