How To Turn Your Castle Into A Home

The morning of April 29th, I was up with the birds—and 2 billion of my fellow earthlings—to watch the British royal wedding.  The newlyweds were radiant; the event sparkled with romance and pageantry.  But what snapped open my sleepy eyes were the too-brief glimpses of the royal parks, gardens and lawns.

I was impressed with the royal gardening, how the imposing palaces are themselves happily wedded to their settings.  In my imagination, I strolled the gardens, inhaling the scent of flowers and tree blossoms; lost in reverie.  I forgot about the nuptials and attendant hoo-hah.

The 19th century art critic John Ruskin proclaimed, “Though I have kind invitations enough to visit America, I could not, even for a couple of months, live in a country so miserable as to possess no castles”.

If Ruskin could visit the States today, he might not find castles up to his exacting tastes.  He would certainly encounter plentiful castle wannabes in the enormous houses that populate our suburban landscape.  If these colossi fall short of being castles, they likewise fail to be homes.

English is one of the few Indo-European languages with a word for “home”.  Except for “love”—its kissing cousin—“home” possesses more resonance and radiance than any word in our language.

“Home” is a metaphor for all we most prize: love, warmth, nurture, privacy, intimacy, cosiness, comfort, companionship and festivity.  The commonplace, “There’s no place like home”, is uncommonly true.

An overlarge residence forsakes the qualities that make a house a home.  A too-big house is scaled, not to the physical or functional requirements of its residents, but to a simple and compelling notion: the bigger the better.

Just as small is not necessarily beautiful, big is not perforce better.  The advantages of size are offset by commensurate risks, as demonstrated by sprawling corporations, schools and bureaucracies of all kinds.  Bigness carries a lot of baggage.

Musing about American mansions, I’m reminded of Biltmore House, William K. Vanderbilt’s humongous gilded age faux chateau in North Carolina.  Writing to his friend and fellow author Edith Wharton, Henry James observed of the 175,000 square foot pile, “It’s like a gorgeous practical joke—but at one’s own expense, if one has to live in solitude in these league-long marble halls”.

When scale goes wrong, as it does so lavishly at the Biltmore, and to a lesser extent in the homes of suburban grandees, the first casualty is the human factor.  The structure’s exaggerated size diminishes rather than enhances the stature of its inhabitants—who appear to disappear in its vastness. Too often the great big house sits in its lot forlornly—a super-sized flying saucer flung into a landscape to which it bears no relation.

Right now, owners of big houses have challenges enough.  As house prices plunge, fuel and food prices skyrocket.  Attributes that made the house seem like a wise purchase—its impressive dimensions and imagined resale value—are now albatrosses dangling from the owner’s aching neck.

How might one bring balance, harmony, scale, integrity, beauty and magic to the modern manse?  Can the owner’s dream house become a place of dreams?

It can be done.  A garden gives a house proportion, warmth and continuity with its surroundings.  Not a formal geometric garden, but a garden that proceeds from a house like a breath, lending color, shape, animation and pleasure to the scene.

Appropriately, British architect Edwin Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll performed this very transformation for UK estates—bringing garden and house together and, thus, to life, for royals and royal wannabes in the late 19th and early 20th century.

With such reintegration of house and garden, the residence begins to dream and take root in its verdant setting.  The structure’s height and width are moderated; angles softened, edges blurred—geometry yields to poetry.  The now welcoming house loses its tinsel grandiosity, and assumes a quiet and inviting grandeur.  You won’t have a palace, or a castle, but something better.  You’ll have a home, and a fairy-tale romance all your own.


This entry was posted on Friday, May 6th, 2011 at 3:22 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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14 Responses to “How To Turn Your Castle Into A Home”

  1. Cassie D said:

    We bought our home 3 1/2 years ago. It’s a reasonable size although we still don’t use the upstairs for much except company. On the other hand the lot was huge for a development house in Southern California. The garden is now coming into it’s own and is a wonderful retreat, full of roses and perennials of all sorts. The lady who built Lotus Land said ” find the smallest house on the biggest piece of land” and you will find happiness.

    • George said:

      Thanks for the interesting post, Cassie. Good luck with all your plants. I heard someone say to buy the smallest and cheapest house in a “good” neighborhood. But the problem is they are rarely for sale. Has to do with school systems, I think. Or just “respectable” society. It was an old-fashioned expression even back in my childhood, so it’s positively antique nowadays. And likely not “P.C.” Thanks again.

  2. Craig Johnson said:

    A rather splendid erudition of what makes home. It’s tragic that ‘bigger is better’ has brought many people to choose living in vast ‘piles’ that have no soul or aesthetic. They merely scream money. My brother’s wife describes her 9,800 sq ft house as a place you walk through rather than live in. Articulate observations of this reality in America need to be frequent. Keep adding to it.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Craig, for the heartfelt post. Odd, isn’t it? I believe it has to do with—of all things—television. Television has “supersized” our mental view of spatial reality and thereby created new expectations of domestic space. “Make it bigger!” Similarly, the “picture window” created a longer line of sight into the backyard from the living room of the late 1940s through the late 1960s American home, and thus created the ubiquitous dwarf bedding plants. By the late 70s, almost all annual bedding plants had to be 18-24 inches or less, heavily basal-branched, and visible from the inside of the living room or den. Today a more “vertical” element is being added, along with a new interest in vegetable patches. Please see “Square Feet” for a more vibrant essay and some useful links. (I love your sister-in-law’s description. Is her candor ironic?) Thank you.

  3. Debra said:

    The perfect balance of garden & mansion/museum in development can be found at Winterthur, the home of Henry Francis du Pont in Delaware. The dairy, garden & museum were his life’s work, & he was spectacularly successful. Interestingly he studied William Robinson & Gertrude Jekyll – & met with them – & used their ideas in his own garden. At this writing his Azalea Woods is at its peak & is magnificent.

    • George said:

      Thanks very much, Debra. Winterthur is on the APGA tour at next month’s annual meeting, which Heronswood Nursery is supporting with the lead regional sponsorship. All you botanic garden professionals out there please take note! We’ll also host members on Tuesday, June 21st, for a workshop on the past, current and future goings on at W. Atlee Burpee, and specifically Heronswood. As for Jekyll, Debra, please note that Glebe House still stands. Are there other Jekyll gardens in North America that are open or “by appointment” to the public? Thanks again.

  4. Matt Braksick said:

    I could not agree with you more. I think a typical suburban neighborhoold demonstrates what happens when you decimate arts education. The $500,000 house with the $500 landscape is a cliche. It would be nice if people could put less into the house and more into the garden. I think that most people don’t care because they never go outside. I walk a lot, and it seems to me that many neighborhoods have had neutron bombs dropped on them, as you rarely see another person. If you eliminate compulsive running and mandatory dog walking, there would be no one except for the professional lawn caretakers. It’s a little leary. I’ll stop ranting now.

    • George said:

      Interesting, Matt. Thanks much. I agree about arts education in general. The problem is which art to focus on. The Greeks and Romans emphasized dance, music and recitative poetry. I think that would be a good start. However, I think literacy has to take priority in public education, if only for 20-25 years. And with an emphasis on phonics—which has proven to be superior to the “whole word” (Dick and Jane) we grew up on for the last 50-60 years, with the sole exception of Pittsburgh, most of whose districts rejected it. Now I shall stop ranting. Thanks again.

  5. Joanna M Jackman said:

    Enjoyed your “yard” viewpoint so much! I have a small, very comfortable home, and a very small yard. We’ve always enjoyed our smallmoutdoors, and itnhas even my salvation to carry on since the deathnof mynwomderful husband. With the helpmofmone of my daughters, we’ve established “A Healing Garden” in the backyard. I’ve filled a tiny space with even more fruit trees (dwarf and double-dwarf) along with several long established trees across the back of the lot. I’ve added red raspberries, a gooseberry bush, along with the fruit trees bearing cherries, apricots, pears, and apples. There’s a long rownof blackberries along the narrow side of my home along a pathway tonthe backyard. My small home is my castle, but the backyard has brought me great peace and comfort as I “settle” into widowhood.

    • George said:

      Dear Joanna,

      Thank you for your responses. I am sorry you lost your husband recently. It must be a shock. Words cannot convey the sorrow. The healing garden is a great idea and I hope sincerely that it grows beautifully. If there is any particular plant I can supply, please feel free to tell me and I shall try to find the perfect cultivar to recommend.


      George Ball

  6. Joanna M Jackman said:

    Obviously I am just learning to use my iPad and have trouble with the space bar and keep hitting the n or m while adjusting to a smaller keypad. Aside from that, I did want to mention that my “Healing Garden” also has a beautiful curving path of flagstone with lots of herbs, amid vegetables and flowers. I have had the pleasure of receiving the Burpee Catalogue for many years and it has long been the most coveted piece of mail between Christmas and New Years Day. I enjoy receiving the newsletters with loads of good advice to improve my gardening efforts. Thank yup so much!

  7. B.Miller said:

    Thank you for a most enjoyable and informative neewsletter.

  8. lauri MacKAY said:

    We moved to Nevada 10 years ago this Sept.(10 miles north of Reno) Our house sits on 1 acre, a rectangle with house 100′ from narrow end close to the road. When we bought it there was mostly sand and a few green trees. For 3 years I worked to make it look more green and not so beige. WE built a garage, in the front of property, and in the back installed planters, Hot Tub Room, Garden shack and some raised planters. We put in over 100 trees and shrubs. It is now ten years, so much has grown up and it’s close to what I want. Unfortunately I took sick and can no longer work in my yard, but I am thankful that I was able to do so much when I could. My husband works hard to keep it looking nice. We have Cooper’s Hawks, Crows, ScrubJays, Quail(lots of Quail) RedTailHawks, Golden Eagles, sparrows, finces, Orioles, and TowHee’s just to name a few. Some snakes (garter type) mice, Coyotes, Mt. Lion, (only saw one in 10 yrs). I am slowly reading all your blogs and enjoying them, even the replies are a great souce of information. Thank you So much.

  9. Ziarre said:

    That’s an apt answer to an ineetrsting question

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