The Capitol in Colonial Williamsburg (Photo: Associated Press)

Americans have always wanted the past and the future—the idyllic dream of a mythical past and the magical promise of a perfect tomorrow. These are fantasies, of course, but they are quintessentially American fantasies, intrinsic to the good life that is the American dream—no matter how you get there.

We look to the past for comforting familiarity, for reassuring connections to a heritage that may be real or imagined, and to the future for solutions that break all the established rules—the simple Cape Cod cottage with its rose-covered picket fence or the house of tomorrow with its visionary labor-saving devices and futuristic forms. Both, of course, are stuffed with the latest technology.

This ambiguous and anachronistic duality has created an irreconcilable split between tradition and modernism in this country; each style has its passionate advocates of the new or the old as the only right way to build. Those who have remained wedded to the established materials, proportions and details of the classical tradition consider themselves defenders of the true faith. Modernists, intent on new solutions, dismiss classical forms as an impediment and embarrassment, obsolete for contemporary needs.

But unlike modernism, which stakes its claims on new materials and technologies that have revolutionized construction to create unprecedented ways to design and build to meet changing needs, the idea of tradition involves a far more complex set of values and associations. The architecture and furnishings of this country’s early years are so closely identified with its founding ideals that they have acquired an overlay of shared heritage and patriotic sentimentality far beyond their undeniable aesthetic appeal.

Behind the reality is a backstory of mythmaking and tastemaking as intrinsically American as the style itself. A small, unorthodox exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis,” has a large agenda: to restore the reputation of a tradition discarded by modernists as irrelevant and expendable, and to establish the style’s continuing suitability and adaptability to the contemporary city and, in particular, New York.

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Ada Louise Huxtable
Wall Street Journal

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