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America's Rural Mansions

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`FOR a hundred years,'' wrote Lewis Mumford, ``a large body of people have been trying to escape the age in which they live. The leaders in this flight are precisely those who have extracted profit from steel mills and grain elevators and railroads and urban land: they build Florentine palaces; they enshrine themselves in Tudor country houses. ... Up to the capacity of our tastes and incomes, the rest of us have followed in the footsteps of our financial overlords; for whenever we can break loose from our anonymous cubicles, our standardized offices, our undifferentiated streets, we abandon ourselves to Pure Romance.'' The American country house that serves as the subject of two new books from the same university press was a product of the immense wealth amassed by the robber barons of the Gilded Age. It continued to flourish into the early decades of the 20th century, as individuals and families with money continued to consolidate their social positions - and give solid form to their dreams - by building vast country estates, complete with elaborate gardens, recreational facilities, sometimes even model dairy farms. From the palatial splendor of architect Richard Morris Hunt's Biltmore in North Carolina, designed for a Vanderbilt, to the cozier charms of rural retreats like Olana, the painter Frederick Edwin Church's dream house in the Hudson River Valley, American country houses of this period testify to the ways in which the new ``leisure class'' proclaimed and pursued its leisure.

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