Lucknow's Architecture

Lucknow's architectural and decorative designs exemplify the craftsman style, a variation of the Arts and Crafts architectural genre that was popular in the England and the United States from the 1860s to the 1920s. Olive Dewey described the architectural elements of Lucknow as eclectic, as if to deny the notion that an overall design philosophy guided Lucknow's constructon; but craftsman styles were intentionally eclectic, drawing upon craft traditions of Europe and Asia.

Inspired by John Ruskin, the nineteenth century English art historian and critic, Arts and Crafts philosophy stressed the importance of maintaining authentic relationships between natural building material and decorative style, and between function and form. Another prominent promoter of Arts and Crafts was the English designer, William Morris. Morris believed there was a moral relation between art and society. Authentic craftsmanship symbolized a bond of sympathy between social classes. Objects produced by industrial mass production, in contrast, symbolized and promoted warfare between social classes.

We can understand the moral point Morris and Ruskin made by comparing Lucknow to other mansions of the wealthy about the same time. The great mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, for instance, are aggressive displays of wealth and power. Their architecture revives the building styles of historic ruling classes. The styles symbolize the social gulf between the mansions' wealthy owners and the nation's common industrial laborers.

The mansion at Lucknow, by contrast, does not architecturally impose itself on the visitor. Surrounded by forest, the mansion is not visible at the entry drives at the state highway. The distance created by the mansion's seclusion is for the purpose of privacy. Tom Plant, who build the mansion, wanted a place of retirement--literally, a place to which to withdraw himself. Once the visitor has motored to the mansion, the building does not, either, keep her at a distance. The carriage or automobile entrance is actually the rear of the building, because the front of the mansion is oriented to the view of New Hampshire's central lakes. Driving to the building deposits the guest a few feet from the rear entry.

The mansion's exterior design, its rooms, and its views draw the visitor in. They evoke a natural impulse to touch, to inspect closely, to sit and be comfortable—to feel welcomed. (Of course, the building is now a museum and visitors are not allowed to follow upon these impulses.) The difference between Lucknow and the Newport mansions is not simply of levels of wealth or of design, but what design symbolizes.

For Morris and Ruskin, building materials were supposed to look the part they played in a building. Beams carrying heavy weight should be massive and look strong. Industrial materials, such as steel and concrete were to be shunned. Wood and stone were popular craftsman building materials. They took prominent structural and decorative roles at Lucknow. The two-story mansion was constructed of dressed granite, cut into pentagonal shape for structural strength.

The Arts and Crafts style also called for open display of craft skills. Mass produced furnishings and decorations were to be avoided. Use of gold foil to display wealth was considered bad taste. Lamps, chairs, sofas, reading alcoves, wall papers, panelling, floor tiles, ceilings, and all the other interior items of comfortable living were supposed to exemplify simplicity, care, and individuality—honest functionalism. Craftsman furniture might actually cost considerably more than industrially produced furniture, but it should not appear as if it cost more.

In architectural design, the Arts and Crafts philosophy inspired the small house design, called the bungalow style. Bungalow design became popular at the end of the nineteenth century when street cars made it possible for the middle class to move out of city centers and live in suburbs. Lacking the wealth required for grand houses, middle class bungalows were small and relatively inexpensive. Bungalow houses are to be found everywhere in the United States. They became especially popular in Southern California, where lack of severe winters further lowered their building costs.

It may seem a long stretch from the cottage bungalow to the Lucknow mansion, but the design elements are the same in both. Sharing of design elements expresses a social bond in American society, uniting the owners of wealth with the laborers who worked for them. This is the sentiment expressed in Tom Plant's philanthropy. Even the use of stone walls at Lucknow, which seems, at first impression, to be so idiosyncratic of Tom Plant, can be found in bungalows. In Riverside, California, where I live, for instance, a dozen stone bungalows were built before 1933 using river rock from the nearby San Bernardino Mountains. Because the designs were, technically, unreinforced masonry, they did not meet the new building codes adopted after the Long Beach earthquake of 1933. Most of the little dwellings were razed and replaced by wood frame houses (which stand up to earthquakes much better than unreinforced masonry). The stone bungalows that remain carry historic structure designations.

Another manifestation of the Arts and Crafts movement is the decorative design genre called Mission style. Mission style furniture became popular at the turn of the century. There are (or were) numerous Mission style pieces in Lucknow. Gustav Stickley, a New York designer and manufacturer, promoted Mission style furniture in his magazine, The Craftsman (established, 1901). He named the style, Mission style. Californians make the natural mistake of assuming that the name of the style refers to the Spanish Missions built in California (which had plain decorative styles) while it was a Spanish province of Mexico. Actually, by Mission style, Stickley meant that he and other like-minded designers had a mission to reform opulent and showy design associated with America's newly rich industrial classes. Mission style furniture is still built for sale by the descendents of Stickley in up-state New York studios.

The craftsman style symbolized the moral capability of the Captains of American Industry to transcend the mass production industrial technology, which they used to build their fortunes, and to embrace eternal aesthetic standards. It symbolized social unity, rather than social division. Tom Plant built Lucknow with this philosophy. Lucknow is an architectural and decorative treasure—as well as historical lesson—for New Hampshire and for the nation.

2001. Revised February 2007.