Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ryan K. Smith's "Robert Morris's Folly"

Ryan K. Smith is associate professor of history, Virginia Commonwealth University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Robert Morris's Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Robert Morris’s Folly starts with a letter written by an American woman in London, who was requesting details on a fantastic house she had heard about under construction in Philadelphia. In 1794 – just before the project began going badly – she wrote,
“Mr. Morris is building a palace, do you think Monsieur l’Enfant would send me a drawing of it? Merely from curiosity, for one wishes to see the plan of a house which it is said, will cost, when finished £40,000 Sterling.” This figure translated to nearly $200,000, at a time when Philadelphia laborers earned perhaps $300 yearly and could rent a small brick dwelling for under $80 a year.
The page then follows through with the ramifications of this particular bit of gossip as it circulated. In the letter’s query, the house was tied directly to its patron, the wealthy “financier of the American Revolution,” Robert Morris, and his storied architect, Major Peter [Pierre] C. L’Enfant. Aside from the sheer enormity of the rumored cost of the house, it was a peculiar thing to call an American house a “palace” – a residence for a king or aristocrat, certainly not a citizen of the new American republic. As a line down the page states, this wealthy woman “seemed mildly entertained by the idea, but what of, say, members of the Philadelphia militia companies?” Or other laboring residents?

At the end of the page, the story shifts to related happenings that summer in London, including Morris’s friend John Jay’s arrival as part of treaty negotiations with Britain, and also a lover’s scandal there involving one of Morris’s sons. It all points up to Morris’s many follies – his oncoming public humiliations and entrance into debtor’s prison.

So I do think page 99 is representative. The book is an “architectural biography,” showing how politics, finance, and art intertwined in the life of a key figure in the early American nation. And I think the story has an uncanny resonance today.
Learn more about Robert Morris's Folly at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue