Downtown Birmingham home circa early 1900′s. Michelle Summers Photography
I breathed a small sigh of relief last night at the conclusion of episode 6 of Downton Abbey. Lord Grantham has finally accepted the cold hard truth that the financial management of Downton has to change if it is to survive. Matthew, Lord Grantham’s son-in-law, heir and co-master of the estate pretty much put it to him like this: “Look here–your pompous @ss wasted Cora’s fortune on the mismanagement of Downton, and I’ll be d@mned if I’ll let you flush my inheritance down the crapper too.” Except Matthew has that haughty British accent that gives an air of authority even if using words like “crapper.”
Tom, Lord Grantham’s chauffeur cum (other) son-in-law, was much more diplomatic, stating that Downton needed all of their strengths—Tom knows the land, Matthew knows the business and the law, and Lord Grantham knows what’s in the best interest of the residents of Downton. Which is polite-speak for: “We really don’t need you, Old Man, but we’ll humor you out of respect for our wives.” Bless his heart, Lord Grantham and his refusal to adjust to the unglamorous post-war way of life is doing no one any favors, least of all, himself.
Next week is Downton’s season finale. While we don’t know what will become of Downton and its residents, history has already revealed how the larger story arc will play out—World War II breaks out, the British empire begins to crumble, and with it, a way of life built on elitism and social hierarchy. Large country houses like Downton, who employed hundreds upon hundreds of servants, became too large and costly to maintain and often fell to ruins.
Highclere Castle, the real-life Berkshire estate that serves as the set for Downton Abbey, supports itself financially through tours of the castle and grounds, and through use of the estate for weddings, bar mitvahs, and of course TV and film production. Not all historical estates have been so fortunate. With the abolition of slavery, many large antebellum plantation houses of the South met the same fate for many of the same reasons. While the collapse of societies so dependent on the exploitation of others is well-deserved, the architect in me weeps for the loss of these stately homes. W.E.B Dubois described the sentiment when he spoke of the Georgia plantations of 1860:
A hundred and fifty barons commanded the labor of nearly six thousand Negroes, held sway over farms with ninety thousand acres tilled land, valued even in times of cheap soil at three millions of dollars…It was the heyday of the nouveau riche, and a life of careless extravagance among the masters. Four and six bobtailed thoroughbreds rolled their coaches to town; open hospitality and gay entertainment were the rule. Parks and groves were laid out, rich with flower and vine, and in the midst stood the low wide-halled ‘big house,’ with its porch and columns and great fireplaces.
And yet with all this there was something sordid, some- thing forced,–a certain feverish unrest and recklessness; for was not all this show and tinsel built upon a groan? ‘This land was a little Hell,’ said a ragged, brown, and grave- faced man to me. We were seated near a roadside blacksmith shop, and behind was the bare ruin of some master’s home. ‘I’ve seen n____s drop dead in the furrow, but they were kicked aside, and the plough never stopped. Down in the guard-house, there’s where the blood ran.’
With such foundations a kingdom must in time sway and fall. “ ~ Of the Black Belt
Nolan House, Bostwick, Georgia
My brother and his college buddies rented one such historic home in Virginia. The house was on its last leg, but the beautiful knotty pine wood flooring, breathtakingly high ceilings and four fieldstone fireplaces were irresistible. Sounds romantic, but those guys barely lasted one semester at the house. Stuff was always falling apart and it was d@mn near impossible to keep warm during the winter months. Someday I’d love to scoop up one of these of crumbling Southern manors, get it in good working order and have a nice getaway pad for the weekends.
Would you ever live in one?