Classics Made Fresh

From Jefferson’s pantry to Greek pediments, reviving the flavors and styles of the past

By Jean Dunbar

Buy this book

Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance
Edited by Damon Lee Fowler
Thomas Jefferson Foundation/University of North Carolina, $35

New Classicism: The Rebirth of Traditional Architecture
By Elizabeth Meredith Dowling
Rizzoli, $50

If we are what we eat, Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance, a captivating new book edited by culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler, brings readers closer to Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries than ever before. Fowler and a brace of expert contributors mine diaries, letters, invoices, planting records, recipes, archaeological evidence—and rapturous accounts of meals eaten 200 years ago—to explore in page-turning style such subjects as "Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Vegetables" and "African Americans and Monticello's Food Culture." More than 90 pages of enticing, well-documented recipes round out the volume. They range from a rich oyster soup to olla (a Spanish pork and vegetable stew with apples) to delicate Pancakes Lemaire—dessert crêpes prepared by Jefferson's French butler during his Paris years.

Thanks to its clear cooking directions and reliance on widely available ingredients, Dining at Monticello will find itself at home on the kitchen countertop as much as on the coffee table. For cooks, or curators, who want to duplicate the original preparation of a dish, the recipes offer detailed instructions. Some readers will be tempted to forgo their Viking range and, iron fork in hand, assay an 18th-century stew stove or roasting spit.

This fascinating book speaks to the preservation movement—not just because preservationists have to eat, but because it is, at heart, revisionist cultural history, looking beyond extraordinary public events to focus on the daily, the human, the everyday. The study of "ordinary life" has revolutionized our understanding of African American and women's history and launched a thousand museum reinterpretations. Dining at Monticello is just one example—the television program Antiques Roadshow is another—of this widespread interest in the mundane past. So preservationists rally to save barns and factories as well as houses like Monticello, where, not coincidentally, the recently restored kitchen enjoys a status once reserved for more formal rooms.

Historic preservation not only documents and protects, but adapts old designs to new uses and creates new work that is compatible with the old. In another lavishly illustrated book, New Classicism: The Rebirth of Traditional Architecture, author Elizabeth Meredith Dowling suggests that getting the past exactly right isn't always the best way to honor it.

In a substantial introduction, Dowling, an architect who teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology, takes up the torch famously carried by Britain's Prince Charles, arguing that the best design always comes from study of classical architecture. Such training produced one brilliant style after another—early neoclassical, Greek revival, Beaux-Arts—until modernism rudely interrupted.

This book documents fresh interest in classical studies, chronicling projects by 14 British and American firms that practice new classicism. Along with classical motifs (such as anthemia and templelike pediments), their designs exhibit the organizing principles of classical architecture, especially symmetry and rational proportion. Memorable designs play with, expand, and even critique classical principles. Take Porphyrios Associates' Duncan Galleries in Lincoln, Neb.: With its traditional stone pediments and modern stainless-steel columns and balconies, this residence-gallery sets up spine-tingling tensions between symmetry and asymmetry, the predictable and the unexpected. Its design is profound without being self-serious, witty without being flippant.

Many of New Classicism's buildings, however, strongly caution architectural reenactors against being too intent on accuracy or mimicry. Dowling notes that the ancient Roman theorist Vitruvius insisted on "firmness, or lasting construction; commodity, or appropriate function; and delight, or beauty." The more single-mindedly these projects replicate earlier architecture, the less they delight. The preservationist's bible, the Interior secretary's Standards for Rehabilitation, is right: Duplication rings false; true inspiration creates anew.

Dowling's insistence that architects focus only on the classical seems miserly, in light of examples in the book such as David M. Schwarz's dramatic Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Tex., with its debt to European art nouveau. Like other designers featured here, Schwarz, who masterminded the 1999 restoration and expansion of Cleveland's Severance Hall, also practices preservation architecture—which demands knowledge of many styles. If ancient Greek and Roman models inspire fine buildings, can't other models, properly studied, do the same?

Dowling's examples suggest that taking ordinary buildings as inspiration helps avoid stodginess. York Place, an inviting ensemble of attached houses in Weybridge, England, by Robert Adam Architects Ltd., has the flavor of earlier neoclassical revivals. Savoring the vernacular could make this style more influential. New Classicism whets the appetite for a sequel featuring modest yet extraordinary projects—a book, like Dining at Monticello, inspired by what was once commonplace.