What is a Folly ?

A folly is an ornamental structure whose creation reflects a whimsical inclination on the part of the builder. Built primarily to be viewed as part of the scenery, the folly is a European invention. At the height of their popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, folly buildings were based on the picturesque ruins of Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. With the rediscovery of Pompeii and Egypt, travelers would embark on exotic expeditions with stops in such places as Ephesus, Troy, Antioch, Rhodes, Paestum, and Tyre in addition to the more familiar cities and capitals. It is the height of the Romantic Movement and poets and artists flock to these sites with the intention of capturing and preserving the soulful and melancholy beauty of these ruins.
The British are particularly adept at reusing their ruins and for re-creating new ones in their landscape. The list of towers, temples and pyramids is endless. The first of these appear as early as 1595 with Rushton Lodge, Sir Thomas Tresham’s experiment with the symbolism of the Trinity. Lord Byron, owner of Newstead Abbey, spends his adolescent years wandering and even living in a decaying former abbey, one of 650 monasteries seized by Henry VIII in the 1530s. The architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, tries to convince the Duchess of Marlborough to preserve Woodstock Manor (the trysting place of Henry II and Rosamond) on the grounds of Blenheim Palace – a plea she refuses for many reasons, most important of which may have been the discovery of Vanbrugh’s unauthorized furnishing of the manor house for his own private use.
This clandestine romantic relationship associated with of follies is a concept the French incorporated into their follies of the 1700s. The “petite maison” also known as a folly, (meaning madness), was a specific building type comprised of a suburban garden pavilion erected behind a dense wall of foliage which screened it from the activities of the street.
In America, the concept of a folly, like most of its collective history is a relatively new one. It is argued that this borrowing from the past was the basis for our own preliminary architectural styles. The re-creation of the temple form, for example, used for our banks and government buildings, is a deliberate attempt at preserving the universal symbol of democracy, ancient Greece and Rome. House design during the entire 19 th century was devoted to the redevelopment of earlier styles: Romanesque Revival; Gothic Revival; Neo-Classical, etc. And while these forms were not whimsical and curious, they can be classified as picturesque and romantic in scope – two elements of the folly. The former Pennsylvania Station in New York City (1902) was based on the Baths of Caracalla of Rome. It is not until the 20th century that architects begin to develop design principles exclusive to the American experience. But we still have “Lucy” the elephant, Hearst’s Castle and the Pagoda at the Breakers. Who knows, maybe the folly of the 21st century will be about center hall colonials and golden arches.
  Bailey, Brian Great Romantic Ruins of England and Wales
  Beadle, Muriel These Ruins Are Inhabited
  Macaulay, Rose & Beny, Roloff The Pleasure of Ruins
  Woodward, Christopher In Ruins
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