The greatest, most architecturally and historically significant estates in the Southern United States are depicted in all their glory in Laurie Ossman's new book Great Houses of the South (Rizzoli, $55). Beyond mere regional curiosity, Ossman declares that "The great house of the South stands at the center of the architectural iconography of America." 39 distinctive estates, reflecting the times, values and tastes of their builders, from the Colonial Era up to World War II and running the full gamut of Southern Style, are lavishly photographed and evocatively described.
The book is divided into four chronological sections: Part 1: 1700–1800, Part 2: 1800–1820, Part 3: 1820–1861, and Part 4: 1865–1940, providing a "sweeping narrative of tradition and change as seen through a rich array of grand residences", ranging from Shirley, a James River Plantation firmly tied to its English roots, to the Gilded Age splendor of Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, and the eclectic traditionalism of 20th century masterworks such as Longue Vue in New Orleans and Miami's famed Vizcaya, built by agricultural industrialist James Deering in 1916. All of the featured homes are open to the public for viewing.
Ossman decided the houses featured should be open to the public to emphasize "the issue of historic preservation as a social phenomenon as well as a matter of individual choice," she notes. That doesn't mean they're all museums; several featured houses are privately owned and operated by descendants of the builder or other historically significant occupants, and are thus "celebrating their own heritage as well as that of the community." Ossman writes that "whenever a group of people choose to restore or recreate an historic house for the public, they are reifying values that they believe in."
Gallery: Great Houses of the South
Ossman also clarifies what she means by the term "Great House." For the purposes of the book, a Great House is "one in which the owner had the economic and intellectual means to construct his home as a vehicle of self-representation," she writes. "The featured houses were selected to represent ideas and concepts that can be applied to an understanding of other houses of the period, especially - but not exclusively - in the South." Not every magnificent mansion is included, of course, and several deserving of the appellation were passed over for more important examples. Of course, wealth played an important part. "The goal of building and decorating a 'great house' (an option available to the wealthiest 5 percent of the population, at most) was almost always to create an architectural expression of personal refinement," Ossman notes. See the gallery for images.