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Domestic Interiors, National Concerns: The “Pompeian Room” as a Metonym in the United States

Marden Nichols

The extensive and rich reception history of classical architecture poses an interpretive challenge to the study of neo-antique place-making by complicating the identification of visual allusion or intertext. My paper addresses this issue through examination of a case study: the phenomenon of “Pompeian” (or “Pompeian Revival”) interior decoration in elite U.S. houses and hotels from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. I argue that the “Pompeian Room” functioned in the popular press and wider discourse of that era as a metonym for an increasingly inaccessible pseudo-aristocracy. Renovation and demolition have left few U.S. Pompeian Revival spaces intact. Bringing together methodologies drawn from classical archaeology, cultural history, and art history, I suggest an interdisciplinary approach to this richly eclectic and appropriative type of interior space. Analysis of newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, personal correspondence, literary references, and advertisements reveals the flexibility of the Pompeian Revival style, in both form and connotation, as it attained significance across varying environments. What allowed the Pompeian Room to retain its cultural currency was in fact its very openness to multiple interpretations, each grounded in a reading of historical associations.

The Pompeian Revival Style in the United States must be seen within the larger scope of Aesthetic Movement of the last third of the nineteenth century, through which the beautification of the American home became a topic of heightened national interest. In addition, it was but one of many styles imported as part of what Kristen Hoganson calls “cosmopolitan domesticity:” American tastemakers’ absorption of design elements from Japan, China, and the Middle East, along with historical and contemporary European styles. Yet, among these various modes, I would argue, Pompeian decoration most strongly conveyed the impression of luxury and elevated social status. Patrons such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., William H. Vanderbilt, and Nathan Straus, mindful of precedents abroad, commissioned Pompeian Rooms not simply to fulfill fantasies of ancient Italy, but also to associate themselves with European aristocrats of the present and recent past whose palaces and manor houses had contained “Pompeian Rooms” since the eighteenth century. Such attempts at emulation only served to accentuate the differences between “Old” and “New” worlds. Through a comparison of U.S. Pompeian Rooms with European ones, the impact of differing materials, climates, social mores, and levels of interest in archaeology emerges.

The range of contemporary reactions to the Pompeian style, colored by unease about the expansion of private wealth and luxury building projects during the Gilded Age and the years surrounding it, likewise had a national slant. Whereas American enthusiasm for the Greek Revival style, bolstered by appreciation of the Greeks as noble democratic predecessors, had arisen from optimistic patriotism, suspicion of the Pompeian Revival style, fueled by conceptions of the ancient Pompeians as decadent, debauched, and destroyed, sprung from nagging fears that the United States, like the Rome Empire, would decline and fall.

A new framework for researching Pompeian Rooms should allow for the presence of what Umberto Eco termed “aberrant decoding,” the phenomenon in which the receiver makes sense of a text, image, or sign using a different “code” than the one intended by its creator. The aim is to transcend a singular emphasis on the self-fashioning of patrons in order to incorporate a wider spectrum of contributors and interpreters. Inclusion of these multiple readings can advance our understanding of neo-antique architectural tropes by explaining their survival despite cultural resistance or change, their adaptation across continents, and their eventual abandonment.

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Re-Creating the House of Pansa

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