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"Serio-Piffle Architecture" from Architectural Record

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Architectural Record
Serio-Piffle Architecture
by Ellis Parker Butler

One of the leading characteristics of the Serio-Piffle school of Architecture is a pointed beard, and a wan but hopeful cast of countenance. Sometimes this is accompanied by a red necktie, and the fingernails are always neatly manicured, There is a rug on the office floor and two or three fat, ruddy bricks on the table. Aside from these necessary details, the architecture is usually borrowed.

It is the architect of this school that supplies the Seriousness, and this is most necessary, for his Architecture is entirely and wholly Piffle.

I should hate to wear a garb composed of as many ill-assorted and incongruous parts as one of the houses planned by the Serio-Piffle architect. One of his favorite attempts at originality is to daub a second story with mud colored plaster, and imbed planks, of various widths and evident uselessness, in the plaster. The originality consists in thinking up ways of placing the planks so that they may have absolutely no relation to the construction. This, I believe, is supposed to be Elizabethan, and is, consequently, particularly appropriate in a forty by one hundred foot lot in Elizabeth, N. J. The plaster is also excellent for a damp, muggy location on Long Island. Such a house looks well between a Queen Anne cottage with warts on it, and a Southern Colonial with pillars opening at every pore. It gives such an air of verisimilitude to the locality.

The deeply concerned and studious air of the Serio-Piffle architect, as he wrinkles his brow over the problem of the owner, before he opens the Ladies' Home World, and borrows the prize house from the October Contest, is alone worth the price of the plans, and his struggles before he can decide whether to make the dormer windows too long or too wide for the size of the house, fill the soul of the on-looker with admiration. For the Serio-Piffle architecture is always serious -- some of it is painfully so -- some is actually pathetic. Of writers there are various kinds, serious, humorous and burlesque. But the architect alone is always serious. The jokes he perpetrates, and that become practical jokes when the builder gets at the plans, belong to the realm of unconscious humor.

I would like to see a school of architectural humorists established, and I would put into their hands the planning of all suburban homes up to and including those costing $11,000. These architects would be exceedingly serious of manner, as professional humorists are supposed to be. Some would be bald, like Bill Nye; and some would have fluffy hair like Mark Twain, and wear white dress suits; and some would be melancholy of countenance, like Artemus Ward and Simeon Ford, but all would have that common trait of getting off their jokes without cracking a smile. They would talk shop in a solemn Beaux Arts style while spreading their plans for $4,000 cottages before the owner, and this solemn manner would make the joke twice as funny. Then the owner, on seeing the plans, would not have to assume an equal seriousness, as at present. As soon as the plans were unrolled he would know they were a joke, and his face would break into a smile of joy which, as the plans were explained to him, would increase to a hearty laugh. Some owners with a good, strong sense of humor, would actually die of laughter, especially when they came to the point of the joke -- that the lowest bid on the $4.000 house possibly obtainable from any sane builder was $8,675.67.

If this school of professional architectural humorists was established our suburbs would be far more enjoyable places to visit. There would be entire streets with every dwelling a joke. Today too many of our suburbs are like the Atlantic Monthly, mainly matter of a serious type, with only here and there a joke. By properly gathering the work of the architectural humorists together in separate suburbs, under the supervision of competent editors, our various suburbs would gain an individuality as distinct as those of Puck and Life. All the serio-piffle Colonial jokes would be gathered in Wildmere, and all the serio-piffle Queen Anne houses in Thistlehurst, and all the half-timbered humorous skits in Swampscomb. Sunday afternoon trips to the suburbs would then be as joyful as an hour in the pages of Judge. The streets would be full of merry, laughing crowds, passing from one house to another, all gurgling with glee.

"Oh, Edward," Mrs. Cityman would exclaim, wiping her tears. "just look at this one! This is the funniest of all!"

"Yes," Mr. Cityman would say, "that is a good one, but look across the street there! Ha! Ha! Ha! My dear, I think Thistlehurst is the best comic town we have visited yet!"

"Dear, dear!" Mrs. Cityman would cry: "I'm sure I haven't laughed so heartily for weeks. But don't forget Concreteville, Edward. That was funny!"

"Yes," her husband would reply, "that was funny, but the humor was a little broad, don't you think?"

"Well, I don't care!" she would say: "I'll never forget how I laughed at that house made of concrete imitation field stones, with the red brick chimney and the Italian piazza with a concrete pergola on its roof. Who was the author?"

"Fliggins. But of course that was his masterpiece. It made him famous. But he hasn't done anything but concrete field stones ever since."

I should think the serio-piffle architects would tremble in their shoes when they look upon the houses that were built forty years ago, and consider what people will think of present day piffle architecture forty years from now! Just think of the French-roof piffle that was the rage forty years ago, and how serious the architects were while compiling those awful jokes out of the French Joe Millers from which they stole them. Think of the Swiss chalet jokes, and the Brownstone Front jokes, and the Byzantine carved front jokes. Thank heaven, we are past that stage! There are no serio-piffle architects today, twisting good styles into comic supplement jokes!

So far as I know there was only one man who saw through the serio-pifflers of that day, but he was a prince of serio-piffle himself -- Phineas T. Barnum. You have seen his Thingumbob palace with doojabs all over it in the best piffling style of the day. He loved humbug, Barnum did. He was strong on mermaids and two-headed things and petrified giants, and when he wanted a palace he had it done in the real spirit of humbuggery. I have not the least doubt he sat and listened to his architect explain the beauties of that palace plan with just the same awe-filled face that plain Mr. Jones sits and listens to his architect today. But Phineas was not fooled. He could see through serio-piffle as well as the next man. He probably had the time of his life -- as we say on Broadway -- listening to the solemn way in which the architect discussed the comparative merits of nailing or gluing the doojabs to the house.

When my friend, Mr. C. Reo Piffle, expects a client at his office, he makes important preparations. He has his beard trimmed to the most exquisite perfection, and, if the commission promises to be an important one, he has his face massaged. He has his nails manicured and his large seal ring cleaned in alcohol. Then he has the three sample bricks on his table washed and wiped, and is ready for the client. The client is kept waiting exactly the right length of time in the anteroom. Mr. C. Reo Piffle has, in the years he has been in the profession, managed to ascertain exactly the time a client should be allowed to study the plaster casts in the anteroom before being admitted to the August Presence of the beard and the bricks. At the psychological moment the door of the anteroom opens and the boy -- or the page, if the boy of the hour happens to be of a size to fit the blue suit with the brass buttons -- opens the door, and says, in a low, mysterious tone:

"Mr. Piffle will see you now, if you please."

Mr. Piffle, when the door opens, is always seated in his swinging armchair, and he makes it an inevitable rule to be swinging away from the desk when the client catches the first glimpse of him. This is extremely effective, particularly as Mr. Piffle makes it a point to exhibit careworn brow, wrinkled crossways, suggesting the awful wear and tear of the mighty problems of architecture with which he is forever grappling.

"Mr. Client," says the office boy softly, and retires backward, closing the door of the sanctuary with a gentleness commensurate with the vast learning of his employer. For Mr. Piffle is a man of temperament. He tells you so. And you know it by his beard and the color if his tie, anyway.

"Oh! Mr. Client," he says sadly, for he makes it a point to show that each new commission is but a new burden, accepted merely because this location appeals to his artistic soul, or this client is one that will appreciate good architecture. "I have just been looking over some plans that should interest you. A little thing I did for Henry C. Bigwallet, his country place at Dampmere."

For years no new client has entered C. Reo Piffle's office without having the Bigwallet country place plans shown him.

"It was a very successful bit," says Mr. Piffle modestly.

At any rate the plans are very successful pictures. On the wall is a painting -- watercolor -- by X----, with dozens of bay trees in green tubs, and long rows of box hedge, and enormous white clouds in a blue sky behind the red roof, showing the Bigwallet country place in all its majesty. X---- is the recognized master of this sort of thing, and is particularly strong on blue sky and white clouds. On the other wall is a painting -- watercolor -- by Z----. It is what might be called "The Bigwallet Country Place in a Fog," It is all in gray, with the roof in dull red-gray, and the foliage -- purely imaginary -- in green-gray, and the sky in blue-gray, and a yellow gray moon -- or sun, for no one can ever tell whether Z----'s things are to represent moonlight -- or sunlight. On the third wall are six photographs of the Bigwallet country place, each 20x30. Mr. Client is impressed. Anyone would be. Mr. Piffle softly murmurs the cost of the Bigwallet Country Place. It may be $80,000,000 or $8,000,000 or $800,000 -- one means as much as the other to Mr. Client, who has come regarding a $7,000 cottage. He is overpowered. He feels he is imposing on a good-natured man in bringing his petty job to him, much as if he had dared venture into the private office of J. P. Morgan to ask to have a ten-dollar bill changed into ones.

"And now," says my friend. C. Reo Piffle, "let us get at this little affair of yours. Have you an engineer's plan of your property?"

Mr. Client has not. A shade of disappointment crosses Mr. Piffle's face.

"Oh, well." he says regretfully, "perhaps you can make a rough sketch of it. Before I see the property with my own eyes I can do little, but --." He waves his hand.

Mr. Client draws on the back of an envelope, the Plan. It is a rectangle, and he explains that he has sixty feet front, with one hundred and twenty feet depth. There is a Tree on the property about the size of a walking cane, and with a spread of limb about the size of a parasol. Mr. Piffle gravely writes this on his pad. There is also an Eminence on the property -- a bump the size of a washtub. Mr. Piffle insists on getting this located exactly. He almost weeps to think that Mr. Client has not brought an engineer's plan showing the Eminence, with a profile drawing of it. When he recovers from the shock that this oversight has caused his temperament, he carefully draws a compass in the corner of the back of the envelope, and leans back with his thin artistic fingers against his brow, and studies the envelope. From time to time he caresses his beard with his fingers, thoughtfully. He allows his eyes to wander dreamily over the wall; they rest a moment on the blue sky and fleecy clouds of the X---- drawing of the Bigwallet place. Suddenly be leans forward and pounces upon the envelope. With the swift deftness of long experience -- and that is what Mr. Client is paying for, isn't it? -- he draws a ground plan about the size of a postage stamp immediately over the Eminence, but set askew, so as not to bump the Tree.

"There!" he says triumphantly. "There, you see, Mr. Client? I give you the advantage of a southern exposure by putting your front door at the back of the house. I place your house on the Eminence, thus taking every advantage of the natural beauties of your estate. This brings the kitchen opposite the front gate, but it is screened by the Tree. Here we will have a box hedge -- ten-year-old plants set out now will be fifty years old in only forty years. Here will be two bay trees in green butter tubs, a la Firenzi" (and also, though be does not say so, a la cheap Parisian cafe). "Here will be a sunken garden, six feet by four feet, with a pergola two feet wide, twelve feet high and eight feet long, leading to the English Formal Garden, seven feet by three. The walks will wind in and out, thus taking the longest possible means to get anywhere, or nowhere, and adding to the cost of your place. Of course, you wish a Colonial dwelling."

Mr. Client says "Ah -- ah --" doubtfully. In fact, he does not want a Colonial dwelling.

"Ah -- my wife," he says meekly, keeping his eyes from the water-colors of the Bigwallet place for very shame, "my wife thought perhaps we could have a --"

"Really, Mr. Client," says my friend Piffle, with an air of meaning that this is indeed too much. "Really, you know!"

"Well, of course," says Mr. Client shamefacedly.

"Ah!" says my friend Piffle. "I thought so. For you can see with that Tree and that Eminence, a Colonial mansion is the only thing possible. I am glad you see it that way, sir. For if you did not, I should have to give up the commission, much as I would regret to do so. My artistic sense --"

"My wife," murmurs Mr. Client meekly, "said something about wanting the front door in the front of the house --"

"Tut! Tut!" says C. Reo, lightly.

"When she sees the plans I shall prepare -- Why, all my plans for Colonial houses have the front doors in the back! All of them! Since I introduced the front-door-in-the-back all the architects of any standing have been forced to acknowledge that I am right; that I have caught the true Colonial spirit." (Here he leans forward, confidentially, and recites page seventy-four from Wallin Bagger's "Colonial Homes, From Patagonia to Patapsco," touching Mr. Client on the arm, knee, tie, and chest, probably as a preliminary to touching him in his purse a little later.) "Yes, indeed. Front doors at the back of the house! Always! You remember the Van Hancock house on Long Spit, Cape Cod County. Virginia? Front door actually so far back they put it on the rear side of the barn, If you want a Colonial mansion you must have the front door in the rear; take my word for it."

"But my wife --"

"Now, my dear Mr. Client; we all know wives. You can imagine what the architecture of America would come to if we allowed wives to dictate. Why, all the front doors would be in front! Do you suppose I studied six months in Paris and traveled three weeks in Italy, and do not know all about Colonial architecture? My dear, dear sir! Front doors in the back, sir! Don't you know that Brabb & Gubb go even further? You know Brabb & Gubb, of course. They specialize in Colonial mansions, and do nothing under $400,000. Well, sir, when I began putting front doors in the sides of my houses, they began to take notice. They saw I had grasped the true uncomfortable Colonial spirit. Mr. Brabb told me himself he never saw anything so thoroughly uncomfortable as my idea of putting the bathtub in the cellar and towel rack in the attic. Then I began putting my front doors in the back, and I may say it created a sensation. Mr. Brabb asked me if I meant to chase the front door clear around the house. Of course I did not think anything of this at the time, for fellows like Brabb & Gubb are always picking up my ideas. And the next Colonial mansion Brabb & Gubb designed actually had the front door on the left side! The left side. Mr. Client! How is that for a firm that calls itself conservative? They took my idea and went me one better, sir! I began with the front door in front -- that was the old idea -- and then I moved the front door to the right side of the house. I saw I was on the proper track, and I moved the front door another notch around, and put it in the back of the house. And then Brabb & Gubb -- the conservative Brabb & Gubb -- went me one better and moved the front door another notch around -- clear around to the left side of the house! I said then, and I say now -- it was too radical. But what happened next? Brabb & Gubb cast all their conservative notions to the winds and moved the front door another notch, clean around to the front again. That's too extreme for me! I believe in being progressive, but not in bring recklessly so. Half way around the house is far enough to move the front door. I moved my front doors half way and I'll let them stay there. And Brabb & Gubb design nothing under $400,000 mansions. Just tell that to Mrs. Client!"

"Well," said Mr. Client, doubtfully, "possibly Mrs. Client will stand for a back front door if she can have fourteen closets.

"Certainly," said Mr. Piffle, writing it on his pad.

"And she wants a living room 30 by 40; a dining room 30x40; a parlor 30x40; a butler's pantry 30x40; a hallway 30x40; a reception room 30x40 and a kitchen 30x40, all on the ground floor," said Mr. Client.

"Nothing easier." said Mr. Piffle, writing the figures on his pad. "30x40. Feet or inches, Mr. Client?"

"Feet." said Mr. Client.

"Exactly," said my friend Piffle. "And the second floor?"

"Ten bedrooms, each 30x40," said Mr. Client.

"Feet or inches?" asked Mr. Piffle.

"Feet," replied Mr. Client.

"Just so," agreed Mr. Piffle, making a note of the figures. "And the third floor?"

"Two maids' rooms. 30x40; a store room 30x40, and a billiard room."

"The billiard room 30x40, I presume?" inquired Mr. Piffle.

"No, 40x30," said Mr. Client, consulting a card in his pocket.

"Feet or inches?" asked Mr. Piffle.

"Feet," said Mr. Client.

"Other specifications?" asked Mr. Piffle.

"We want an overhang, a veranda extending along five sides of the house, a bathroom adjoining each room except the butler's pantry, front and rear stairs, half-timbered chimneys, open fires in all rooms, hardwood trim throughout, hardwood floors, mahogany doors, plate glass windows, open plumbing, clear stock, burglar proof window locks, rough cast walls, oak wainscots, bay windows exclusively, cemented cellar, hot water heating, electric wiring and gas pipes, emerald studded door knobs, solid gold hinges on all doors, platinum window weights, diamond push buttons --"

"One minute." said Mr. Piffle. "'Diamond push buttons,' I have that. Go on."

"Window and veranda screens of drawn eighteen-carat gold throughout," continued Mr. Client, "stair rail of cast bronze, lighting fixtures of cut steel set with oriental pearls, bathroom lined with ancient blue Persian tiles, each bathtub solid marble, a renaissance portico over the front back door --"

"Stop!" said Mr. Piffle, sternly. "Stop!"

"Excuse me," said Mr. Client, "have I --"

"Mr. Client." he says with sorrow in his voice, "in a $7,000 Colonial cottage all the slight details you have mentioned can be included, and I will gladly include them, but when you enter the realm of the architect's own work I must insist on the canons of good architecture being observed. A renaissance portico on a $7,000 Colonial cottage! Oh, Mr. Client!"

"I -- I'm sure I beg your pardon," says Mr. Client, contritely. "I did not intend giving you pain."

"A renaissance portico!" repeats Mr. Piffle sadly. "On one of my Colonial dreams! Ah! We architects are so little understood! Ah! The public is so ignorant! Ah!"

"Of course," says Mr. Client, apologetically, "if it isn't the right thing --"

"Mr. Client," says Mr. Piffle solemnly, "there are men in my profession, I regret to say, who would put a renaissance portico on a $7,000 Colonial house, in utter disregard of all the Canons of Art, but I pride myself on a strict regard for the Canons of Art. Never, sir, while I am sane enough to know a Canon of Art from a Squash Pie will I put a renaissance portico on a $7,000 Colonial cottage. On all my Colonial houses -- on all of them, Mr. Client -- I put Gothic porticos."

That is my friend C. Reo Piffle to a dot. Perhaps you know him. When Mr. and Mrs. Client drop in to examine the first plans they are surprised to find none of the details as they had been given by Mr. Client on his first visit. The hardwood finish throughout is replaced by low grade spruce; there is one very small bathroom, the largest room in the house is ten by fifteen; there is a cubby hole instead of a third floor, and the second floor is a half story. But the front door is in the rear elevation plan, and the Gothic Portico is there -- exactly as it appears in that useful book "1,000 Houses, $400 to $10,000," which is for sale at Brentano's for 25 cents.

My other friend, Seery O'Piffle, is a much better man to have a high ball with. He is a red faced, loud talking fellow, and the Lord only knows what he would have been forced to do for a living if the bungalow craze had not come in just as he was getting on his uppers. It was bread and meat -- and whiskey -- for O'Piffle. Between you and me be could not design a $200 garage without making an error that would make the village carpenter weep, but he is right at home in bungalows. His strong point is talking them, and he can reel -- he often reels -- can reel off information about East Indian bungalows. Ceylonese bungalows, Siamese bungalows. and All-other-ese bungalows by the hour, and then plan you a bungalow of pine slabs that a dog would scorn to live in. He has acquired a great reputation merely by making his bungalows as unliveable as anything could be on this earth, and that is what people want in bungalows, "something simple and unconventional," as O'Piffle calls it, with the toilet in one corner of the kitchen, and the bedrooms separated from the dining room by four-foot partitions. I believe O'Piffle designs his bungalows with a set of wooden blocks, which he shoves together haphazard on his desk. "Long and low" is his motto, and over his desk he has a placard reading "What's the Use of Living if You Can't Be Uncomfortable?"

Like all the Serio-Piffle School he takes himself very seriously and talks like a cross between "The First Guide to Architecture, Ancient and Modern," and an essay on "Nature and Culture," by Hamilton Mabie. He talks pylons and pediments, egg-and-dart and acanthus, while showing his client a plan that looks like an abortive dry goods box with a dustpan inverted on top of it.

But this is the serio-piffle age, and we take all these serio-piffle prophets with a solemnity that must make the gods laugh. We gape over a serio-piffle Lowell and his serio-piffle canals of Mars, and over the serio-piffle reformers in our magazines, and it would be a shame if our architects were to have no share in the Great American Serio-Piffle Game.

Shuffle your cards, my brothers, and play your Greek trumps on your forty-seven-story skyscrapers, and you will take the trick. Look wise and talk wise, and borrow from the ancients and the near-ancients. Add six feet to the spire of that church borrowed from Lancaster and call it Original, and dab entablatures and cornices here and there and call it Art. What do I care? I am one of you even as I sit here and give you a serio-piffling lecture on architecture, and pretend to be a wise old owl on a subject of which I know nothing at all.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:13:00am USA Central
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