Louis Bromfield had a lot of creative energy flowing in a lot of different directions.
The internationally-acclaimed author from Richland County was prodigiously successful in the worlds of American literature, agriculture, film entertainment and politics; and his celebrity spanned coast to coast in the 1930s and 40s as his opinions were voiced weekly on the radio and in newspaper columns.
But he would be the first to tell you: fame is fleeting.
In the decades of the 20th century after his voice fell silent, all of those media artifacts that carried his name—the novels, the movies, the agriculture books—for the most part faded from popular culture, as they lost relevance in the onrush of ever new trends.
There is one of his works however, that retains as much relevance today as it did in 1939 when it was conceived. Perhaps his most brilliant creative accomplishment, it wasn’t any of the books or movies.
It was his home: the Big House at Malabar Farm.
When it was built in 1939 it already looked a hundred years old; today it is simply timeless.
When Bromfield came back to the US after his expatriate years in France, he determined to reestablish his roots in Richland County.
This sense of re-connecting to the deep roots of his family had a certain poetry for him, because he intended, as well, to resume his career as a farmer that had been shelved when he went off to be a writer.
It was important to him that this poetic sense of roots be expressed in every way possible: not only in his fiction and nonfiction, but also in the house in which his family was to live.
He wanted the very structure of the house to reflect the history of his family evolving in Richland County close to the land.
He had a clear model for this concept: it was his Grandfather’s house. He had written about the house very compellingly in his 1933 novel, The Farm.
In his novel the big family homestead was seeded as a small log cabin in the wilderness; and then grew as the pioneer’s farm prospered and his family expanded. Through the decades, and through successive generations, as his children married and had children of their own, the house expanded to accommodate all the new life with new rooms and new additions under one roof.
Bromfield wrote it this way because that is exactly the way his Grandfather’s house had taken shape: section by section, gable by gable through the 19th century.
What Bromfield wanted in 1939 was a more idealized and perfected version of his Grandfather’s farmhouse he had left behind in 1914.
Bromfield conceived the storybook version of his home, and he needed to have the idea tempered with architectural validity.
So he went to a Mansfield architect whose background included extensive research into the native styles of Ohio architectural design.
The architect was Louis Lamoreaux.
As a collaborator in the process of creating the Big House, Lamoreaux brought to the table a practical and historically accurate expertise that, combined with Bromfield’s idealistic enthusiasm, sparked a synchronicity of possibility that was nothing short of genius.
Reviving Greek Revival
In imagining the generational evolution of Bromfield’s new ancestral home it was necessary to incorporate the architectural styles that predominated in Richland County in the 1800s. Bromfield wrote it “was to be a kind of apotheosis of Ohio architecture.”
The primary component of this architectural history is the Greek Revival style, which influenced the design of American buildings from roughly the 1820s to the 1870s. Details of Greek Revival transformed through those decades, and the Big House clearly reflects aspects of that development.
Attention to Detail
One of the most brilliant accomplishments of the Big House is the way in which its thematic integrity is carried through to the smallest details.
Lamoreaux drove all over Ohio to study houses that were built during different representative decades, and he left us an accounting that documents the authenticity of each little piece.
It took a year and a half to build the Big House from sketch to housewarming.
Louis Bromfield only got to live in it for 16 years before his life ended.
In his book Pleasant Valley, Bromfield wrote, “If it is still standing a couple of hundred years hence, architects and connoisseurs will believe, I think, that the house was built not in 1939 but at least a hundred years earlier.”
Because it stands as an accurate expression our native cultural heritage and history, the Big House will never seem dated, and will remain relevant no matter how America changes.