The Big House at Malabar Farm: in Time, History, Concept and Design

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.

The Big House under construction 1940.  

The Concept

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.

The Fourth Street house of Bromfield’s maternal Grandfather grew through generations of family expansion, and was the subject of his 1933 novel, The Farm.

What Bromfield wanted in 1939 was a more idealized and perfected version of his Grandfather’s farmhouse he had left behind in 1914.

The Collaborator

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.

Greek Revival architecture in America can be traced back to actual Greek and Roman temples.  Through decades of gradual refinement, the triangular pediment became recognizable only by the corner eaves, and the pillars suggested only by smooth corner pilasters. 

Two separate eras of American Greek Revival details can be seen in the eaves of the Big House: the full triangular pediment (left) and the corner overhang from later decades of the 1800s (right).

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.

As a young architect Louis Lamoreaux had taken part in the Historic American Buildings Survey of the 1930s that documented details of classic homes.  These photos, plans and architectural renderings are all catalogued in the Library of Congress and online today.  Much of the intricate detail of moldings, cornices, etc. of the Big House can be traced directly to these drawings.

The design of dormers in the Big House (seen below) were gleaned from the historic Inn at Zoar Village built in 1833. (Library of Congress)

During construction of the Big House Bromfield was often away in New York or Hollywood so he requested photos of the progress.  Much of the documentation we have today is in the form of snapshots taken by Lamoreaux to assure his boss of progress so he would pay the bills.

The familiar sunburst fanlight over the entrance of the Big House was copied and adapted from a Greek Revival detail found in Twinsburg.

Quite a few interior details of the Big House are traced back to the Peter Allen house in Kinsman OH.  Photographed in 1933, this structure is still in use today as an Inn and Event center. (Library of Congress)

Specific trim details in use on the Big House simply did not exist for sale in 1939, and had to be specially milled by an artist in Lucas.

Because the Big House was intended to appear as if it had been built progressively over the span of many decades, various details were devised to demonstrate discontinuity of design and construction.  One of these tricks is clearly visible on the rear walls of the house: three different wings of the building have three different kinds of siding.  
The foreground shows vertical smooth siding typical of the 1850s; the middle wall shows smooth horizontal siding from the earliest stage of Greek Revival; and the farthest wall displays a horizontal overlapping clapboard finish that became standard later in the 19th century.

In recent generations the Big House has been painted white over its entirety, but in its original state when the Bromfields were in residence, the walls were painted a soft warm gray that set off the white trim and details.  This photo from 1948 gives a sense of what it looked like then.

In Situ

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.

This image from 1940 is the only known photo that captured both Louis Lamoreaux (1895-1975) (left) and Louis Bromfield (1896-1956).

Post Script:

When we toured the Big House at Malabar Farm as kids, there was one thing I always looked forward to being able to point out to people in Bromfield’s bathroom that struck me as the greatest evidence of his genius for living, and for entertaining celebrities from all tiers of society. After the State took over the Farm this little jewel disappeared.

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