chapter  17
22 Pages

Imposing landscapes of private power and wealth

ALTHOUGH ALEXIS de Toqueville was struck by lithe general equality of condition among the people" of 19th-century America, the national landscape, from the graceful Georgian houses of its colonial era to the luxury condominiums of the present day, owes significant portions of its character and diversity to a numerically small but powerful upper class. These landscapes of private power and wealth represent the imprint of perhaps only one-half of 1 percent of the national population, and yet their mark is pervasive, spanning every region of the country, and encompassing urban, suburban, and rural settings.l

The special role played by the nation's affluent class in shaping the American scene often has a complex expression on the 21st-century landscape. Wealthy tastes have changed through time and the result is an accumulation of features that reflect the varied preferences for house styles, neighborhood settings, and resort playgrounds enjoyed by successive generations from 1700 to the present. Further complicating the picture is the fact that these landscapes are often partially obscured or profoundly transformed in their contemporary settings. Today, old mansions are converted and rural estates are subdivided to make way for suburban housing, upscale resort complexes, and new shopping centers (Fig. 17.1). In addition, there is a regional unevenness in the geography of such landscapes and an uneven distribution of affluence across the nation. Portions of the Virginia countryside, New York State's

381 Hudson Valley, old Newport, or the smart suburbs of Hillsborough

(San Francisco), Grosse Pointe (Detroit), or Dunwoody (Atlanta), literally reek of America's better sort, while in other settings, their signature is absent, forgotten, or substantially altered by subsequent changes to the landscape.