One design problem that the American architect has never satisfactorily resolved is that of the great house. In comparison, the invention of the skyscraper was child’s play. We lack the settled pattern of life that produced the English country house or the Italian villa, those fully rounded building types, whose rooms and amenities ripened over centuries and which express a distinct economic and social order. Here the tendency is either to inflate middle-class forms into the gargantuan, as Elvis did at Graceland, or to contrive self-indulgent fantasies, as Michael Jackson did at his Neverland Ranch.

The antebellum world did not know the problem. Most fortunes were created by making or selling something (one thinks of John Jacob Astor’s fur-trapping empire) and grew incrementally. But after the Civil War, a new national railroad system opened another path to wealth. Through collusion and preferential fee schedules, one company...

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