American Arcadia: California and the Classical Tradition by Peter J. Holliday
Peter Holliday, a native of California and professor of the History of Art and Classical Archaeology at California State University at Long Beach, has written a fascinating study—dare I say a love letter—showing the ways in which classicism has influenced the visual arts, culture, and built environment of his home state. Trained to use his eyes (he earned his doctorate at Columbia University with a 1983 dissertation entitled The Origins of Roman Historical Relief Sculpture), he stands on the intellectual shoulders of, and the many books about California's history written by, Kevin Starr (1940–2017), professor at the University of Southern California.
According to Holliday, "[s]ettlers in California drew especially on the Roman ideal of the citizen-farmer-soldier in fashioning their identities" (xxiii), but Greece and Rome were both importantly "paired as two sides of a single Greco-Roman coin, with Greek becoming the language of selfhood and Latin the language of Roman nationhood" (xxiii). It was a combination of "sensibilities forged by Eastern educations and Midwestern Progressivism" that shaped the "new culture of California" (xxv). After pointing to John C. Frémont, who named the mouth of San Francisco's Bay "Chrysopylae" (Golden Gate) and told Congress in 1847 that San Francisco had a "destiny" that "would be greater than Rome's" (xxiv), Holliday begins to assemble a rich array of material that takes the reader from the Mediterranean revival mansions built by Francis Townsend Underhill in Montecito (217–219) to the "atrium house," conceptualized by Wm. Stephen Allen and S. Robert Anshen (who had studied Latin in high school and later, as architects, the plans of Pompeii), but made popular by Joseph Eichler Homes (267–270); to William Randolph Hearst's castle, San Simeon (229–235), and Hilda Olsen Boldt Weber's Bel-Air house, "Casa Encantada," whose furnishings featured all manner of classical motifs created by the British designer and Hellenophile, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (249–254). Along the way the reader encounters Charles Erskine Scott Wood, author, lawyer and anarchist, "Zeus as a bohemian guru," who lived in Los Gatos, CA in a house named "The Cats" (228); and Hamid Omrani, an Iranian developer whose "complicated iconographic program," described as "a 23-story circular evocation of the palace at Persepolis" with "a glass-enclosed museum suspended over the flow of traffic" at Wiltshire and Santa Monica Boulevards by Doric columns representing the Seven Liberal Arts, has seen his project "repeatedly tabled" by the Beverly Hills planning commission (319–322). All of this demonstrates, of course, that Holliday indeed "has positive genius for linking even icons of modernity with the [End Page 225] classical past," as noted by Martin Rubin in his review of this book ("How Togas and Bikinis Meet in California," Washington Times, August 14th 2016).
But there are still more examples that Holliday has missed, such as the Courthouse Building in Santa Barbara, which I discovered has not only a translation from Varro, De agri cultura 3.1 in Spanish, "Dios nos dio los campos. El arte humana edificó ciudades," placed on a Roman style arch at the entrance of the building, but also a quote from Vergil, Aeneid 6.620, discite iustitiam moniti, above the door of the jail wing. An amusing contemporary account of the placement of this inscription, a veritable comedy of spelling and translation errors, exists. According to "The Casual Observer," The Lompoc Review (July 17th 1928) 2 col. 3:
Members of the Board of Supervisors in a moment of dignity conceived the thought of a Latin inscription over the new county jail, and the quotation Dis-cite Justitiam Moniti which means "let this be a lesson to you" was carved in letters an inch deep into the stone. The engraver, however, happened to be a poor speller and a "C" was carved where "T" should have been. To make the correction the spot had to be cemented over and new letters carved.
The book has been beautifully illustrated and well edited, but if there is to be a paperback edition some corrections should be made: on 439 "Lostusland" should read as "Lotus Land;" the name "Gayelord" on 325 is spelled "Gaylord" in the index on 436; the entry in the index for "Lummis, Charles Fletcher" on 439 is linked to 192, but his name actually appears in the text on 193. In addition, several important names are missing from the index, such as Conrad Hilton and George Boldt.
Professor Holliday's study will thoroughly enrich readers' understanding of California's past, but it will also force them to consider the state's present predicaments. California is now in many ways an "Arcadia lost," afflicted by 21st-century urban sprawl and the almost continuous environmental cycles of death-wielding drought, flooding, and wildfire.