Column: My pleasant interlude at the Dacha7:00 AM Thu, Mar 03, 2011 | Permalink
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Illustrations: Above, the Dacha at Rodney Mims Cook Jr.'s estate, Alexandra Park, in Atlanta; below, the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum; Peggy Mitchell with her first husband, Berrien "Red" Upshaw; Cook house; grand staircase; living room; geese at Alexandra Park; Prince's Monument folly; another folly; part of the Dacha; my cabin at Dacha; Paws
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After serving on the Shutze Awards jury last December in Atlanta, I visited the home of the creator of Tara. Margaret Mitchell lived in a Midtown apartment house that is now part of a museum dedicated to the author of Gone With the Wind.
Mitchell lived in the Crescent Apartments with her second husband, John Marsh, while she wrote her famous novel and worked as a columnist for The Atlanta Journal. In the museum I was startled to see a photo of Mitchell looking up at her tall first husband, bootlegger Berrien "Red" Upshaw. He was the spitting image of Rodney Mims Cook Jr., a celebrated Atlanta classicist and scion of a storied Georgia family. He had dined with the Shutze jury the evening before. According to a New Yorker profile in 1999 by its architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, Cook "aspires to be the kind of figure Philip Trammell Shutze was" -- a champion of beauty in the city of Atlanta.
After returning to Providence I wrote in my blog about Rod and Red in a post entitled "Separated at birth?" Cook replied that he would've treated Mitchell with more kindness than did the caddish Red, whom she divorced after discovering his occupation. Cook would rather be likened to Ashley Wilkes, the spurned lover of Scarlett O'Hara -- played in the movie by Leslie Howard opposite Vivien Leigh.
Cook invited me to be his guest if I planned to attend the Shutze ceremony on Feb. 12.
How could I resist? The guest house turned out to be one of four cabins in a renovated stables Cook calls the Dacha. It was built in the Boyar (aristocratic) vernacular style in 1890 by a Prague émigré who married into an Atlanta family. It sits on the city's largest private tract, 60 acres called Alexandra Park. Cook is an aficionado of Russian high culture, whose menfolk, as he puts it, "all adored British country life and tried to recreate it times 10."
"Times 10" does not exaggerate by much the vigor with which Cook has appropriated the accoutrements of a Russian aristocratic estate for his house and grounds. His wife, Emily, has turned the grounds into a nature preserve. One can easily imagine lucky chipmunks, deer and coyotes joining the fortunate geese and horses in their enjoyment of various items of classical architecture, known as follies, scattered about the rolling landscape. A couple of the most impressive were actually dedicated by members of the British royal family, who have been guests of the Cooks. Cook is not just a fan (as am I) but a friend of Prince Charles.
Just inside the front entrance of his mansion in the Russian Classical style is a spiral grand staircase supported by columns. Rooms full of antiques, heirlooms, sculptures, paintings and books in their voluptuous thousands are set in an interior embellished by classical ruffles and flourishes. We sat to discuss architecture before a fireplace with a mantel upheld by caryatids -- pillars in the shape of women. Ahh!
The day before, Cook had sat in the same chairs with the British painter Alexander Creswell, discussing how best to capture Cook's grandest achievement, the Millennium Gate, in a grand painting. Cook said they had puzzled over some problems of perspective, such as how to include at least one of the two statues by British sculptor Alexander Stoddart, which flank the monument's forecourt, without making the arch beyond them seem small.
The Gate was completed in 2009. It is the second of two classical monuments that Cook has been responsible for building in Atlanta. The first, built a decade or so earlier, is the World Athletes Monument. A gift from the Prince of Wales in honor of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it is now known as the Prince's Monument, and was embraced when Atlantans spontaneously gathered at its base to pray and leave flowers after the death of Princess Diana. A smaller version is one of the Cook estate's follies.
The digressions of this column force me to punt its main subjects, those two fine classical monuments, to next week. But that enables me to tell my tale of Paws, the Dacha's cat.
Cook introduced me to wee Paws before the Shutze Awards ceremony. When I returned to the Dacha that frigid evening, Paws was not to be found. I went to bed but kept hearing a soft meow. I opened the door again and again, but no Paws. Eventually the meowing stopped. I worried that Paws might have frozen to death, or been carried off by coyotes as Cook told me Paws's siblings were. Next day, Cook showed me the sights you'll read of next week. When I returned to the Dacha, there was Paws. So the tour had a very happy ending. It turns out that Paws has his own heated dacha in the ceiling above where I slept. O lucky cat!
David Brussat (email@example.com) is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.