Off the Shelf: Richard Guy Wilson

Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History, "Harbor Hill: Portrait of a House." W.W. Norton & Co.

A "palace" ruled by a "queen," Harbor Hill in Roslyn, Long Island, was commissioned by the beautiful and imperious Katherine Duer Mackay, wife of financier Clarence Mackay, one of the country's wealthiest men during the Gilded Era at the turn of the 20th century. The mansion, along with its magnificent furnishings, art, gardens and the owners' striving, hubris and ultimate failure are the dramatis personae of this saga. The architect of the place, Stanford White, who also designed Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, wrote, "with the exception of Biltmore, I do not think there will be an estate equal to it in the country." An extravagant product of the desire for social acceptance, the portrait encompasses Western mining and old versus new wealth, religious differences and the building of a church, art collecting, and the many people, from the architects, builders and workers to the servants and staff who ran the house and gardens. Harbor Hill's story includes elements of farce and tragedy; in a sense it is an American portrait.