Edward W. Bok's Suburban Philadelphia Estate Through Photographs
The library has acquired 19 magnificent black and white photographs of Edward W. Bok's estate in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania.
Edward W. Bok (1863-1930), born in the Netherlands as Eduard Willem Gerard Cesar Hidde Bok, was a publisher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his 1920 autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years Later. Through his publications, he is credited in some circles with popularizing the term living room for use as a descriptor of that domestic space instead of parlor or drawing room.
With his family, Bok moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was six years old. In his late teens, he began working at Henry Holt and Co., a publishing firm. Subsequently, he was associated with Charles Scribner's Sons, another publisher, rising to the position of advertising manager, and The Brooklyn Magazine, which he edited. He then started his own firm, Bok Syndicate Press.
In 1889, Bok moved to Philadelphia where he edited Ladies Home Journal, succeeding Louisa Knapp Curtis at the helm. Seven years later, he married her daughter, Mary L. Curtis (1876-1970), a philanthropist and founder of the Curtis Institute of Music.
As Bok's career stabilized, he and his wife decided to build a house in the Philadelphia suburbs. Bok wrote about their construction project in the May 1903 issue of Country Life in America. He opened his essay by stating, "We started by deciding not to hurry, but to take plenty of time in planning our house and in building and furnishing it. This decision proved most important." The Boks first found a plat of land in Merion, Pennsylvania, then set a limit on what they would spend on the house, hired an architect, reviewed and changed plans, and debated on what they would call their place. Bok wrote, "Next we named the house. I stood for 'Red House;' my wife for 'The Grange.' It is 'The Grange.'"
Architect Stanford White admired Bok's taste in design. White wrote, "I believe that Edward Bok has more completely influenced American domestic architecture for the better than any man in his generation." Theodore Roosevelt agreed: "[He] is the only man I ever heard of who changed, for the better, the architecture of an entire nation, and he did it so quickly and effectively that we didn't know it was begun before it was finished."
Architectural drawings of Bok's house reveal that its floorplans were relatively simple for the commodious house of a wealthy couple. Downstairs, there was an entrance hall, a living room, dining room, smoking room, and a kitchen. Around the kitchen were a pantry and a servant's dining room. Upstairs rooms included bedrooms, nursery rooms, and a playroom. There were eight full or partial bathrooms scattered about the house. Unfortunately, our 19 photographs include no images of these spaces.
Photographs of the outside of the house, as well as its grounds, reveal a showplace. The photographer focused his camera on estate plantings, near and far from the Bok's house, the house itself, the pergola, and a charming double swing.
Just as Mary Bok rejected her husband's suggestion that their house be named "Red House," the Boks—we assume together—eventually put aside "The Grange" in favor of calling their house "Swastika," in the early 20th century a positive symbol signifying good luck and long life. The name was suggested by Bok's friend English author Rudyard Kipling, who even sent the Boks the symbol as a functional architectural ornament. Kipling wrote: "By this time should have reached you a Swastika door knocker, which I hope may fit in with the new house and the new name. It was made by a village-smith; and you will see that it has my initials, to which I hope you will add yours, that the story may be complete." However, after the Nazi's adopted the symbol, the Boks eliminated it from their estate.
We are most grateful to the H. W. Wilson Foundation for generously funding the purchase of the photographs of Edward W. Bok's estate.