I remember going for a ride with an artistic friend in the English countryside and then, driving around a bend in the road, he said ‘look at that wonderful folly' - I had NO earthly idea what he was talking about; what I saw was a piece of a ruined castle. So he proceeded to enlighten me about the amazing, whimsical buildings known as ‘follies'.
Imagine building a building just for fun, for no other reason than that it would look good, enhance the view, or remind the observer of a favorite place such as Italy or the Orient. I have seen it described thus: ‘If a building makes you stop, and scratch your head, and ask yourself "Why?", then there is a good chance that it is a folly.' They are at times curious, bizarre, unusual, idiosyncratic, eccentric, outrageous or simply odd. They can be buildings that may at some point have served a purpose - and are often left as ruins, or part of buildings. Often they are originally built as memorials (pictured is ‘Alfred's Tower' commemorating Alfred the Great).
It can be a structure that emanated from an obsession with a certain style, such as the great ‘Pineapple' in Dunmore in Scotland (pictured at top), which was built in the late 18th century when the obsession with things exotic was in its heyday in the British Isles. Sometimes it is simply a building of very questionable taste that remains for its sheer whimsy - or as a tourist attraction.
The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 led to the building of several follies. The concept of a welfare state was still many years in the future, and at that time reward without labour, even to those in need, was seen as misguided. However, to hire the needy for work on useful projects would deprive existing workers of their jobs. Thus, construction projects termed "famine follies" came to be built. These include: roads in the middle of nowhere, between two seemingly random points; screen and estate walls; piers in the middle of bogs; etc.
Sometimes a folly is a very cleverly disguised building with a purpose, such as the famous ‘House in the Clouds' on the Suffolk coast of England. A novel invention from American, a ‘water tank' (until then water pressure was generally obtained by a mill or a pump) was built in the 1920's in the tourist village of Thorpeness, but naturally one wouldn't want an ugly tank disfiguring the much-admired view. So the water tank was disguised as an everyday clapboarded house with pitched roof, chimneys and sham windows, perched incongruously on top of a sixty foot tower. A real house known as ‘The Gazebo' was built underneath it, and of course many people wondered who would want to live in a house with all that water rushing up and down. However, it has never lacked for tenants. A writer of children's poems, Mrs. Malcolm Mason loved it and one of her poems, inspired by her house, was called "The House in the Clouds" which has since given the folly its name. It is now available for rent as a vacation home!
Another folly is this service station in the shape of a teapot in Zillah, Washington, built in the 1920's as a roadside attraction.
In modern times many buildings in Las Vegas, made to resemble other buildings such as the pyramids, can be considered follies, as well as almost every building in Disneyworld!
Probably a good contender for the ‘building in poorest taste' award is ‘The world's largest ketchup bottle', a water tower in Colinsville, Illinois.
All pictures of follies in the UK are courtesy of British Heritage.
The Ketchup bottle and Tea Kettle are from Wikipedia.
For more on Follies, read ‘FOLLIES, GROTTOES AND GARDEN BUILDINGS' by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp (ISBN 1-85410-625-2)
Discussion about this article: