By Noah Salt
“Terrace” noun derived from Middle
French, 1505–15, meaning “platform.”
1. A flat area made of stone or grass next to a building where people can sit.
2. An open architectural platform, sometimes walled, projecting from the side of a structure, apartment or building.
For many of us, there is no place like a terrace for having good views and dreamy thoughts. In the middle 1820s, Lady Julia Gordon thought so much of her classical terrace at her coastal villa on the Isle of Wight, she made sketches of the beguiling view of the coast and sent them to her art teacher, who happened to be one J.M.W. Turner, the leading English Romanticist and arguably England’s most famous landscape artist. Turner’s subsequent painting, View from the Terrace of a Villa at Niton Isle of Wight from Sketches by a Lady, made its debut at the Royal Academy in 1826, and is believed to have simultaneously set off a public demand for similar terraces and a passion for Italian gardening.
Thousands of years before terraces served a highly useful social function to English and French aristocrats, ancient farmers from Asia to the Andes developed terraces for agricultural use on steep hillsides — making the most of shallow soil and enabling better irrigation of crops. The mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon were said to be built on an artificial mountain created by a series of graduated terraces, and Julius Caesar’s father-in-law was believed to have designed special terraces to provide a pleasant view of the Bay of Naples from the family estate, Villa of the Papyri (which had the unfortunate location of Herculaneum, beneath Mount Vesuvius). As a word whose root derives from Latin “terra,” for earth, terraces soon became all the rage among the Roman patrician classes, something no decent villa owner could possibly be without.
In America, great family homes such as Asheville’s Biltmore House often feature bespoke architectural terraces that soften their classic edges and encourage everyone to step out and admire the view. The modern “patio,” in fact, is little more than a radically scaled-back version of the full-blooded architectural terrace that wooed J.M.W. Turner.
Whatever else may be true, terraces hold a unique place in our homemaking hearts, a way of inviting nature into our busy lives. As a result, sunsets go well with terraces. So do sunrises. Ditto wedding proposals and anniversary toasts, or dances in the moonlight. Simple napping on a spring afternoon also rates high on the scale of popular terrace doings.
For years this writer had a delightful stone terrace behind an old, historic house he and his bride rented for a time. It was shaded by a pair of well-behaved Savannah holly trees that provided not only sweet refuge (and a superb napping place) from the summer sun, but also just about the most exquisite place ever for stargazing on a clear night.
For the record, my dog liked it, too. We both miss that terrace.