Two photographers capture spirit of 18 old houses in a book

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November 24, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

Nearly every month in the major shelter magazines you can see the elements of ruin -- peeling paint, rusted metals, mildewed walls. Decay is fashionable these days (and who knows what this says about the future or the collective consciousness?).

Now there's an extraordinary book that goes back to the source: "Old Houses" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; hardcover, $50), by photographers Steve Gross and Susan Daley, with text by Henry Wieneck.

In more than 250 full-color photographs, the authors show the fading glory of 18 old mansions, summer houses, plantations and hotels.

The project began when Mr. Gross and Ms. Daley, who have a photography studio in Manhattan and live in both Manhattan and upstate New York, walked into a rundown mansion, the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, S.C.

It was, they recall in the book, "like stepping into a time warp. We felt as though suddenly we were getting a real glimpse of the past."

The authors admit to a childhood fascination with exploring abandoned places and the book itself has that sort of appeal. Looking through the book makes you feel slightly clandestine, as if you'd crept into an enchanted world through an unlocked back door.

And each house has a story -- of family fortunes rising and falling, of wars and plagues, of changing uses, of impending restoration attempts -- provided by Mr. Wieneck. One house, Oakland in Louisiana, was saved from destruction after the Civil War when former slaves at the plantation pleaded with Union troops not to burn it. Another, Woodlands in northeastern Georgia, was a summer house built to be a refuge from an epidemic of yellow fever.

These houses, Mr. Gross and Ms. Daley tell us, "possess a beauty and truthfulness more real and valuable than any replica could ever be."

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