I swoon for Mr. Bates, I swoon for Lady Mary’s drop waist gowns, and I swoon for the house itself, Downton Abbey. The show is filmed at Highclere Castle, the real-life home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, a young couple who look alarmingly non-royal. The current structure was built between 1838 to 1878 on an historic site that has been continuously occupied since the 800’s. Like Downton, Highclere served as a hospital during WWI and, in the happier times before and after, as a venue for highly glamorous parties. The house has neo-Gothic facades with a storm of crockets and finials disguising its hearty stone walls. But its interiors, cavernous halls furnished with dark orientals and spindly tables and chairs, embody a restrained, anglophilic glamor.
An American equivalent might be the Henry Clay Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York, which houses the Frick Collection. This grand limestone house and its gardens fill and entire block above East 70th Street, yet still feel intimate, like a family’s home. The rooms are finely scaled and spin off a skylit courtyard that’s a bit like Downton’s entry hall, although much smaller. Just the room names themselves — Garden Court, West Gallery, Oval Room — conjure a finer life. On a weekend afternoon the museum is filled with visitors plugged into their audio guides, focused so hard on the docent’s recorded voice that they’re inattentive to the stupendous artwork in front of them, including several iconic Vermeers and Rembrandts. As I made my way through the galleries, rediscovering a Whistler here and an El Greco there, I felt an incredible sense of ease. It could imagine that this place was still a house, and that it was entirely open to me.