The extraordinary house that Robert Morris left unfinished when he was taken to debtors’ prison in 1798 is at the center of one of the earliest and most significant stories of architectural failure in the United States. This unusual topic makes Ryan K. Smith's Robert Morris's Folly a surprising examination, but a welcome one, not only for its attention to the building's economic and architectural failings but also for its demonstration of broader social and political friction in the new country.

Little known beyond an occasional mention in architectural histories that typically refer to its French baroque style's being out of step with the rising vogue for the...

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