University of Rochester Library Bulletin: A House Plan of 1854

Volume VIII · Autumn 1952 · Number 1
A House Plan of 1854

Recent studies have disclosed the significance of a manuscript in the architectural collections of the Art Library. The manuscript is a set of printed specifications, together with plans, elevations, and sections, of a house designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, one of America's leading architects a century ago. The manuscript was given to the library by Miss Elizabeth G. Holahan of Rochester. Miss Holahan is well known for her studies of early American architecture and interior decoration and has taken a lively interest in architectural studies at the University of Rochester. The Davis manuscript is a particularly important gift because there are so few examples of such documents still in existence.

The manuscript consists of eleven sheets of a printed "Specification of the materials and works required for building a dwelling house in Jamaica, Long Island, N.Y. for J. G. Lamberson according to the accompanying drawings, and the conditions subjoined. [Signed] Alex'r J. Davis, Arc't." Nine sheets of plans, elevations, and sections follow. The sheets are pasted to short stubs of blue construction paper, and the whole is bound in boards with red leather trim. The resulting booklet measures ten by thirteen inches. The use of printed instructions and the method of binding indicate that this form may have been common at the time, although the scarcity of similar documents makes this difficult to determine. The final contract is lacking. Another page may be missing as on the first printed page ten drawings are listed, of which only nine appear. The tenth drawing is listed as "Common Windows."

The printed sheets give directions to the various workmen and there are spaces left where the architect could write in details of materials and dimensions. The contractors were the excavator, mason, plasterer, carpenter, plumber, glazier, painter, and bell hanger. The instructions give a clear picture of materials and means of construction at that time, although the instructions are not nearly as detailed as those in specifications today. There are various changes and additions pencilled in the margins, which may have been written during the course of construction. This is also true of the drawings. The plans are colored to represent the portions to be built in stone, brick, or wood. Apparently there was just one set of drawings, whereas today drawings must be blueprinted to provide several sets. Davis was a highly-skilled draftsman, as is evident from the front elevation for the Lamberson house, although the finest of his drawings are the presentation drawings or renderings for exhibition. The specification in the Art Library is not dated, but the style of the house is that characteristic of Davis's work between 1835 and 1840. However, passages in the diary and letters of Davis in the Metropolitan Museum and in the New York Public Library tell us that the plans were drawn in 1854 and the house begun in 1856. Davis modified a design used earlier for the Brown house in Rahway, New Jersey, either by his own wish or at the request of his client. The house stood on Alsop Street; it may still be there but it has not been identified.

In the 1830's as the demand increased for a more individual and "American" type of design, Davis had produced works in the "Tuscan" style, a rather free adaptation of the Italian villa. In the New-York Historical Society collections there is an exhibition drawing, done in 1835, of a house in the "Etruscan or American style." Here we have a curious mixture of the Greek temple and the Italian villa. The strict temple-like shape and arrangement of the house, so dear to the Greek Revival architect, have given way to an irregular plan and distribution of masses. The low slope of the roof ends in a very wide and shallow cornice, supported on simple brackets. To these elements drawn from the Italian villa are added classical pilasters, balustrades, and panels, illustrating the individuality of Davis, who was seeking a more original and spontaneous application of the prescribed forms.

The Lamberson house consisted of a basement, two full stories, a third story in the central portion, and a tower with a tower room. The plan was irregular in shape. There was a main central portion including the chimneys. Wings two stories high projected on either side, and the east wing was set more toward the rear of the house to make room for the tower on the east side at the front. There was a one-story porch across the front of the tower and central portion, which extended back to the west wing. This well illustrates the "Tuscan" plan. The romantic, Italianate elements of the asymmetrically projecting tower and the wide bracketed cornices were also present. Here again the decorative details were classical in pilasters and balustrades. Longitudinal and transverse sections in the specifications also show a classical treatment of the fireplaces. The great two-story window on the front, however, was Davis's own design. Lines are lightly sketched on the drawings to indicate that the wood surrounding the window was to be scored to imitate a stone arch. In fact, other markings indicate that the whole building, which was to be built of wood, was to be given the appearance of stone. This imitation of stone in wood or stucco was common at that time.

The disposition of rooms in the house was characteristic of the times, and is interesting in comparison with present-day tendencies in planning. The basement was excavated five feet below ground level and consisted of five principal rooms and two small storage spaces. There was a large washroom, a cellar (presumably for general storage), a fuel room, a milk room, and the kitchen. The specifications indicate brick paving. The milk room was partitioned off by brick instead of stone, which was used in the rest of the basement. There were two fireplaces in the kitchen. (Throughout the house the fireplaces and chimneys were made of brick, with marble mantels.) The small square room under the tower has "wine cellar" penciled in on the plan, evidently as an afterthought.

On the first floor there was an entrance hall, a large parlor with a bay window on the west side, a dining-room, and an office and adjoining library on the east side. A small porch gave outside access to the office. Thus the house may very well have been planned for a professional man of some kind. The office and library must have been heated by stoves, as they are not served by the fireplaces. The rooms are very conveniently arranged for both privacy and good circulation. The staircase to the upper stories was in the tower.

The second story had three large bedrooms and two small ones. Only the master bedroom had a fireplace. There was not much closet space, and probably wardrobes were used for additional storage. There was also a bathroom, with complete plumbing fixtures. The third story was carried up in the central portion only, and contained two good-sized rooms, one with a fireplace, and one small storage room. Then there was a tower room beyond this.

Several features of the house may be noted. The fireplaces and chimneys were placed in the center of the building to serve the largest number of rooms possible and to obtain the maximum effect of the heat. The kitchen was still not planned for greatest convenience, being on the floor below the dining-room. The dumb-waiter did not appear in Davis's designs this early, so even that aid to serving was not present. There was no impressive staircase hall as in houses of the Early Republican and Greek Revival periods, nor were there the circular and oval rooms of these periods. This design is an excellent example of the early kind of romantic house that dominated the American scene during the middle part of the century.

Alexander Jackson Davis was born in New York City on July 24, 1803. By 1820 he was working in a printer's shop in Florida, New York, where he continued until he was twenty years old. In 1823 he began his architectural training under Colonel John Trumbull, painter and architect, in the New York Academy of Fine Arts and the Antique School. Davis also learned the art of lithography and made a series of views in and around New York which is of considerable value as a record of the old city. Then in 1826 he began to study with Josiah R. Brady, a New York contractor and architect. In the following years Davis made trips to Boston and to other parts of New England, making further lithographic studies and becoming acquainted with the leading architects of New England.

On February 1, 1829, Davis went into partnership with Ithiel Town to open an architectural firm which was to produce many important public buildings until the partnership ended in 1843. Among these buildings were the New York Custom House (1832), and the state capitols of Indiana and North Carolina, (between 1831 and 1839). Davis was a prominent professional leader as well as a designer. In 1837 he served on a committee with the architects William Strickland and Thomas U. Walter which called the first meeting of the American Institution of Architects. This organization preceded the present American Institute of Architects.

After 1843 Davis practiced alone. He left a large number of unexecuted designs. Important collections of his drawings and other papers are owned by the Avery Library of Columbia University, the Metropolitan Museum, the New York Historical Society, and the New York Public Library. One large-scale project with which he was associated was the founding of Llewellyn Park, an exclusive residential development in West Orange, New Jersey. His own home, "Wildmont," was built nearby, and he died there on January 14, 1892. He left diaries covering most of his working years, to which he added notes in retrospect in the 1870's.

Many of the early works done by the firm of Town and Davis were in the style of the Greek Revival. This manner of building flourished in the eastern United States between about 1820 and 1850, and reflects the widespread enthusiasm for classical studies in this country shortly after the Revolution. The archaeological discoveries of the preceding century had aroused interest in the architectural forms of Greece and Rome. These discoveries were published in such volumes as The Antiquities of Athens by Stuart and Revett, printed in London in 1762 and later years. Builders of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries published books of designs and instructions, including rules for drawing the classical orders based on these archaeological discoveries, such as Peter Nicholson's The New Practical Builder and Workman's Companion, printed in London in 1823. Both of these publications are in the University of Rochester collection of architectural source books.

Rochester still has many fine buildings that were built during the Greek Revival, and there is a direct connection with the firm of Town and Davis in this vicinity. A series of "grandiose projects" (never executed) for William W. Wadsworth of Geneseo, New York, is mentioned by Roger Hale Newton, biographer of the firm, as representing a climax in this style.

Davis became strongly influenced by the ideas of Andrew Jackson Downing, whose designs for houses were so popular that the "Downing cottage" style takes its name from him. The Art Library has two of Downing's books, The Architecture of Country Houses, published in 1850, and Cottage Residences, first published in 1842, although the Library's edition is that of 1873. In these works are printed the more developed romantic cottage and villa designs, with steep gables, elaborate verge boards, carved brackets, and generally picturesque appearance. Many of Davis's designs of the 1840's and 1850's contain these elements. The amount of eclecticism and romanticism that we can see in designs such as that of the Lamberson house shows us that Davis would readily respond to a style as imaginative as that of Downing.

Finally Davis produced designs in the full Gothic Revival style. Evidence has just appeared through the courtesy of Miss Helen C. Ellwanger of Rochester that the Ellwanger & Barry Business Office in Rochester, built about 1855, was designed by the "well known, accomplished architect A. J. Davis of New York." Other works of Davis at this time show the same Gothic details of towers, crenelations, slender lancet windows, and generally free arrangement. An unsigned drawing for a house of approximately the same period has recently been presented to the Library by Dr. Carl K. Hersey, Professor of Fine Arts. Such drawings, together with the architectural source books which so often inspired them, form a growing collection on which to base further studies in American architecture.