Sunday, April 28, 2013

Munn's 'Castle', Utica, NY

Photo from New York Traveller.

The so-called "Munn's Castle", 1 Rutger Park, Utica. 1852 or 1854
The Munn House in Utica is one of upstate New York's greatest Italianate monuments. The house was designed directly by Alexander Jackson Davis c. 1852 or 1854, and is reminiscent of another of his designs, that for Litchfield Villa in Brooklyn, built in 1854 as well (the Baughman House in Detroit was also a related design). The house is part of a 19th century development in Utica, Rutger Park. Originally part of the rural Miller estate until 1850 when it was divided into lots for building, Rutger Park formed as a 19th century street of mansions (akin to Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven or Cleveland's Euclid Avenue) that fronted onto a large park. The park and site attracted wealthy and influential Utica families who built a row of mansions, mostly Italianate homes, along the park's western side. The Munn house in the 1950s was converted into a nursing facility and subsequently abandoned. The interiors are in particularly rough shape, and from the images you can see, there are missing balusters and damaged verandahs. Although the house has gone through some rough times, the Utica Landmarks Society has purchased the house and plans to restore it as a house museum (kudos to them!). Utica itself, although it seems a little decayed, is home to a fantastic collection of Italianate buildings of which the Munn house is a particular gem.

Despite its 'castle' moniker that suggests Gothic architecture, the house is a particularly sober Italianate irregular villa. The design departs somewhat from the expected irregular plan, but considering Davis popularized the irregular plan in the first place, it's his prerogative to futz with it. Unlike the plan published by Davis, the house has a large wing to the left of the projecting pavilion, which dramatically increases its mass and horizontality. The projecting pavilion itself is chamfered (has angled corners) rather than 90 degree corners, which do give it a somewhat castle-like appearance, or make it seem like some overgrown bay window. The chamfered shape of the pavilion is elegantly echoed by the bay window on its first floor whose tripartite division is repeated up the façade. The tower is spare, unlike Austin's tower at the Norton house, with just a few round-headed windows. The brackets are small but frequently deployed without an entablature, again giving the effect of jutting roof beams, as Davis did in his design for the Apthorp house. The finish is scored stucco, an effect we have seen in many houses of the 1850s. Originally the façade was graced by a wooden porch on the right and a delicate cast iron porch on the left. Fortunately for us, Davis' plans and elevations for the house have been preserved and are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 The north elevation.
The principal western elevation.

Both of these drawings can be found on the Metropolitan Museum's website (drawing 1 and 2). Looking at the plan, we can see that Davis took full advantage of his chamfered pavilion by incorporating chamfered rooms into most of the first floor. Where a lesser architect might have been forced to create thick and oddly shaped halls and closets, Davis beautifully combined the rooms into a carefully composed jigsaw puzzle that snugly fits these oddly shaped rooms together. From these elevations one can also get a good idea of the original finish of the house. In looking at these drawings, however, you should notice some discrepancies. The house seems to have been 'flipped' by the architect since the elevations show the tower on the left of the projecting pavilion whereas the house as completed has the tower on the right; also one of the porches is missing. A later drawing also in the Met, shows the house closer to its appearance as it was completed (credit).

The Munn house is an impressive example of an Italianate villa by a master designer. The careful balance of heights and widths betray the work of a great architect. I personally love how the tall, thin tower is contrasted with the thick projecting pavilion, how 90 degree angles contrast with chamfered corners, and how a 2 bay wing is balanced by a single bay wing. The house almost has a pyramidal shape as the various rooflines culminate in the tower with its urns. I am excited to see how the Landmarks Society restores this impressive monument.


  1. Thanks! This helped a lot!

  2. Something strange about the images - the photographs do not match the plan and the rendering - did the original design get "mirrored" during construction? Or is the photograph mirrored?

    1. I believe the plans are from two different design phases. The first set of plans and elevations was from the initial design. The drawing at the bottom is closer to what was built. I believe that it was mirrored in the execution.