Friday, April 26, 2013

Two Hillhouse Cubes- The Elizabeth Apthorp House and the George Fisher House

The George P. Fisher House, 1865.
The Elizabeth Apthorp House, 1837
In this post I am featuring two of Hillhouse's symmetrical cubes, the George Fisher house and the Elizabeth Apthorp house. These houses stand on opposite sides of the street and at opposite ends, and they are separated by 30 years; yet they share the characteristics of being blocky symmetrical, 3-story compositions. The Apthorp house has been bizarrely marred by additions, while the Fisher house appears as it was built. The houses both share similar window treatments and are much taller than many Italianates, which do not commonly rise above two and a half stories. Thus, I thought they'd make a fitting pair of bookends.

The Apthorp House stands at the end of Hillhouse Avenue on the western side neighboring the Norton house from my previous post. The house is one of several on the street designed by Alexander Davis in 1837, with whom you should be quite familiar now. As Elizabeth Mills Brown (an important architectural historian whose book New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design is indispensable) notes, the brackets are like "exposed rafters under the eaves in the Tuscan manner". If one looks carefully, the brackets are actually quite shallow in height and do give the impression of roof beams peeking out from the eaves. The hip roof is surmounted by a small monitor (that is very hard to photograph). The windows consist of paired flat headed windows with simple moldings and brackets tying them together. The walls, as we have seen in many houses, are coated in stucco scored to simulate stone. What really livens up the façade, however, is the porch, which is uniquely Egyptian in inspiration (the glassed in room surmounting it is a later addition).

Egyptian Revival is a rare style to encounter, especially on a sedate avenue like Hillhouse. It was spurred by the publication of the Description de l'Egypte, a book of illustrations of Egyptian monuments by Napoleon's scientific staff. The series was completed in 1826, several years before the construction of the Apthorp house, but had some influence on American architecture. Connecticut alone has several examples: the monument at Groton, the cemetery gates for New Haven's Grove Street Cemetery (by Henry Austin, 1849), and the church at Essex, CT. The Tombs prison in New York by John Havilland (1838) was perhaps one of the most famous example of Egyptian Revival in the US and was a near contemporary of the Apthorp house (pictured below from Wikimedia.
Why this style was chosen is anyone's guess. Perhaps Davis was inspired by other Egyptian buildings like the Tombs being constructed at the same time. Perhaps Ms. Apthorp, who was moving from a decidedly pedestrian five-bay Federal house further down the avenue wanted to make an exotic splash with her new villa. The porch's columns seem to be of the papyrus-bundle type, although the entablature has a band of incongruous rococo swags, a testament to the 19th century's love of eclecticism. As I noted in my first post, Italianate architecture is open to all types of ornament, and the addition of Egyptian elements doesn't make this any less an Italianate villa. It's simply the manifestation of style on an Italianate canvas.

The additions and remuddles are interesting in themselves. A look at the south façade (above) shows a riot of pilasters and columns. The pilasters were added to the house in 1909 by the owner who salvaged them from a demolished house by the Federal architect David Hoadley. In addition, side porches and box windows have been added to the design, leading Mills Brown to call it the "Old Curiosity Shop on Hillhouse Avenue".

The George P. Fisher House stands at the entrance of Hillhouse on the east side and was built in 1865. The Fisher house receives some harsh criticism from Mills Brown, who said of it "a surprisingly gawky version of the late-late villa style". The house has the distinction of having four nearly symmetrical facades without side wings, ells, or additions, making it a cube. Like the Apthorp house, the Fisher house rises three stories, has paired flat top windows, and scored stucco. The porch on the Fisher house, is far more classical, being a pedimented and very 'correct' Corinthian affair. A gable atop a small façade projection interrupts the flow of the cornice and wall on three sides of the house, providing an undulating rhythm as one walks around it. The hip roof has no cupola, which is a wonder given the grand effect being sought. The window treatment is particularly interesting, in that the hood moldings over the windows fade into the façade with a small tent roof protrusion.

The house has a full verandah on the rear that is currently enclosed. Also of note are the brackets, which form a graceful s-curve, have an open space between the curve and the wall attachment, and are finished with a drop that resembles an acorn. As opposed to many of the brackets we have seen, these large types of brackets are more common as Italianate enters the late 1850s and 60s; in the 1870s, the brackets sometimes approached monstrous sizes. Below are shown the rear porch and brackets.
 I have a few pictures of this house's interior which retains many features of the 1860s in its design.

A parlor at the end of the main hall, now used as office space/seminar space.

The newel post and banister. The paired spindles that project from the stairs are noteworthy.

Given these two houses, separated by 30 years, yet very similar in conception, which do you prefer?

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