Monday, May 20, 2013

American Rundbogenstil: The John Hill House, Erie, PA

The John Hill House, Erie, PA. 1836/1854 Photo Don O'Brien.

Picture from Wikimedia.

These next few posts are going to explore an odd little corner of Italianate: its mixing with the German Rundbogenstil. 'Rundbogenstil' is a mouthful, as most German compounds are, that means "round arched style". This style presented itself as a revival of Romanesque architecture, particularly Rhenish examples. It developed in Germany in the early and mid 19th century and was part of the German quest to discover a distinctly German architectural style and German romanticism for the middle ages, a long search that obsessed much of 19th century German aesthetics and culminated in Historizmus, basically a German Renaissance Revival. The style was carried to the US by German immigrants who wanted a style that expressed their German origins and thus a national architectural idiom was applied to Italianate designs popular at the same time. As we have seen, Italianate can take a lot of different styles of ornamentation, and Rundbogenstil is a good example of this phenomenon. As a marriage of styles it makes sense; Italianate was always emulating Italian Romanesque architecture, although it did so in a highly stylized way. The effect of Rundbogenstil is one of changing some of the direction from Italian to German precedents. Nonetheless, the hallmarks of Italianate remain. The main features of Rundbogenstil are arched windows that almost always have Venetian/Florentine tracery, inverted crenellations, or drops which are rows of small arches near the cornice, shallow gables, and thick quoins. One of the chief examples of this style in the US is the Astor Library in New York, 1853, almost contemporary with the Hill house, pictured below with a photo from Wikimedia.

The John Hill house was built in 1836 for William Johns, probably in some early Italianate or Greek Revival form. The house's current appearance is due to John Hill who purchased it in 1854 and gave the house its current appearance. John Hill being a carpenter who was responsible for some other Romanesque inspired commercial structures in Erie, probably did the work and design for the house himself. The house follows the irregular plan, with some modifications. Unlike the typical irregular house, the Hill house lacks a tower or even a projecting area for the tower base; the façade even is recessed where the tower should be. The projecting section projects much further than we have seen. The façade is sided in flush boards, or wooden boards that don't overlap as in typical clapboard construction. This gives the appearance of a smooth wall or plastered surface. Every section of the façade incorporates a shallow gable which has a bracketed cornice and Romanesque inverted crenellations and all the windows are arched with thick molded surrounds and have Venetian tracery. A belt course with dentils separates the first and second floors.

The front part of the projecting section features a bay window that repeats the cornice and a beautifully composed arch on the second floor that incorporates two windows separated by a small column and a delicate piece of jigsaw cutting. The side façade of the projecting section is long enough that it also incorporates a gable and is divided into three bays separated by quoins; the center bay features an arched window, and the sides blind arches (arches that are filled in). The recessed part of the façade has a small projecting, gabled pavilion on the right that has deeply cut quoins. The porch seems original, although the railings do not. A two story bay window on the right side façade seems to have oddly no definitions or ornaments but is almost completely flat, a strange choice on an eccentrically ornamented house like this. The iron fence looks original, and it is obvious the house is well maintained by the law office that appears to inhabit it. The color scheme looks quite period appropriate to me. I think the blue excellently complements the pale yellow of the facade and emphasizes the details nicely. The enlargement below of Don O'Brien's image above highlights a few details.

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