Sunday, May 5, 2013

The George O. Robinson House, Detroit, MI

From Flickr.

The George O. Robinson House, Detroit, MI. 1875-6. From Flickr.
Detroit had some unique and impressive Italianate buildings; unfortunately most of them are gone. Some architecture blogs prefer only to showcase existing buildings, but on my blog, which focuses on looking at all manifestations of Italianate architecture, buildings that are no longer with us are just as important specimens as those that survive. Some people find looking at lost buildings depressing; a friend of mine actually gets angry when I show him the Lost America books. But I can get just as much pleasure from a lost building as I can from one I've been to. Besides, for some reason, a lot of the really fun and interesting buildings tend to be the ones that get torn down, and I'd be remiss if I didn't include some of them. I actually had the opportunity to visit Detroit a month ago and was quite impressed by how much does survive. It's a lot better of a place than you think, and I was able to be shown about by a native Detroiter. The Canfield Street district was particularly impressive to me as was the unexpectedly well preserved downtown.

The George Robinson house has been one I've admired for a long time, and I decided to include it while perusing southofbloor's photostream on Flickr. You really should take a look at it, it's an impressive documentation of Detroit's lost architecture. According to The Buildings of Detroit (82-83), the Robinson house was designed by Henry Brush, one of Detroit's most significant 19th century architects, and was built in 1875-1876. The house was demolished in the 1940s and stood at the corner of Cass and Ledyard Streets, a once fashionable neighborhood. The house follows the irregular plan. The Robinson house's manifestation of the irregular plan has a few differences. This house is all about horizontality. The structure of the tower is nearly buried in the wraparound porch and continuous cornice line, and it projects only a bit from the recessed wing. Thus the house has a more monumental feel with less projection and recession of wings.

The real strength of the Robinson house is its fantastical detailing. The Buildings of Detroit says it "was a monument of Victorian ebullience...all [the decorative features] joined forces to create a strange vision half-way between reality and fantasy." The house does display opulence in its finish. It was brick with wooden flush siding which gives the effect of stone but allows more elaborate carving and design. The house is a forest of columns, brackets, and pilasters. Anything that can have a cornice and brackets does. Not only does the porch and entrance, with its elegant French, almost Beaux-Arts curved arch and cornice, have grand columns with vegetal bases. The filleted (curverd corner) windows as well all seem to be flanked by pilasters and have hoods with incised Eastlake designs. Even the verge boards (the boards on the corners of a building) are pilasters. Touches of Second Empire are apparent in the balloon like roofs of the bay windows and the tower. The tower itself is very Second Empire in conception, and the boards simulating rusticated stone and the very Renaissance composition of the columns, entablature, and pediment. The mansard cap, divided into 8 bays is curved, pierced by dramatically projecting dormers is topped with an absurd finial, which can be seen on many Detroit homes. Like its near contemporary the Richardson-Bates house, the Robinson house displays all the elaboration that fascinated designers in the 1870s. Its steep hip roof, an innovation in the Italianate of the late 60s and 70s betrays its age as well. The balustrade at the roof gable completes the design nicely.

The Robinson house was a treasure of design. The interior had a particularly interesting feature. The four main rooms of the house "were connected with folding doors so that they could, for all practical purposes, be thrown into one large area." Such a modern concept of interior space was well ahead of its time. It's a shame that it has been lost, but thankfully enough information survives to get a good idea of this splendid home.

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