Thursday, May 2, 2013

The John Backus House, Baltimore, MD

The John Backus House, Baltimore, MD. 1855-56
Baltimore has one of this country's best collections of early and Anglo-Italianate row-houses that I've seen. However, one of its more interesting and florid examples is the less-typical John Backus house. The house was built in 1855-1856 for Dr. John Backus, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church which adjoins it. After his death, it was bought by the church for use as its rectory. The architect was Norris G. Starkweather, an important Baltimore and Philadelphia 19th century designer. The house features a bevy of unique features. It follows the symmetrical plan, although it is a row house, with a tripartite façade, central door, and central gable emphasizing the small projecting center bay. The walls are finished in stone. It is the detailing of this house, however, that catches the eye. The best descriptor for this detail is probably rococo revival. The lush bouquets of deeply and intricately carved foliage that top the window moldings, cornice over the door, and even the pediment recall the wood carving on contemporary rococo revival furniture and mirror frames. Although such carving was commonly employed on furniture, this style of it on a house exterior is something I have never seen and certainly makes this a unique specimen.

The windows as well are surprisingly varied. The first floor has paired arched windows with Austin-like surrounds and carved bosses in the center divider. The second floor on the flanking sections has tripartite windows with a tall center section and surrounds surmounted by carvings. The center section features paired arched windows that differ from the first floor in the depth of the molding and the center pilaster on the divider. The third floor on the sides has deeply recessed plain windows, while the center section in the gable features tripartite round headed windows that lack the surrounding molding but include the bosses and carved toppers. All this makes for a façade that has a dizzying array of irregularity, but nonetheless harmonizes in the careful deployment of different forms on different windows. The door surround is yet another variation, with an ogee arch that extends from the defining belt-course broken by an explosion of elaborate vegetal carving. The door itself is entirely surrounded by side lights. Supported by Corinthian columns, the pendantives feature yet more carving. The amount of vegetation on this house almost makes it seem like the trees that surround it.

The cornice as well displays unique variations. While the parts flanking the gable are relatively simple bracketed cornices, where they engage the gable, which is raised several feet from the cornice, there are odd carvings that look like upside-down tulips. The gable has no bracketing but features a series of thickly spaced Romanesque style drops under a simple cornice. As one might expect in this house, there are further vegetable anthemia (carved floral pieces that top a gable) on top and to the sides of the gable. I provide some detail shots below.

The following pictures from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) show the house without trees obscuring it and some of the interior.

The interior features a beautiful curved staircase, which seems to run around a curved wall.

The parlor displays interesting paneled doors.

The Backus house is one of my favorite buildings in Baltimore. It is a unique piece of architecture that seems to take the indoor world of pier mirrors and rococo furniture outdoors in its beautiful carving.

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