Monday, June 24, 2013

Camden: the William Pratt House, Port Royal, VA

Camden, Port Royal, VA. 1857-59 Photos: HABS

When we think of plantation houses, our minds usually conjure up Greek Revival mansions surrounded with white columns. The truth is, however, that though they are not as common southern plantations can be Gothic or even Italianate. They run the gamut of styles. Camden is a particularly well documented example of an Italianate plantation house. Constructed by William Pratt between 1857 and 1859 after he demolished his family's Colonial house, Camden is a star example of southern Italianate plantation architecture. The architect was Norris G. Starkweather, an important architect in Philadelphia and Baltimore who was responsible for the design of the Backus house in Baltimore. There is a certain similarity to these houses. The house is a symmetrical plan mansion, which originally included a tower which was destroyed during the Civil War. The plans show how the tower was integrated into the design at the back of the house, appearing as a large cupola from the front. After the war, the tower was not reconstructed, but Starkweather's elevations for this house survive. The siding is flush board, giving a smooth surface appearance.

The house is beautifully composed and detailed. The front facade is three bays with a central gable; all the gables in this house have semi-circular windows in them, a throwback to Federal design. The first floor windows are tripartite Greek Revival windows. Above them on the second floor, pairs of segmental arched windows flank a tripartite round headed window with a taller central panel, just like we saw in the Backus house. The right facade continues the segmental arched windows and is three bays, but the center features a tombstone window united under an arch, making it appear like Venetian tracery. While the hood moldings are very simple, they resemble the Backus house in the elaborate jigsawed rococo motifs over the windows. The right facade also has a unique feature, a massive bay window conservatory with Venetian tracery windows. The first floor is mostly surrounded by a large wraparound porch that is bracketed with trefoil flat topped arches and that features square posts elaborated with chamfered edges and inset panels. The cornice is also elaborate with paired double s-scroll brackets, finials at the bracket ends, drops at the base of each bracket, and long receding dentils. I particularly like how a bracket was cut carefully so that where the cornice breaks on the facade at the gable, there is a bracket in profile. From the plans it appears that balustrades and palmettes topped the porches and the bay window, but these must have been removed.

The tower was truly a lovely piece. The stump of it remains on the back of the house. From the designs, the base of the tower had an arched door like the front door that had a glass surround. The second stage copied the front as well with a triple arched window. The third stage was separated by a belt course and had semicircular windows that had jigsawed scroll work above them. The top of the tower had highly elongated brackets that filled the entire upper story. In the center were Palladian windows with balconies. The cornice had an arch in the center of each side that had anthemia (vegetable decorations at the peak of a gable) and palmettes. The whole was covered with a hip roof and an impressively tall spire. The tower would have been beathtaking and was certainly envisioned as the pearl of the entire composition. If anyone's looking to blow some money on a historic restoration...

Another interesting feature is the left facade of the house that has the servants' wing. This is simpler in detailing but nonetheless grand. A porch faces the front of the house. But the side has a reversal of the house's formula, with segmental arched windows on the first floor and round headed ones on the second. A pedimented door with a bracket surround (an interesting feature we have noticed in this area) is in the center bay. Another quirky detail are the paired tombstone blind arches on the chimney. The house betrays the careful thought and design of a real architect from tower to chimneys. Along with the Backus house, they remain two interesting Italianate works for this architect and deserve to be considered alongside each other. The interior also remains intact and retains some of the family's original furniture. All the following pictures are from HABS, and it is worth a look at their 38 photographs online.

Note how the triple arched window on the front is repeated in the doors of the front hall. Also the glass surround for the door is a particularly impressive specimen.

The parlor still has its original furnishings. The oval mirror is impressive!

Even the gasolier light fixtures are in place. This shows also the finely crafted plaster ceiling medallions.

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