Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mayhurst: the John Willis House, Orange, VA

Photo: Wikimedia

Drawings from HABS
This plantation house, one of the most exuberant I have seen, is in Orange, Virginia. It was built in 1859-1860 for John Willis, a relative of President James Madison who named the house "Howard Place". It passed through various owners before it was renamed "Mayhurst" in 1902. The house follows the symmetrical plan with a hip roof and cupola and is faced with wood that has been cut to simulate stone, an elegant and costly effect. The house may have been designed by Norris G. Starkweather, who designed a similar house that I have featured, Camden, nearby. The embellishments to the design and the inventiveness and variety are characteristic of his style. Another candidate is Charles Haskins, another architect in the area. Regardless of who designed it, it is definitely the product of the architect rather than the carpenter/builder. 

The symmetrical house features central gables on each side. The basement is brick with paired windows. The first floor features paired, shallowly arched windows with balconies and simple hood moldings. The front door is arched with a glass surround and is fronted by an unusually simple three bay porch that could be a later replacement for another porch. The second floor is where the eccentricities arise. The flanking windows are Palladian, an unexpected choice. They have a bracketed hood molding, and the center panel features Venetian tracery. The second floor side windows mirror the central panel's tracery and shape. The central window on the front has two arched windows supporting a large 'rose window' with spoke tracery. In essence this is a sort of exaggerated Venetian tracery, and is a very uncommon shape especially for a private home. I have only seen examples of this type of window on churches and public buildings, so its presence in a private home is noteworthy. On the sides, the rose window is repeated under the gable with a drippy hood molding. 

Approaching the third floor, the cornice is undulating and is pierced by small windows. The brackets are of the c and s scroll type and are placed in a somewhat odd pattern with one at each corner, then pairs, then two small brackets framing each window. Each gable is topped by an anthemion, a stylized palmette. These cut out appliques are also found on the impressive cupola. The cupola has an odd manifestation of Palladian windows with a pointed central window and flat flanking ones. The cornice follows the window line and is gabled, reflecting the general form of the house. The cupola roof is fantastic; it is bulbous and forms one giant spire that has cut out decorations ascending to it. The color choice for the house, all white, is unfortunate because it flattens out the details in a way that makes the house look more dull than it is. In the early 20th century, the way people handled Victorian exuberance was to tone it down with monochromatic paint schemes, which are not at all period appropriate and reflects a disdain for Victorian ornament and design. The house is currently a bed and breakfast; a look on their website will show you some interiors.

HABS has a plan on record for the house:

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