Monday, June 3, 2013

The John Marshall House, Alexandria, VA

The John Marshall House, Alexandria, VA. c.1850 Photo: Wikimedia.

The John Marshall house was formerly the neighbor of the Vowell-Smith house on Wolfe Street in Alexandria. It was built around 1850, was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and was, in 1927, made a synagogue (certainly a bizarre sanctuary choice!). Unfortunately, the house was demolished in 1961 for the construction of several smaller houses, depriving the Vowell-Smith house of an important contextual element. I only have this single photograph of the house from Wikimedia. It is an interesting example; following the irregular plan, the house appears to be faced with brick with stone and wood detailing. The tower on this house breaks through the cornice line, giving the house a great deal of vertical thrust; this verticality is softened a bit by the projecting balconies on the third stage of the tower. The use of double rectangular windows in the tower (the cornice-bracket combination looks almost identical to some of the windows on the Vowell-Smith house) and a fourth stage with tombstone windows is odd. The tower is much taller than the usual three and a half stages found on most towered Italianates, and the finial at the top increases the sense of height. Many Italianate towers and cupolas were originally topped with wooden or metal finials. These, as one might expect, tended to rot or decay, so they remain somewhat rare today. This one looks particularly interesting because the pointed finial is seemingly supported by four curving s-scrolls at its corners.

The house has an interesting mix of ornamental schemes. While the arched windows in the tower and gable and simple arched porch are securely Italianate features, the window hood moldings appear to be in the Gothic idiom. The hood moldings are pointed and extend slightly at the ends, which is a Gothic feature. I suppose the architect or the client simply couldn't decide on one style or the other. Another interesting feature is the way the door surround at the base of the tower projects slightly and has a blind balcony on top. Visually this provides continuity with the decoration of the particularly large porch without actually having the porch wrap around the tower. Oddly, the porch seems not to have had a balustrade on top, a feature one might have expected in a house like this. The hip roof is also strange; it seems to be steeply sloped near the cornice line but flat on top, making it almost a proto-mansard. One other odd thing is that, although I cannot see the other side of the house, there appear to be no bay or box windows, which is almost expected in any Italianate, especially one of this size. The house is an interesting specimen, particularly for its Gothic features. It was certainly a grand Italianate with its tall tower and luxurious trimmings, and it's unfortunate for its surviving neighbor that it didn't last. There is a carriage house visible in the image that I provide a close-up of below.

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