Saturday, July 6, 2013

Two Faces: The John Dorrance House, Bristol, PA

The John Dorrace House, Bristol, PA. 1862-3 Photo: Wikimedia

The back of the house. Photo: Wikimedia
The John Dorrance house is Bristol has two faces. From the street it looks like a normal, even sober, Italianate symmetrical plan villa, but from the back it displays a cascade of porches and a bizarre tower following the central tower plan. This house is one of my favorites because of the way it plays with surprise, its eccentricity, and its strange but beautiful detail. Built in 1862-3 for a mill owner, it remained in the family until 1921, when the Knights of Columbus bought the house. Currently a private home, it has many of its original features. It is also one of Bristol's only examples of Italianate architecture.

The front facade is symmetrical with a central gable and brick and sandstone facing. The house emulates grand Italianate mansions in its spare detail. The window surrounds are plain moldings, and the door is also a traditional classical design, similar to some we have seen in Providence, with pilasters and entablature over an arched door. Above the door is the triple arched Palladian window, which is a particularly Italianate shape. The lack of a front porch is strange, since this family seemed to love indulging in porches. Belt courses separate each floor, and the corners of the first and second floor have quoins. The lack of quoins on the third floor suggests that the molding served as an architrave for the frieze into which the windows are set, but it is strange that it does not follow the angle of the gable. The paired square, rather than arched windows, in the frieze is another eccentricity that is rarely seen. The sides follow the main facade and have triple Greek Revival style windows.

The back, which faces the river, is an impressive sight. Because the house is built into a slope, the basement is a full exposed story from the back. The entire facade is covered by porches; on the first and second floors, the porches have arches, but on the basement there are simply posts and a flat lintel.   The porch is appropriately painted to harmonize with the sandstone trim. The porches are divided into two separate groups because the central bay has a three story arched window that runs the full height of the tower where a circular staircase is located that connects all the floors. The arch of the window is repeated in the arch of the roof of the porch. Because it accommodates an elliptical stair, the tower is also elliptical with three arched windows on each side. My friend on seeing this house remarked how much it looks like a 19th century steamboat and he's right, especially given its setting on the water. I love this house because it embodies all the zaniness and Italianate can do, strange porches, innovative shapes, surprise, and complex design.

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