Having presented seven of John Notman's houses, it's now time to deal with the man himself. For being one of America's most important early architects, not a lot is known about Notman's personal life; there are no diaries, letters, and the usual ephemera that tell us about 19th century architects. Not only did Notman introduce Italianate to American design, but he also developed American Gothic and built one of the first academic Gothic churches in the country. His legacy is best found in his buildings, a surprising number of which survive. Beyond a selection of drawings (held in Princeton and Philadelphia) and some personal correspondence between him and his clients and friends, we don't have much. The main monograph on Notman is called John Notman, Architect (1810-1865) by Constance Greiff, whose series Lost America no doubt made her a "constant grief" to progressive minded architects in the 1960s. Greiff offers a conservative, scholarly estimate of his career and provides a full account of his buildings with accompanying plans and drawings.
John Notman was born in Scotland in 1810 and although his early life is little known, he ended up in Edinburgh in the 1820s and was an apprentice to one of the major architects there. Greiff suggests William Henry Playfair because of his Italianate and Gothic designs which could have influenced the young architect. Indeed, Playfair is one of the earliest English Italianate designers, though his works owe much more to traditional Regency plans than the freedom of Italianate asymmetry and massing that characterized the works of Charles Barry and Notman. Perhaps the young Notman was in the know about experiments in asymmetrical planning; he certainly seems more acquainted with Italian rustic architecture than his English predecessors who preferred high style Italian Renaissance urban idioms. In 1831 Notman immigrated to Philadelphia where he set himself up as a "carpenter", really the term for an architect at that time; in his early years he seems to have designed little of note. In Philadelphia he met John Jay Smith, the head of the Philadelphia Library Company who would introduce Notman to a host of rich clients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for whom he would design his best villas. It was through Smith Notman was given the commission to design Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1835, both its landscaping and its architecture (including an odd sculptural tableau of Sir Walter Scott!). It was also through Smith that Notman met George Washington Doane, for whom he constructed 'Riverside', America's first Italianate building in 1837-9.
|Laurel Hill Cemetery Photo: Wikimedia|
|The Athenaeum Photo: Wikimedia|
While he was designing Ellarslie in Trenton, Notman was also working on one of the seminal monuments of American Gothic design in Philadelphia, St. Marks church (1849). Getting in with the high church Anglican society was a tough nut for any architect to crack. Notoriously fussy with a host of nitpicky liturgical and denominational requirements, they made a hobby of sneering at architectural designs that were too low church for them. Notman's St. Marks is one of the first Gothic buildings in the US designed for this group, and he studiously sought to allay criticism by adhering to English Gothic precedents. Notman's care thus gave the US its first academic Gothic design that entirely departed from colonial preaching boxes and tried to communicate some of the asymmetry and spirit of Gothic. Church commissions poured in afterwards.
|St. Mark's Philadelphia|
Photo: Tom Ipri
-Stone façade, usually of colorful fieldstone with simple brownstone trim (and quoins)
-Large emphatic arches, often in porches
-Renaissance balustrades, harmonizing with high style expectations
-Triple windows and entrances; while this is characteristic of many Italianates, Notman takes it to an
-Very thin ironwork porches with concave wooden awnings, historically painted with stripes
-Large overhanging eaves with simple beam brackets, sometimes in double rows
I hope you enjoyed this post. You should now be able to clearly spot a house by Notman or influenced by him. Make sure to visit the ones you can; many of them are open to the public. Leave a comment and vote for your favorite Notman villa!