Thursday, April 21, 2016

John Notman: the Father of American Italianate Design

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
After these commissions, Notman's fame grew. His first major work that stunned Philadelphia was the Athenaeum of 1842. Here, Notman abandoned the rustic Italian form for the traditional English Renaissance influences. When the building opened, apparently the public was more impressed with his use of brownstone, a rarity in that period, than the design itself. The use of stone rather than brick would characterize almost all of Notman's subsequent works, and he rarely designed in wood. Additionally, his fascination with lacy ironwork and multi striped tent roofs also manifested in the Athenaeum's design. The Athenaeum was hailed as a masterpiece and would influence generations of urban architects to use the Anglo-Italianate mode of design for everything from banks to warehouses to row houses.

The Athenaeum Photo: Wikimedia
Throughout the 1840s, Notman would be busy designing a series of houses, public buildings, churches, and villas for his ever expanding circle of wealthy mid-Atlantic clients and patrons. He was as much an accomplished landscape architect as builder, and after Laurel Hill he seems to have been in demand for vast landscape projects as well as buildings. He was particularly active in Princeton, where he worked on buildings for the Theological Seminary (chapel, library) and the university (the Italianatization of Nassau Hall). Additionally, he worked in Richmond, VA designing the Capitol Square. As we can see from the houses we have looked at, Notman's work became more and more bold as he gained confidence as a designer, and his plans grew ever more complex with new arrangements of volumes and massing. He never followed the trend of other architects who invested their energy into plan books, such as Alexander Jackson Davis. For Davis he did design one plan, Design IX in Cottage Residences. Notman's design is the genesis of what I have called the pavilion plan, a plan base he would use in many of his subsequent houses. Ironically, he seems to have never built a house that matched Design IX. In the façade of this house, we can see much that characterized 'Riverside' especially the fringe on the cornice, the broad tower with massive eaves and the bold porch. Echoes of this design can be seen in his later work, especially at Alverthorpe.

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
As the 1850s dawned, Notman was a firmly established master architect for the mid-Atlantic. The beginning of the decade saw the construction of Prospect House in Princeton and Averthorpe in Jenkintown, PA. Notman had established his style and his remaining commissions until his death in 1865 continued in the same vein, working in both Italianate and Gothic modes. In this period belong Fern Hill (originally designed by Notman in a Gothic idiom) and Fieldwood in Princeton. After a fire at Princeton's colonial Nassau Hall in the 1850s, Notman added Italianate towers and a new cupola to the design, bringing the old Georgian building up to date (his additions have been mostly removed). Never one to shy away from innovation, Notman even finished the Second Empire 'Ogontz' in 1862. At his death in the year the Civil War ended, Notman could look back on a revolutionary career in shaping American architecture, and fortunately many of his buildings, especially those of a particularly style-making character survive so we can get a clear picture of his legacy not only through plans but through the buildings themselves.

Notman's Domestic Italianate Designs

As fascinating as his legacy in Gothic design is, here we are most concerned about Notman as an Italianate designer. Departing from English precedents, Notman offered an approach to design that introduced picturesqueness to America, a country he found filled with rectangular, symmetrical Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival houses that looked inward. Essentially, the way that Notman conceived of a building was as a series of symmetrical blocks, each one filled with one or two rooms. In some senses, each of those blocks serves as its own design unit, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes conflicting with the dominant design. These blocks were grouped around a central focal point, usually a central hall. Like the monasteries and farmhouses of Italy, which were built for functionality more than aesthetics, the Italianate design reveals the interior organically, forcing the exterior to some extend to conform to the interior. Without having to worry about fitting rooms into a rigid rectangle with a set window plan, architects could freely combine different rooms and create vistas and flow in a more exciting way. Additionally, it brought the outdoors inside, since each block created a different viewpoint to the outside, one of the reasons Notman worked to landscape around his houses, in order to frame the outdoors for each of these varying rooms. It's no wonder people embraced Italianate design. Not only could you basically do what you wanted and infinitely add on large rooms and pretend like you were living in romantic Italy, but it was something new, something that did not look like the rows of neat but repetitive colonial houses.

The two basic building blocks of Notman's house designs are the rectangle (the block-based plan), often with symmetrical projections, and a group of two rectangles intersecting, the L-shaped plan that would grow into the irregular plan. The block-based plan is in essence a rectangle, while the L-shape has its eponymous profile. Onto these two basic shapes, Notman grafted all sorts of projections as needed for different rooms and vistas. Additionally, there is the tower block, which in Notman's designs is sort of a free agent, moving around the plans and never occurring in the same place. Unlike later designers, Notman located the tower to the side rather than situating it in the center. Thinking of his designs as rural villas, Notman didn't hang any façade out to dry. Because they would be viewed from every angle, most of his houses are finished on each side. This means that one can often seen several different sorts of plans and facades in each house. A back projection, for instance, automatically creates an L-shape, while a long side façade creates a rectangular block. Italianate houses have two conflicting thrusts, verticality and horizontality. For Notman, being a good designer, it was important that these harmonized well. Every time you raised a tower, creating vertical thrust, it had to be counter balanced by a horizontal thrust, which in his case usually took the form of low servant wings. Looking at a comparative drawing of the villas we have examined (Fern Hill excepted, as it follows Upjohn's double tower plan) we can see the block arrangement clearly. Below is a comparative drawing of six of Notman's designs.

It's not only Notman's plans which express his unique style. A look at any of his houses shows a pretty consistent grammar of ornament. Most Notman houses include these features:

-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

Basically, while Notman leaves the façade as simple as possible with little carving and ornamentation, porches and other elements are made as dramatic as possible. For instance having a heavy emphatic tent roof over a visually diminished porch support makes it seem like it is a real floating awning. Huge arches, broad eaves, and clunky brackets draw emphasis to the center and top of the house, directing the eye to focal points, since it isn't distracted by window ornament.

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!

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