Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The First Italianate-'Riverside' the Bishop George Doane House, Burlington, NJ

'Riverside', Bishop Doane House, Burlington, NJ. 1839 All Photos: HABS

In thinking about the sources for the double tower plan by Richard Upjohn, a house that is often hailed as the country's "first Italianate" came to mind. Indeed, although I think the distillation of Italianate into the US was far from a simple process with any clear "first", it cannot be disputed that this house is one of the first. Built for an Episcopal bishop in 1839 who founded one of the US' first all girls boarding schools, it was designed to be the bishop's residence in Burlington, and was kept by the diocese until it was demolished in the 1950s tragically. Apparently, no one cared about saving a key monument in the history of 19th century architecture; the house is a major casualty of the low esteem for Victorian architecture in the mid-20th century. It was designed by John Notman, one of early America's greatest architects who constructed both some of the first Italianates as well as some of the first major academic Gothic buildings in the US. With building started in 1837, it does come first in the history of Italianate design.

The house does not follow exactly any of the plans that shape Italianate design throughout the 19th century. Notman was breaking new ground here and thus had less standard examples or published plan books to work from. Nonetheless, one can see elements of several different plans in the house and can trace the contours of more familiar shapes. If we look at the house head on and cover up the back, tall tower, we can see the root of the irregular plan with its deeply projecting pavilion, set back tower, and recessed wing. On the other hand, if we cut off the projecting pavilion and the recessed wing, we can see the outline of the double tower plan. Looking at the side of the house, to the left (lower elevation) we can see the general shape of the side tower plan. In effect, many of the familiar plans are all present in this house. The Italianate plan is like putting together a set of blocks, blocks which are symmetrical in form. If one takes the tower block, the pavilion block, the recessed wing block, one can make dozens of possible and stylistically appropriate shapes. Judging by the dictum "form follows function", the Italianate house offers all the possibilities for any kind of protuberance or room to be added as needed without violating the requirements of the style. The focus on the picturesque and asymmetrical allows the house's interior to be perfectly comprehensible from the exterior. Thus, it's able to balance both form and function effectively without picking one or the other. Looking at the plan, it seems that Notman started with a central block and then added wings as rooms were necessary, balancing all of his blocks to form a picturesque and varied whole.

Looking at the house as its own entity, without reading other designs in, there is a central long wing with a tall tower tower to the left side. In front of this block, there is a dramatic projecting pavilion, a shorter tower/wing (it appears as a tower from the front view but as a wing off the central block from the sides) where the entrance is located, and a low, one story wing to the right of the lower tower. The wings of the house give it a Greek cross shape. Decoration is spare on the house, appropriate to its early date. The walls are stuccoed and almost all rectangular with the exception of the triple arched windows in the tower. These triple arched windows are intimately associated with the upper stage of Italianate towers from this example. A triple window sits above the excessively wide, heavily molded arched door with an incredibly thick Renaissance style balcony with massive brackets. The projecting pavilion is enlivened by a full story bay window with a tent roof and Gothic diamond paned panels while the cornice has a wooden fringe running around it. The only other bit of decoration is the projecting wing on the back façade which features a bay window and Greek Revival pilasters. The simple cornice without any entablature has rafter brackets, simulating the rafters of Italian houses that project beneath the eave. Interestingly, despite being a country house, the house lacks the usual multiple windows with broad swaths of blank wall.

HABS has a few pictures of the interior with a simple staircase with iron spindles and a lotus shaped newel post, an impressive Gothic paneled room, and Greek Revival interior window surrounds.

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