Monday, May 9, 2016

The Nathaniel Wilson House, East Millstone, NJ

The N. Wilson House, East Millstone, NJ. 1888 Photo: Wikimedia
This somewhat strange house was built by Nathaniel Wilson, a hardware store owner, in the small town of East Millstone in 1888, yet the elaborateness of the design makes this house far too sophisticated for such a rural area. No doubt that was Wilson's plan, to show off his own success in front of his neighbors with their more modest homes. Additionally, 1888 is a very late date for building an Italianate house, especially one like this which is fully invested in the design principles associated with the 1870s, yet here we are. Maybe Mr. Wilson just stopped evolving with the fashions after 1875. The house's plan is a little tricky, is it a side hall plan with a wing, or an irregular plan without a tower or fully projecting pavilion. I actually go with the latter primarily because of the brickwork. The facade of the house uses the brickwork to create a series of recessed planes with angled bricks that form a row of dentils at the top that mark the bays and frame architectural units. If you look carefully, the right two bays are marked by one plane as are the left two recessed bays. The central bay is marked by another, where the tower should be, indicating the designer was thinking in terms of the irregular plan, even if they didn't reproduce the volumes.

The details on this house are rather intriguing. The first floor windows are segmental arched, the second rectangular, a slight variation from the usual interplay of shapes. The subdued label stone moldings are spare with bulls eyes and carved keystones, echoing patterns one sees on late 19th century Eastlake interior woodwork. The two main carved features are the porch and cornice. The porch which wraps around the house is a rather clunky arrangement of disparate artistic forms. Fussy posts with too many molded sections support an entablature that consists of an open arch with drops on the first stage, a row of pierced circles on the second, and strange boards on the third which have blind quarter arches with keystones and incised Eastlake carving in the spandrels. It seems the designer, instead of relying on any precedents, decided to construct an entablature from various random sections from a catalogue, transforming classical design into a series of superimposed decorative bands. The cornice as well is very strange. It's elaborately paneled in its frieze, with a run of dentils, then another band of panels above. The brackets, which are s scroll type, are elongated. It is in their placement that we can see the influence of the irregular conception. Unlike most Italianates, this house has an uneven and irregular placement for the brackets, with different spacings between the groupings. Around the tower section, for instance, we have two tightly placed brackets in a pair to the left while to the right are three tightly placed brackets, behaving as they would if there really were a projecting tower. Similarly to the right of the projecting facade, we have one widely spaced bracket and then a tightly placed pair, basically filling the space on the cornice with as many brackets as possible. It's very strange. As you can see on the side facade, there is a bizarre projection over the box window which takes the form of a mansard roof in section with decorated barge boards. But stranger is that the architect decided instead of treating it as a mansard roof proper, to run the cornice design onto it, causing to to grow inorganically out of the facade.

Overall, the Wilson house is a great example of someone who let their desire to impress with carving and woodwork get in the way of adhering to harmonious principles. But despite awkwardness, the house achieves its purpose in appearing grand and expensive, and is overall a successful stylistic muddle.

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