Saturday, January 13, 2018

Detroit's Lost Italianates: The Isaac Swain House, Detroit, MI

The Isaac Swain House, Detroit, MI. 1863 Photos: Scott Weir

This post kicks off my discussion of a fascinating series of lost Italianates from Detroit. I have to especially thank Scott Weir for his collection of photographs of these gems. 19th century Detroit was one of the wealthiest, growing cities in the US, and that wealth as a transportation hub with close access to Canada and Michigan natural resources. Detroit was a well planned city from the earliest periods in its history, with broad boulevards, a grand street plan, and plenty of impressive homes constructed by the city's wealthy merchants. Unfortunately, the economic decay of the 20th century, as well as geographic changes in Detroit's fashionable areas took a major toll on the city's architectural heritage, as they have in most American cities. Wealthy Detroiters constructed their elaborate 19th century mansions near the downtown in neighborhoods that soon succumbed to business pressures and lifestyle changes. The Swain house, built in 1863 for an abstemious, uptight, and wealthy lumber merchant was built at 1115 Fort Street, a site now occupied by industrial buildings and an MDOT office near the highway. Still, for the purposes of this blog, lost homes are as valuable specimens as existing ones, in that they give us a clearer picture of the stylistic diversity of Italianate design.

The house is one of the most substantial Italianates featured on this blog (the biggest ones are always the first to fall). It follows the five bay plan with a strong central projection and appears to have been built of brick. The photo at the top of this page shows the house in the late 19th century, while the one below is closer to the period in which it was built; apparently the entrance porch was in need of some expansion at some point in the house's history. Chimneys seem also to have been added. All of the home's windows were arched (first floor round, second floor segmental) with extremely heavy drip moldings festooned with foliage and carved keystones. The windows on the top two stories of the central bay were both triple arched palladians. But while the porch and body of this house are not particularly elaborate, the cornice and upper stages are a testament to the possibilities of the lumber Swain made his fortune in. The height of the paneled cornice which is of the arched variety is extreme, giving the house a very top heavy feel. The elaborately carved brackets accentuate this, being expensive double s scrolls that alternate in size. A bold architrave molding with dentils below the windows places an exclamation mark on the overdone cornice. Additionally, the surprises continue as the eye moves upward, with an odd, seemingly hexagonal, cupola. The unusually tall cupola repeats the triple arched palladian windows and is topped by a very strange rounded railing with strong newel posts. This same railing, which almost looks art nouveau or jugendstil, seems to have been repeated, as the second image shows, further down on the roof, perhaps a second rooftop balcony. The cupola is also unique in that it is rare that a house has such strong gables also have a cupola, which is primarily associated with the hip roof. In a house of rooftop surprises though, the strange cupola merely completes the top heavy design.

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