Inventing the American House
Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Michael Fazio & Patrick Snaden

Appendix A

 

 

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In 1785, as a 22-year-old, fourth-generation Bostonian, Bulfinch had set out for Europe on the Grand Tour, an experience that included time spent in London, Paris--where he met with Thomas Jefferson, and Italy. Returning to Boston in 1787 and finding himself with an independent income, he provided enough free architectural advice to establish a local reputation as a talented amateur and eventually enough professional advice to create the first cityscape in America distinctively fashioned by a single architectural mind.

For his public buildings he preferred Anglo-Palladian models, exhibiting a particular fondness for the work of William Chambers. In his design of houses he drew upon Robert Adam and upon John Soane, whose books he owned, acquiring, in the process, an indirect knowledge of French planning. Three of his early houses, those for John Joy (1791), Joseph Coolidge Sr. (1791-92), and Joseph Barrell (1792-93), provide evidence of his approach to domestic design in the years leading up to Latrobe's arrival.

For the Joy House Bulfinch, like McIntire, first turned to colonial American buildings for inspiration. The facade, with its giant order, central portico, hipped roof, and rooftop balustrade, was obviously derived from New England Georgian structures such as the aforementioned Vassall-Longfellow House. The rooms are largely undifferentiated. The support spaces appear as afterthoughts, neither unified nor hierarchically arranged. Room elevations are often asymmetrical. The stair configuration is the most interesting feature. Into a traditional center-hall plan Bulfinch inserted not one, but two, stairs with landings back-to-back, that for servants as grand as that for family use.6 The device is not without spatial and structural inventiveness, but it is inefficient and awkwardly scaled and exemplifies a design dilemma that would plague Bulfinch throughout his career: his discomfort with monumentality.

At his Joseph Coolidge House in Boston, Bulfinch applied his experience on the international scene, producing a decidedly English facade composition based on work Robert Adam had produced 20 years earlier, such as his Royal Society of Arts Building (1772-74) in London. Behind this facade Bulfinch distributed a variant of the double-pile plan with lateral service stair and axial stair for family use widened to produce a so-called "imperial" stair, a device popular in England in the second half of the 18th century.7

Bulfinch offered an even more cosmopolitan interpretation of domestic planning in his Joseph Barrell House in Somerville, Massachusetts (Figures 2-3). Within a cross-axial scheme, he developed a sequential entry sequence that must have appeared as a revelation to the local owners of ubiquitous double-pile-plan houses. His spatial arrangement can be compared to that of the Parisian Hôtel de Salm (1784), which Jefferson so admired, but has more kinship to the English interpretation of French planning by architects such as Sir John Soane, as at his Letton, Tendring, and Burn halls. The portico and front-entry stairs lead into a wide, shallow vestibule with its transverse axis defined by enfilade openings in anterooms connecting to a front parlor on the left and kitchen on the right. Beyond the vestibule rises a double stair certainly inspired by stairs used as nave thresholds in New England churches, including Bulfinch's celebrated Lancaster Meeting House (1816-17). In the Barrell House, circulation leads either under the stair, on axis into the oval garden room, or laterally to the servant stair and passage on the right and passage on the left, or up the principal stair to either side and between bedrooms to a roof terrace above the garden room. This spatial experience is rich if uncomfortably compressed. Furthermore, while the gangling column-supported stair assembly sits claustrophobically amidst surrounding partitions, the tripartite core of which it is a part is cleverly subdivided by double partitions between which Bulfinch inserted the winders of the stairs, closets, the anterooms, and diagonal access to the rear rooms.

By 1795 Bulfinch was also at work on the Boston State House. Here he turned for his inspiration to the exterior form, but not the plan, of William Chambers's Somerset House in London, amplifying its colonnaded central section and inflating its diminutive dome. The plan confirms that organizing a public building at this scale was well beyond Bulfinch's capabilities; it lacks not only monumentality, but also formal spatial sequence and any sense of hierarchy. Without a concise planning model to rely upon, Bulfinch was unable to make a convincing statement about the desirable qualities of the major interior spaces of a public building. Only at a domestic scale, beginning with clear models and slowly evolving modest, practical forms, could he adequately address the radical planning solutions demanded by the distinctive programmatic requirements of rapidly evolving Federal Period America.

Bulfinch designed three houses during the period 1795-96, the first of three that he built for Harrison Gray Otis (1795-96), that for Perez Morton (1796), and a dwelling for James Swan (ca. 1796). Otis required a setting in which he could properly entertain. Bulfinch developed a central-hall configuration with the first floor given over completely to a hall, kitchen ell, china storage, dining, and a single parlor, and an adjacent office so related to the parlor that Otis must have often retreated there with guests who had matters of business as well as pleasure on their minds. Under instructions from his client, Bulfinch recreated the planar facade design of the William Bingham residence in Philadelphia.8 Its taut, almost fragile-appearing front wall provided an appropriate architectural billboard for announcing financial success.

Bulfinch designed the Perez Morton House on a tee-hall plan, made distinctive by the complex treatment of its garden facade. Its sedate, if oversized, entry hall led to octagonal garden rooms, the one on the second floor encased within a semi-octagonal porch. Bulfinch never pursued such an overtly plastic composition in any of his later commissions. NEXT PAGE>>


FIGURE 2: Barrell House, Somerville, Massachusetts (1792-93), First-floor plan (Fazio) In 1818, Latrobe made face-to-face contact with Charles Bulfinch, when the Bostonian took over work at the U.S. Capitol. Some authorities argue that Charles Bulfinch, and not Latrobe, was the first professional architect in America. However, Bulfinch had no formal training, learning instead from travel and books, and opened an office only after he lost a large sum of money in an ill-fated speculation at the Tontine Crescent in Boston.

Bulfinch began with old-fashioned Anglo-Palladian models, following in particular the work of William Chambers; his earliest houses were no more advanced than McIntire’s, having central hall plans and Georgian massing and details. While it has its awkward moments, the Barrell house goes well beyond these early efforts. It shows Bulfinch to have been aware of the marché or movement sequence and of enfilade door arrangements with rooms in a quasi-en-suite, quasi-transverse-hall arrangement. It can be compared to Latrobe’s earliest designs in Virginia and even to French work of the 1780s such as the Hôtel Lakanal by Guslain Joseph Henry. Already apparent is Bulfinch’s personal interest in transverse circulation paths and his discomfort with monumentality, particularly monumental entry sequences. back

FIGURE 3: Barrell House, Photograph of the principal stair (Courtesy of Historic New England). Spindly columns, a gangling stair, random openings, irregular lighting, and claustrophobic proportions illustrate just how far Bulfinch had to go at this time in his career in the manipulation of complex interor spaces. His eventual solution was to abandon such axial compositions in pursuit of a personal, self-effacing idiom that was distinctly his own. His use of dégagement in the entry portended his subtle arrangement of principal rooms and servant's spaces at his mature houses of the first decade of the 19th century. back


6 This arrangement was used infrequently in New England, as at the Lady Pepperell House (after 1759) in Kittery Point, Maine. back

7 Damie Stillman, English Neo-classical Architecture, London: A. Zwemmer, 1988, Vol. 1, 287. back

8 Latrobe made plans to convert the Bingham residence into a merchant's exchange in 1805-06 (BHL to Robert Hare, 30 May 1813) (C3). back