Historic Harrisville

P.O. Box 79
Harrisville, NH 03450
603-827-3722

Erin Hammerstedt
Executive Director
ehammerstedt@historicharrisville.org

 


 

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Architectural Series

By Jeannie Eastman

Architecture in Harrisville

In 1774, when Abel Twitchell built his house on the ledge hill above Goose Brook and his gristmill and sawmill next to the stream, the land that was to become Harrisville village was little more than a precipitous ravine where the water fell 100 feet in less than a half mile. The house was technically in Dublin, but the line dividing the newly incorporated towns of Dublin and Nelson was only a few feet from Twitchell’s front door. In the first years along Goose Brook, the site was appropriately called “Twitchell’s Mills.”

Facade of the Twitchell house

Almost 100 years passed before the thriving mill village and 21 square miles of surrounding lakes, forest, and farmland seceded from Dublin and Nelson to become the town of Harrisville. The frame house stands today, surrounded by the more substantial brick houses and mill buildings that followed its construction.

With the help of Linda Willett, executive director of Historic Harrisville, Common Threads begins a series of articles on architectural style. Here we look at the Twitchell house, the oldest house in Harrisville village and the only one that is essentially Georgian in style.

Part I: Georgian

What is Georgian style? It is architecture that was highly influenced by the Renaissance, as art began to reflect the Italians’ sense of space and balance and proportion. It was a profound change after the tight constraints of medieval style. Named for the 18th-century British kings George, it survived in this country until the Revolution when, naturally, it lost favor. Classic features included geometric proportions, high-pitched, often hipped roofs with large chimneys; lateral symmetry on the façade (front) of the building that included columns and pilasters; and a grand main entrance with elaborate crown moldings with a three- or five-light transom over the paneled door. The Longfellow House (ca. 1759) in Cambridge, MA, is a good example of Georgian high style. Like other houses of its kind and vintage, it was built to show that it was “English.”

When we compare the Twitchell house to classic Georgian buildings, we may not recognize it as being of the same style because it is so plain. But architecture in a country setting is often the vernacular version. Vernacular architecture borrows stylistic details but adapts them in a practical sense to the climate, culture, and economic conditions of a region. The early Cape and Colonial houses of rural New England were usually vernacular versions of Georgian houses.

The Twitchell house is Georgian even though it has undergone several changes over time. The balanced floor plan of four corner rooms around a central brick mass gave a fireplace to each room. The original masonry was later replaced with a single chimney that vents the furnace.

The façade of a Georgian house is usually balanced. Five windows over four and a door is the most typical design. This one is balanced except for the odd single window on the right side of the upper story, which must have suited the needs of the Twitchells. It is hard to say what the original front entry looked like because the entire doorway was replaced with one that had sidelights, a stylistic change that didn’t appear until the 19th century, when Greek revival style became prominent.

The double-hung windows are also replacements; the original sash surely had smaller panes, perhaps nine-over-six instead of the six-over-six that we see today. Linda Willett says, “People, over the course of time, make stylistic changes to suit changing tastes with architecture. Buildings must be looked at in detail. While a particular building may not exhibit every element of a particular style, its details and methods of construction make it a recognizable example of its time.”

Back of the Twitchell house

The rear of the Twitchell house retains more of its original architectural detail, and that is why it looks older than the façade. The simple four-panel door has no surround, just a five-light transom overhead. The window sash is probably the original nine-over-six, but an odd little window was added to give light to a dark hallway.

Because the Twitchell house was built into the side of the ledge hill, the back of the house, which opens to the upper story, is remarkably different from the front; it has the appearance of a small Cape. It is much like other early one-story cottages, the most common form of a Georgian house found in rural areas of New England.

In the 1990s Historic Harrisville, which owns the Twitchell house, renovated the building into two apartments, one above and one below. They are part of the foundation’s affordable housing program.

The Farnum/Upton house

Elsewhere in Harrisville, the dark red Farnum/Upton house (ca. 1779) is a better-preserved and more classic example of the vernacular Georgian house than is the Twitchell house. The Harrisville architectural resources survey, which is in the archives of Historic Harrisville, describes it as “the second-oldest surviving house in Pottersville, one of only two two-story late-Georgian square-plan, center-entry houses to survive in Harrisville.” The house is located at 54 Brown Road and is owned by Mary Upton.

 

Part II: Federal

After some 100 years of colonial life, the American Revolution (1775-1778) brought political change, but a distinctively American style of architecture did not emerge until much later. During the Federal period, 1776-1830, Americans continued to find their architectural models in England and Europe.

Federal style was called “Adamesque” on the other side of the Atlantic, named for the Adam brothers, architects in late 18th-century England who were influenced by early Roman architecture. In America, architects such as Boston’s Charles Bulfinch adopted their designs. Federal was a refinement rather than a radical change over the earlier Georgian style. It kept the bilateral symmetry but adopted a low-pitched roof. By replacing the center chimney mass with four side chimneys, it opened the interior to new possibilities; the floor plan could include a room hexagonal, round, or oval in shape, the most famous example being the oval office inside the White House. Windows became larger but glass panes remained small because large ones were difficult to make and transport. Top and bottom sashes could have six, eight, or twelve lights. Front entrances became more elaborate, often with a curved, Palladian window over a six-paneled door and side lights coming half or three-quarters of the way down. High-style Federal houses had delicate decorative details inside: swags, garlands, urns, or rosettes applied to their walls.

All of this, from the floor plans to the architectural details, was available in pattern books, which made possible the rapid spread of Federal-period buildings.

The style may have been borrowed, but it nevertheless reflected the exuberance and optimism of the rapidly expanding new nation as the standard of living rose.

Bethuel Harris house

It is easy to sense that optimism in the example of the Federal house built by Bethuel and Deborah Harris. They had farmed nearby in Nelson and the, rather remarkably, set their hopes on the developing mill site along Goose Brook and built their grand house in 1819. Deborah, the daughter of Abel Twitchell, produced sons and daughters who would, over the course of 30 years, help their father raise a new town along the ravine, as each built a house and helped expand the mill industry.

The Bethuel Harris house came near the end of the Federal period. Brick for the construction, which probably came from the Felt brickyard near Tolman Pond in Nelson, was laid in Flemish bond on the facade and the side elevation that faced the public way. Flemish bond (header, stretcher, header, and stretcher) is a more time time-consuming, expensive way to lay brick. The rear and nonpublic sides were laid in common bond. Features that immediately identify the house as Federal are the low hip roof, large window openings, and four side chimneys. The five-light transom and rather simple molding around the door are a carryover from the Georgian period, but the door itself is six-paneled and therefore consistent with Federal style. It is one of only two houses in the village that never had a slate roof, instead being wood-shingled until asphalt shingles were invented.

The house is similar to that owned and occupied by the Hancock Historical Society, on Main Street in Hancock, which leads one to think that the houses may have been built by the same local builder. The brick bonding on the exterior, the nearly square footprint, and the floor plan are almost identical. But the Bethuel Harris house is built on a steep slope and has a basement level entrance on the street side.

Linda Willett describes the entrance to the front doorway: “Here you have a tooled granite foundation, a little more refined, a little higher style, and a wonderful door sill of tooled granite. There are dressed granite steps going up to the door. It’s quite a nice house with fine proportions.” She also points out the fact that the windows do not have lintels to support the brick above them. “I hadn’t noticed it before coming here. It’s very uncommon, very hard to hold those bricks in place over an opening that size without an arch or lintel. Over the door, there are bricks placed on end with just a slight splay that serves as an arch.

Chick and Pat Colony have owned the house since 1970. Chick explains its construction: “All the other brick buildings in Harrisville are brick shells around a post-and-beam frame. But our house is built like old skyscrapers; the closer to the ground, the thicker the walls.” What may be six courses of brick on the foundation level is reduced by two bricks with each ascending floor. The floor joists, therefore, rest on the brick shelf that is formed by the wall below it. As a result, the window sills reduce in depth as they go up.

At some time, the original window sash was replaced with Italianate two-over-two sash, but the Colonys installed the current twelve-over-twelve and eight-over-twelve sash, which is true to Federal style. In the course of their ownership, they have discovered, among other things, remnants of a summer kitchen fireplace and oven in the basement, which they rebuilt, and a second-story ballroom upstairs, which had been partitioned off by earlier occupants. After Bethuel and Deborah Harris died, the house was used as a boarding house by the Harris family and then as a single-family or duplex tenement by Cheshire Mills.

The interior, says Pat Colony, is an interesting mix of plain and fancy. One side of the house has a simple, country feeling; the opposite side has more ornate woodwork and architectural detail.

The Jedediah Kilburn Southwick house

Another prominent Federal period house is the red brick Jedediah Kilburn Southwick house in Chesham village, which predates the Bethuel Harris house by 11 years. It was also made of local materials. Harrisville’s architectural resources survey describes the Southwick house as “neoclassical brick architecture, inspired by the Boston work of Charles Bulfinch, which spread throughout New England during the early 19th century. It could easily have served as a stylistic model for the earliest brick buildings in the mill village of Harrisville.”

Part III: Greek Revival

Two military conflicts in the early 19th century brought major change to architectural style in the new United States and, after nearly half a century of nationhood, Americans finally had a style of their own. In the bitter War of 1812, the U.S. and England were at it again, the British attempting to capture a few select ports, and the Americans trying to expand into English-held territory north of our border. The struggle ended in a stalemate but turned Americans so determinedly against England that they rejected everything British, including Federal architecture. The second conflict was Greece’s war of independence from Turkey (1821-1832). Americans drew parallels between it and their own fight for sovereignty fifty years earlier. Furthermore, they had come to see the ancient Greek Republic as their proper, historic example—the symbol of democracy and the spirit of civic life—and they adopted elements of Greek architecture.

Greek revival, as it was called, flourished for forty years or more at a time when statehood was rapidly expanding to the Pacific coast. The westward moving settlers carried the new architecture with them and were, effectively, the Johnny Appleseeds of the latest style as they built houses, churches, state capitols, and other civic buildings across the continent. Americans took to Greek revival so readily and adapted its elements so creatively from one region to the next that it became the “national style.”

Adaptation is what makes Greek revival interesting to explore, for elements of it are recognizable only in the columned antebellum mansion but also in the Midwestern farmhouse and the small New England cottage. By 1850 the growing railroad system was shipping machine-made materials to builders in even the remote outposts. A Nebraska farmhouse could have fluted columns, by gosh!

What Greek revival elements are looking for? First, the ancient Greeks did not have the arch, as did the later Romans, so everything was bound by rectilinear geometry—posts and beams. But magnificent temples, with triangular gabled pediments above columned porticoes didn’t require the arch; straight lines did it all. If we look at these two separate parts, the column and the pediment, we can see how they were adapted in 19th-century America.

The Harrisville General Store

The Harrisville General Store (1838) provides a good beginning. Its gabled end turned to the front, its proportions, and its heavy columns supporting the porch make it reminiscent of the Greek temple even though it was a functional brick building in a 19th-century industrial village. But above the porch we see rows of second-and third-story windows rather than a temple-like triangular pediment. To see a well defined pediment we must look to the brick church (1842) next to the canal. Its broad white pediment, in contrast to the brick walls, is plain but prominent.

The columns of the store building and the pediment of the brick church are simple, vernacular adaptations of these two classic elements of Greek revival architecture. In other locales, they were more elaborate. Columns were round or fluted and topped with Ionic capitals. Pediments could be framed with heavy cornice molding and sit above a broad horizontal entablature of moldings that separated it from the row of columns.

Peanut Row house

On the other hand, elements could be simplified even more from those of the store or the church. The white clapboard Peanut Row cottages (1864) are, like the Harrisville General Store and the brick church, positioned with their gable ends to the front. They have no columns; instead, they have modest pilasters, upright boards at the front corners of the house that imply the idea of a column. The house has no real pediment, but the cornice molding under its eaves makes a return toward the center, suggesting a triangular pediment. Similar versions of the Peanut Row house, a 1 ½-story cottage with a side hall entry, are found elsewhere in Harrisville village and are, in fact, ubiquitous throughout New England. A more elaborate example of the corner pilaster and cornice return is seen on the former Nubaunsit House hotel (1869) at 10 Main Street.

Greek revival buildings weren’t always fronted on the gable end. The Cyrus Harris house (1828), at 11 Prospect Street, and the Almon Harris house (1830) at 21 Canal Street, are sited with their lateral sides toward the front. But they have other elements that characterize them as Greek revival: heavy lintels over the window and door openings, six-over-six window sash, front entrances with side lights coming halfway or all the way down, and heavy cornice moldings.

In Harrisville village, an extraordinary number of early houses built by the Harris family were constructed of brick—brick being durable and locally available. Those houses are visually tied to the mill buildings. But generally across the country, whitewashed or painted clapboard was most often used in Greek revival buildings. Whether by design or by serendipity, it gave the appearance of Grecian marble.

Detail of pilaster and cornice molding on the
former Blake’s Hotel

Looking at the proportions and orientation of a building, its columns or pilasters, and its pediment, we see the big picture. But Historic Harrisville’s Linda Willett says that the age and style of a building are found in its details as well. We must look at the cut of the moldings and in the cut of the paneled doors and window muntins (the wooden strips dividing the panes). Those profiles tell the story of a building’s age and style. Before Greek revival—in Georgian and Federal buildings—curves and arches were based upon the circle, which came out of the Roman tradition. But the Greeks used the oval, which produced a heavier, more robust effect.

At the Harrisville General Store, we can see the difference because that building has a bit of both. The paneled doors are cut from the oval, the doorway surrounds are cut from the circle, and each is original building fabric. Had we not known that the store was erected in 1838, the profiles alone would tell us that the building had to be Greek revival, but the builder also carried forward a molding profile from an earlier era. It was not uncommon to do so.

Linda Willett says, “You can date all the windows by how the muntins are cut. That gives you a clue as to when the building was built or whether the window sash is original. Those things are not given enough attention when people do restoration. They don’t think about those exact profiles. So you might have a really good Greek revival building with a Gothic revival el on it. You need all the details to get a sense of what was built first and what was added. Sometimes the original part of the house is now the el.”

This is sure: our appreciation of Harrisville increases as we learn to read its history in the buildings that we see every day.

Part IV: Victorian

What does the term “Victorian architecture” bring to mind? A mansard roof? A roof steeply pitched or flat? Decorative shingle siding with gingerbread trim? Bay windows or tall, arched ones? An off-centered design with a turret or wraparound porch? Victorian is all of these and more—a “battle of styles,” as it has been called, that was waged in this country from 1840 to 1900 during the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, from whom it derived its name.

Looking back at that period, one might think that Americans had lost their focus and were caught up in an architectural free-for-all. But styles are influenced not only by changes in political ideology, as happened during the Greek revival period, but also by advances in technology and economy. The invention of balloon framing, lightweight construction that replaced post and beam, made it possible to build houses without the rigid limitations of classical styles. And steam-powered sawmills turned out complex ornamentation. “Five-over-four-and-a door” became passé, and technology opened wide the door to exuberance for a new, wealthy class of people with an unbridled appetite for material abundance.

Victorian architecture came in a succession of distinct styles.

Gothic revival style emerged even as Greek revival was all the rage. It was popularized by Andrew Jackson Downing, whose 1838 book, The Architecture of Country Houses, included designs for small cottages, farmhouses, and villas in both Gothic and Italianate styles. Downing believed that everyone should enjoy the satisfactions of home ownership, and that tasteful, beautiful architecture could help ensure a moral society.

Gothic houses, influenced by European Gothic architecture, had very steeply pitched roofs and tall windows, which were sometimes cathedral-shaped with hooded moldings. But the local craftsmen who built them sometimes added ornamentation, either commercially available or self-made, using their new band saws and scroll saws. Collectively called “gingerbread,” the ornaments added whimsy and romance to these new “Carpenter Gothic” houses.

The Milan Walter Harris house

The Milan Walter Harris house, built in 1952, is Harrisville’s only example of Gothic style. The Architectural Resources Survey in Historic Harrisville’s archives says that it represents what architectural historian William Pierson calls the “strange and amusing form; by which romanticism made its first incursions into the established classical tradition at Harrisville.”

On Church Hill, it faces the granite mill built by Milan Walter’s uncle, Cyrus Harris. The façade has a side front entry with transom and full sidelights, and two tall windows, all covered with hooded moldings. But the thing that is most striking, the element that clearly places the house in the Carpenter Gothic category, is the bargeboard trim at the eaves. The house and small barn have three different styles of bargeboard; the most elaborate one has small acorn-shaped cutouts and is on the raking eave that projects over the front porch. A bracketed bay window and recessed side entrance on the south side add to the asymmetrical design. The house is a simple, vernacular version of Carpenter Gothic. Vernacular or not, it must have caused quite a stir in mid-19th-century, pragmatic Harrisville.

The Zophar Willard house

Italianate design followed and quickly dominated Gothic Revival style in America, but it barely made inroads in Harrisville. With low-pitched and wide overhanging roofs and tall round-topped windows, the new style drew its influenced from the Italian villa. Some of those elements appear on the Zophar Willard house located at 19 Main Street. Probably built about 1880, it is a vernacular version; although it is shaped like a Greek Revival house with gabled front and prominent cornice returns, its details—the broad eaves, two-over-two sash, plain projecting bay window, round-headed arches in the lights of the paneled door, and the bracketed hood over the door—are of the Italianate style. Even the paint, white with dark green trim, is typical. Fortunately the exterior of the house has been altered very little over time.

The LaPointe house

The LaPointe house, at 132 Main Street and prominent in the lower village, was owned for nearly 100 years by August LaPointe, his heirs, and extended family. Begun as a smaller house, major additions were made in 1896: matching ells on the north and south sides; a covered wraparound porch; and an Italianate bay window on either side of the front entry. Stylistic changes made to the house were decidedly Victorian. Some years ago, the present owner launched a major renovation to bring the house back to its 1896 condition. When asbestos siding was removed, she found the old clapboards in remarkably good repair. In rebuilding the wraparound porch, she installed a chinoiserie, or Chinese style, balustrade and curved support brackets, which are near replicas of what had been on the original porch. Colorful paint enhanced the house’s beauty.

As the American Victorian period progressed through the last half of the 19th century, with each style seemingly outdoing the previous one, Harrisville continued to build what had worked well throughout the mid-century. It avoided the mansard roof of the Second Empire style; the decorative truss work of Eastlake; and the multiple steep roofs, the hexagonal porches, and circular turrets of Queen Anne style. But, as with the LaPointe house, vernacular Victorian additions were made to existing houses.

The G.W. Mason house

Such was the case with the G. W. Mason house at, 345 Chesham Road, which was built sometime between 1858 and 1877 and which later underwent additions to its façade. Linda Willett says that the three two-story bays on the front and shingle siding on the gables were appropriately done in Queen Anne style. The present owners have accented those features with colorful paint, in Victorian style. It is their understanding that, for some years, the house was used as a tavern after the railroad came through Harrisville, and that passengers arriving on the Boston & Maine would walk the short distance from Chesham Depot to rest and take refreshment before completing their journey.

When the flamboyant Victorian era collapsed, seemingly from its own excess at the turn of the 20th century, when America settled down and ushered in the bold but simple and honest Arts and Crafts period, Harrisville had been only modestly touched by decades of architectural experimentation. It came through the Victorian period without as much as a single turret.

Styles may have changed with the times, but buildings here were plain, were built by local carpenters using locally available materials, and were designed to meet the needs of common people in a country setting. “Vernacular” describes the buildings featured in each of these four articles on early architecture in Harrisville. Because they were modest examples of their architectural styles, there is a sense of harmony both in the pastoral setting of Chesham and also in Harrisville’s unpretentious mill village, where the mills, boarding houses, church, store, and homes cluster along the falling water.