If A House Could Talk, What Would It Say?
If a house could talk, what would it say? Quite a bit, if you make time to open your eyes and ears and listen.
Thanks to the generosity of the Peabody Essex Museum,
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Cotting-Smith House, located in Salem’s McIntyre Historic District, and field measure architectural details and photo document five rooms in this historic house.
As I began to write this post, something didn’t feel right. Kind of like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Something wasn’t right. The house was telling me, “Write/tell another story.”
IF A HOUSE COULD TALK – A BREIF HISTORY OF THE COTTING-SMITH HOUSE
I sat back, looked at my sketches and photographs and a very different story began to emerge. The story of how a house adjusted and adapted to various owners and uses over it’s lifetime of several centuries. What starts as a coherent vision for the first owner, doesn’t fit the needs/wants of the second owner, etc. Sound familiar? Yet, over the years, this house has survived, pretty much intact, largely due to its inherently user friendly layout and its rich architectural detail.
The Cotting-Smith House was built in 1782 as an Assembly Hall. It’s function/purpose was social, with parlors on the first and second floors across the front of the house, facing Federal Street. Across the back of the house was a two story high room, used to host exhibitions, social events, dances and meetings. The open intermediate stair landing to the second floor overlooked the Grand Ballroom below, functioned as a “orchestra pit.”
In 1797, Jonathan Waldo took possession of the assembly hall. In turn he sold the property to Samuel Putnam in 1798. It was about this time that Samuel McIntyre was retained to renovate/convert the Assembly Hall to a single family home. McIntyre redesigned the front elevation and made major structural changes to the interior, including creating a second floor in the former grand ball room. the new rooms on the second floor were reached via the intermediate landing of the original stair.
Other intact McIntire areas of the house are the foyer, foyer stairs and one first floor parlor.
I love the figureheads McIntyre carved in the column capitals found in the stairwell and second floor landings.
The home remained in private hands, undergoing several alterations and renovations, for the next 167 years, including the the addition of the front portico in the mid 19th century and two additions to the room immediately behind the McIntyre parlor in the 1920’s. You can clearly see the difference Between McIntyre’s light/delicate Federal Style in the elevation versus the heavier Revival style of the added portico.
In 1965, the house passed into the hands of the Essex Institute, now the Peabody Essex Museum. It was again open to the public, first as a historical museum in 1972 and today as a public function hall. Fitting that it has come full circle.
Thumbnail history of the house in hand, let’s take closer look at the five rooms I documented to see what we can learn and/or speculate about together.
IF A HOUSE COULD TALK – FIVE ROOMS TELL THEIR TALES
The key plans below show the rooms to which I had access. The first floor includes the room done by McIntyre (Left Front Parlor), the Right Front Parlor and the room behind the McIntyre Parlor.
On the second floor, I documented the two rooms to the right of the stair hall and landings.
The graphic below illustrates the various profiles I measured. You will notice a number of the pieces of trim repeat themselves in various rooms. This is where the fun and speculation begins. You may want to print this in order to refer back to it as I describe each room. It becomes a little confusing at times…
First Floor: Left Front Parlor
Let’s start in the McIntyre Room (First Floor Left), as this room is the most complete and undisturbed room in the house. It will provide us with a good baseline. Your first impression is the delightfully light and delicate scale of the trim details, a classic trademark of McIntyre’s interpretation of the Federal Style.
The room’s ceiling height is +/- 9’ – 4”. McIntyre has scaled down the entablature at the ceiling from the expected +/-16” to 12” deep. Interestingly, the door and window casing are almost 6”, the proper column diameter for a 12” entablature. Cool!!! He then uses the correct 8” width for the pilasters flanking openings by the fireplace.
While we’re in the room, take a look at how the windows are framed. Note how the opening flares on an angle, allowing the interior shutters to fold back into pockets in the window casing. See how the window casing extends to the floor, beautifully framing the opening. The window/door casing is deep enough to create a stop for the wainscot and trim. Perfection… The play of light and shadow on these deeper trim profiles is exquisite! Phooey on one piece speed bases!!!
First Floor: RIght Front Parlor
Baseline established, lets step across the hall into the Right Front Parlor, with its glorious panoramic wallpaper. The room’s architecture is completely different. The room sits heavier. Can you feel it? The wainscot runs continuously around the room. The fireplace over mantel/paneling, the paneling above the doors, how the windows are framed/trimmed all point to a different period and hand, other than McIntire. Or do they?
Here’s where it starts getting interesting. The door/window casing, base and chair rail profiles are quite different than the McIntire Parlor, with the profiles of the bits and pieces of trim in these assemblies based on ellipses, as opposed to pure arcs based on circles. Both Federal, but coming for different roots. Pure arc = Roman. Ellipse = Grecian.
The real twist and head scratcher is the entablature at the ceiling. It is precisely the same as in the McIntyre Parlor, with the exception of one location, the horizontal piece where the paneling above the door and windows engage the entablature. That piece is deep enough to perfectly engage the paneling! Now the kicker… The entablature profile above the doors and windows is a virtual match for the entablature in the McIntire Parlor.
Let’s speculate for a moment. Does this mean the details in this room predate the McIntyre Parlor? Perhaps they are original to the 1782 Assembly Hall? Perhaps McIntyre lifted the entablature detail and then updated the rest of the McIntyre Parlor in his own version/vision of Federal style? Or quite possibly, the entablature was present in the the Left Front Parlor when McIntyre undertook its renovation.
One last item…
There’s evidence of what are called Indian Shutters (Shutters that are built in to and slide out of pockets built into the wall by a window.) at the windows in this room. Perhaps McIntire modified the existing window openings in his room? Fascinating stuff!
This all leaves me wondering, which came first? The chicken or the egg?
First Floor: Right Rear Parlor
Completing the ground floor survey is the room behind the McIntire Parlor. (First Floor Left Rear) Modified in the 1920’s it was expanded with two “bays” on the back and side of the room. Looking at the fireplace in this elevation, with its cast iron liner, I wonder if the firebox is original. Looking at the mantel, given its detail and construction, my guess it is a later modification – perhaps done during the 1920’s renovation.
Once again, it is the trim details that cause me to pause and wonder. First, the cornice moulding at the ceiling caught my attention. Look closely at the profile of it’s upper piece of moulding. It is virtually identical to the top most piece of moulding in the entablature in the McIntire Parlor, while the bottom of the cornice echos the base cap of the base in the Right Front Parlor.
Door/window casing and base are simplfied, reflecting the scaling back of detail as one moves from public to private family spaces within a home. Note there is no chair rail or wainscot.
Even though there is less ornamentation and detail, I am struck by the continuity of the cornice, the same steps in the profile of the door/window casing and the simple echo on the base cap on the base. McIntire? Or the work of a highly skilled and trained carpenter? I would place my bets on the latter, who was familiar with and understood the basics of the Classical Orders and had pattern books, such as those written by Asher Benjamin, close at hand for really reference and inspiration.
second floor right Front Parlor
Second floor – last two rooms. One would expect these rooms to be less ornate, chair rail only or none at all. As we step into the the first room (Second Floor, Right) we are in for a bit of a “Woops!”
Granted, we don’t find any panoramic wall paper. However, we do find the same door/window casing, chair rail and base detail as the room directly below and we have a highly ornamented fireplace mantel. The only scaled back trim is the cornice/crown at the ceiling, which appears to be remarkably similar to the cornice in the first floor room behind the McIntire Parlor. A bit of a mixed message. Having said all that, without wallpaper above the wainscot, the overall effect is a scaled back room.
Remember the Indian Shutters, I mentioned previously? Here we see them in the process of reassembly after restoration and reassembly/installation. With the repetition of this detail, I am becoming increasingly convinced it dates back to the original build of 1782.
Second Floor right rear Parlor
The last room to which I had access was immediately behind the the Second Floor Right room. It its current configuration it’s broken up, with a bathroom across the back of the room and closets along an interior wall. In spite of this “disruption”, old cornice, wainscot, base and door/window casing are in evidence. The original mantel is long gone, but hints of it’s presence remain. Look closely at the cornice and you will find a suggestion of a large over mantle/mantel assembly below, by how the cornice steps in and out over the mantel/firebox below. Reminds me of a somewhat similar detail in the First Floor Right Front Parlor.
A closer look at the room’s trim once again reveals a tantalizing blend of detail from other rooms in the house. The base and chair rail are identical to the 1st and 2nd Floor Right rooms. This implies two possibilities. Either when the seance floor over the Grand Ballroom was added, details were mirrored. Or, during a subsequent renovation, the much of the same trim was used throughout. Adding to the mystery, is the fact that the upper moulding of the cornice is an exact match with the the Second Floor Front room, while it’s bottom trim is almost an exact match to the base cap in the McIntire Parlor. The door/window casing bears a striking resemblance to the door/window casing in the McIntire Parlor as well. Continuity from room to room by means of some very clever mixing and matching! Would we dare to do the same today?
Ultimately, we’ll never know the sequence and thinking behind the way and wherefores of how these rooms were designed and assembled. Do you, like me, wish “If a house could talk? What would say?” What tales might it tell?
IF A HOUSE COULD TALK – THE TAKE AWAYS
- If you want your home to be visually rich, vary the interior trim details.
- If you plan to mix it up, do it in a manner that the details echo and relate to each other.
- Use a profile for one room is a different way in another. Remember the base cap/crown moulding similarities?
- Larger, more ornate details in the public spaces and rooms.
- Scale down/back the proportion and level of detail in your prove and secondary rooms.
- Stick with proportions that are appropriate to the scale of the room. Refer this blog post for handy proportion guides.
- By mixing it up, you can create a home that is visually rich and will feel as though it evolved over time. You can even do this with new construction, giving your home instant age.
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