Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dating With Style: 19th Century

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

     Like clothing, architecture has fads, trends and fashions.  Some architectural fashions are based on concrete things like available building materials or new techniques, while others are based on more nebulous things like historical anniversaries and politics.  Just as clothes can help date photographs, architectural fashions can be a handy tool for dating a building. Unfortunately architectural fashions can last for decades, but it still provides a nice range.
     The first white settlers arrived in our area in the 1780s and 90s.  None of the early settlers were architects and their homes tended to be fairly utilitarian and made of simple and easily available material like, say, logs.  Few of these structures remain. 
Parshall cabin built in town of Chemung in 1787.  It probably looked better then. 

     The oldest surviving homes in Chemung County primarily date from the 1830s.  In 1833, the Chemung Canal opened, bringing with it more wealth and opportunities to trade.  The most popular architectural style at that time was Greek Revival.  At the time, our young democratic republic was kind of obsessed with all things related to the history of the Western world’s earliest known democracy, Athens, Greece.  The idea of Greek Revival was to create homes which resembled ancient Greek temples.  There was a lot of variation within the style, but it did have some key features namely porches and entryways supported by square or rounded Doric columns.  It also often included cornice lines, or wide bands of trim below the roof lines, and other details. Nationally, this style was popular from 1825 through 1860.  New York State has the largest concentration of such homes in the country.

Greek temple vs. Greek Revival.  See what they were going for?

     There were several other styles which were also popular at the time.  Gothic Revival was characterized by steeply pitched roofs, gables with decorative ‘gingerbread’ and pointed windows.  It was a predominantly rural style, popular from 1840 through 1865 with a brief revival in the late-1870s. 

     The more popular urban style from this same period is Italianate.  This style was characterized by low-pitched roofs with widely overhanging eaves often featuring decorative brackets.  It often featured tall, narrow windows with elaborate crowns, usually in pairs or groups of three.  Square cupolas or towers were also common.  The style first became popular in America in the 1840s, but was the dominant style from 1850 to 1880, especially in growing cities like Elmira.  Less elaborate versions were also fairly popular in more rural areas as well. 
405 Maple Ave, Elmira, ca. 1870s
     Beginning in the 1860s, there were several interesting changes to building techniques and materials.  There was a shift from heavy-timber to balloon frame construction which allowed architects to play with shapes like never before.  Industrialization and railroads meant that building components could be mass produced and shipped across the country with ease allowing even poorer homeowners to trick out their houses with decorative features.  The building styles which were most popular during the period from 1860 to 1900 took full advantage of these changes.
     Second Empire styling was characterized by a mansard, or dual-pitched, roof often with dormer windows.  It usually included decorative brackets under the eaves and often had towers, round windows, and cresting along the roofline too.  It was very common in urban areas and was especially popular for town houses.  Second Empire homes first appeared in 1855, but peaked in popularity between 1860 and 1880.    

2nd Empire in free-standing home and town houses.
     If Second Empire took advantage of balloon frame construction to play with shapes, then Stick style took advantage of mass-produced building components to play with decorative detailing.  Stick, which was popular from 1860 to 1890, was characterized by a steeply-pitched gabled roof with decorative trusses at the apex.  It also involved a lot of decorative detailing, especially in terms of texture on walls and roofs.  Stick is largely considered to be a transitional style between the earlier Gothic Revival and the later Queen Anne style of the 1880s.  It wasn’t all that common and had largely died out in the northeast by the 1870s. 

Stick style farm house, ca. 1870s. 
     Queen Anne was the last great style of the 19th century, although it continued on into the 1910s.  In terms of decorative elements it was a clear continuation of Stick, but it was primarily characterized by irregular shapes, asymmetry and large porches.  Locally, you can find plenty of examples in the Near Westside or along Maple Avenue. 
361 Maple Avenue., Elmira
     Now that I’ve spent all this time talking about style, I have to point out that many homes, especially in rural and working-class areas, were built to be the functional equivalent of comfy jeans and a t-shirt.  Some might incorporate stylistic elements from popular styles which can help with dating, but, then again they might not.  Don’t let that stop you from speculating about the ages of homes as you walk around your neighborhood.  Stay tuned for the 20th century edition. 



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