Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Style is it?

To a lot of people, Clermont can be a confusing building. When I first got here, fresh from classes about how to identify architectural styles, even I was confused. What style is it? Well, it's a bit of a hodgepodge.

Clermont was first built in the 1740s, a typical Georgian-style mansion. But seven generations of Livingstons occupied it over about 210 years. Although they generally had a lot of respect for the herritage and family pride that it represented, each generation strove to keep their home up-to-date with recent fashions and to make it meet their ever-changing needs. They added on. They re-decorated. They changed things.

Taken together, they have added up to make Clermont a combination of styles with details everywhere that are as varied in their history as the rest of the collections.
The bones of the Georgian era are still there. Many people are thrown off track by the fact that you enter through the back side (seen above). The front side actually faces the river, the major avenue for travel during the 18th century. From the front though, we can see the classic features of a Georgian facade: it's a big box. Five windows across, counting the door in the middle. Inside there's a hall down the center, and two rooms on either side. You have to take off the pointy roof and towering dormers in your imagination; those are a later addition.

The building probably looked very much like the illustration above when it was built--very spare and square, very fashionable for 1740 when Robert the Builder and Margaret Howarden Livingston were there.

Her granddaughter Betsy needed some changes though. After a generation or two, the house was apparently getting a little small and out-of-date. With the Federal era in full swing by the time she and her husband inherrited the house in 1800, it was time for some changes. The look was finer and dantier than her grandmother's time. Federal style was reaching for something approacing ancient Greece or Rome--the perfect model for a country working towards a new Republic. The first-floor fireplaces apparently needed updating. Written records show that the lovely marble surround (and the black marble in the dining room) were purchased by Edward P. Livingston (Betsy's husband). You cand see similar columns featured around the fireplace in this Salem, MA house's 1805 fireplace.

Books were also becoming a larger part of people's lives in the early 19th century, and Edward P. aparently felt this keenly. To accomodate his growing library, he built these bookcases in what is now our study sometime in the 1830s.

Edward P. also added two wings to the house, which make a big visual impression, but not a big style one. The real force for stylistic change later on at Clermontwas John Henry Livingston about 60 years later. His updates made the biggest impact on Clermont for generations to come.

The pointy roof that defines Clermont's current sillhouette is a Chateausque feature added in 1893. It's what makes us look a little bit like a French castle. Those tall, skinny windows in the dormers are also a dead giveaway for late 19th cenury style. Many stylish houses got a very vertical look to them during this era, as oposed to that kind of substantial, square look of the Georgian period. For instance, compare them with the lofty style of our neighbor Wilderstein, whose external appearance reflects the 1888 construction.

One set of John Henry's dormers on the south wing caught my eye yesterday (while I was photographing the sunny weather) because of an Eastlake sunburst. What? Architect Charles Eastlake left his atractive mark on plenty of American homes, but not really at Clermont.


The spindly, ornate style you can see on this Buffalo, NY porch is classis Eastlake style, but bears little similarity to Clermont. You have to look closer at the sunburst feature above the porch to recognize it. The little sunburst in the top in the top of our dormer is an elemnent commonly spotted in Eastlake style homes like the one pictured at left. It's an unexpected thing to find here.

Other features inside the house reflect Arts and Crafts influence. John Henry paneled his gentleman's retreat in oak, a wood that was finally beginning to be recognized as part of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The dark, wood-paneled environment was a hallmark of later Arts and Crafts or Craftsman style home. The return to a geometric, simplified motife also suggests a appreciation for this style (period illustration at right by Gustav Stickley).
Even the ceiling in the Colonial Revival drawing room draws surprising paralells to the Arts and Crafts. The division of the ceiling by large beams (not so much the smaller coffers in between) was a decorative feature favored in Arts and Crafts interiors.

We talk about the Colonial Revival a lot at Clermont because it played a huge part in John Herny's later revisions, especially beginning in the 1910s and 20s. John Henry's biggest architectural was, without doubt, the Colonial Revival so finding these earlier spatters of other architectural styles is always a bit of a surprise. Other remain from even earlier generations, dating back to the Federal era and even the house's rebuild after the 1777 fire.
Together all of these various elements create an unusual--even unique--amalgamation of styles. So the next time you are standing in front of Clermont (hopefully with your Fieldguide to American Houses in hand), try your luck with discerning some of the different architectural eras that make up the whole pretty picture.

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