From early 19th century America, when builders and designers were almost incapable of designing an ugly building, a little riff on how design ideas traveled, in this case from the urban centers to the little seaport of Portsmouth New Hampshire.  I sometimes just enjoy pondering these things out loud–and find that even 200 years ago in Federalist America, with travel primitive and distances remote, the degrees of separation rarely added up to six.


Octagon House in Washington, not really an octagon, designed for John Tayloe by William Thornton, architect of the Capitol and constructed 1798-1800.  This was something new in American domestic architecture when first completed.  When the White House was burned in the War of 1812, it was to this house that James & Dolley Madison retreated.  It is now a museum operated by the American Institute of Architects, whose headquarters behind it so sadly demonstrates how many lessons have been forgotten.

Rear Facade of Octagon House, which originally overlooked a brick stable building far more elegant that the AIA


The Thomas Haven house, Portsmouth New Hampsire, built in 1813 on  the corner of  Middle St. & Richards Avenue in  Porsmouth, New Hampshire.  It was later owned by Admiral George Washington Storer, who as a five month old baby had sat in George Washington’s lap in 1783.  Apparently the designer, whose name is lost to history, was familiar with  Octagon house.  Storer’s daughter Mabel married the grandson of Stephan Decatur, a hero of the War of 1812, whose Washington house was designed by Benjamin Latrobe.  Sadly the Haven house was long ago demolished by another Storer daughter in favor of a ponderous Second Empire mansion.

The old Custom House, built 1813 on the corner of  Penhallow and Daniel Streets in Portsmouth, a building delicate and provincial in its details, and of almost infinite charm
 
The Samuel Larkin house, Portsmouth NH, begun in 1815 nearly across the street from the Haven house, architect unknown.  Mr. Larkin was an auctioneer who had greatly enhanced his fortune on commissions from the sale of booty seized by privateers during the War of 1812.  By 1829, reverses caused him to leave this house for his original smaller frame house next door.  The design is a refinement of the Burd mansion in Philadelphia

The Burd Mansion, on Chestnut St. in Philadelphia is thought to have inspired the Larkin house in Portsmouth.  It was designed in 1801 by Benjamin Latrobe.  This daguerreotype by Frederic deBourg Richards in the collection of the Library  Company of Philadelphia, bears this description: 
“Mansion of Joseph Sims, Esq. On Southwest corner of Chestnut and Ninth street-the grounds extending to George, now Sansom street, on which latter it has a frontage, with stables, equal to that on Chestnut Street. After the failure in business of Mr. Sims, it was occupied for many years, until his decease, by Mr. Sims’ son-in-law, and family, Edward P. Burd, Esq. Mrs. Burd, his widow, still resides there.”  The Burd mansion is long lost.


In 1803, Thomas Jefferson appointed Latrobe, America’s first professional architect, as Surveyor of Public Buildings in the United States.  As such, he took over the construction and design of the Capitol, with some irritation at being instructed by Jefferson to follow the designs made by William Thornton, which he found faulty.  Despite their aesthetic and engineering differences on the Capitol, Thornton’s rear elevation at Octagon House and the facade of the Burd house have more than a whiff of common themes.

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