My last post, about the Pierce mansion
in Portsmouth, with its lovely hall, brought comments about the complexities involved in building a such a staircase. It does seem to be a lost art, with even high end designers and builders taking shortcuts that result in something flat and unsatisfactory. I remember a having a conversation with the stair builder on a oversized ‘colonial’ style house being built near where I lived 30 years ago. The house was a huge affair, designed for a fairly demanding client.. One of her desires was a grand curving staircase, a nearly universal symbol of architectural elegance and glamor. A stair was designed, and like the one in the Pierce mansion, it was recessed in a wall between two doors. The effect, however (in fairness partly the fault of the exuberant interior decoration), falls far short of the Pierce staircase.. The craftsman who built the stairs told me at the time that there were many issues—-the architect had not done the math properly, and the stairs in building would not actually land in the proper place. Many adjustments had to be made in the course of construction, and the result, as you can see below was better than many modern circular stairs, but far short of what was being done in earlier times.
The very stair in question, looking better than it really is through a fisheye lense. Best not to think to much about the decor. It was the 80’s. The program was ambitious. This is actually one of the more calmly decorated spaces in the house.
And this opens up one of the anomalies of modern design and building. The architect in question had completed four years of one of the best architectural schools in the country, and acquired undeniable design skills, and had had endless training in mathematics and geometry. Yet he couldn’t come up with a proper curving staircase, one that swept in a graceful gravity defying curve to the second floor. We see it all the time now—-graceless stairways, ill proportioned Palladian, or as builders and realtors like to call them, Palladium, windows are a stock standard of ‘traditional’ home designs. The house above also has one of those ill designed windows, but that’s not where this post is headed, so I’ll leave that for another day.
The curving staircase at Woodlawn
The anamoly is that 200 hundred years ago, in a country with relatively primitive technologies, self trained carpenter/architects, often with limited education, were routinely creating graceful, well ordered buildings using no more than their eye, and the building conventions of the time, aided by several popular builders manuals, chief among them those of Asher Benjamin
. Here is an excellent case study, the John Black house, Woodlawn, here Down East in Ellsworth, Maine, designed from Plate 54 of Asher Benjamin’s American Builder’s Companion
Plate 54 From The American Builder’s Companion, published in 1816, inspiration for Woodlawn.
Woodlawn, as built in 1827
John Black was an Englishman, who had been recommended for the position of secretary to one of Washington’s Generals, David Cobb, who after the Revolution had come Down East as agent for the Bingham family, who had recently purchased 2,000,000 acres of Maine with an eye to development. Black had been recommended to Cobb by the Barings of Barings bank, who also had a stake in the Maine lands. He did well in his job, in due course married Cobb’s daughter, and succeeded his father-in-law as the Bingham’s agent. Black became the leading citizen of the area, and in 1827, his fortune secure, he set about to build a house on a hill outside Ellsworth.
One of Benjamin’s drawings showing how to calculate the geometry of a winding stair
and below, some notes on the building of stairs
An architect could have been summoned from the city, given Black’s cosmopolitanism and wealth, but instead, he chose a local builder with talent for design, Seth Tisdale, and together, they created an elegant, and for the time, modern, house with a revolutionary side hall plan. And how did they do this? They took a plate from the 1816 edition of Asher Benjamin’s American Builder’s companion, customized it with details from the book, ordered brick from Philadelphia, and some time later, they had built what was in those times the then grandest house in eastern Maine, elegant, gracefully proportioned, with one of the loveliest curved stairs to survive from that era—all using the helpful instructions of Asher Benjamin. In fact, with the graceful semicircular stair, they did Benjamin one better, replacing the straight upper landing with an s-curve that neatly completes the circle. I don’t have a picture available, but the transition of the scrolled stair bracket decoration to the upper landing facing is virtuosic.
The Ionic portico at Woodlawn, with cornice and capitals copied from Benjamin
Most of Woodlawn’s lovely details, railings, door casings, mantels, balustrades, interior shutters, can all be traced to designs chosen from Benjamin’s book, and the finished result shows just how far a talented builder could go, with a set of rules to follow in gauging proportion and detail. In copying Benjamin’s design, the floorplan was followed exactly, but the elevation was tweaked, with triple hung windows reaching to the floor from the drawing rooms, and portico along the front of the central block. What a huge difference from today’s builder houses, with their ‘one of everything’ from the window catalog. What we have lost from average building in recent years is proportion and grace, whatever architectural style is being essayed.
Woodlawn in 1936
I can think of a dozen other houses around here from the early 19th century with surprisingly lovely and sophisticated staircases—the Ruggles House at Columbia falls is a particularly fine example—and so it remains until the 1940’s. And from then on, I cannot think of a house, no matter how well designed, or expensive, that has a really worthy stair. It’s a mystery to me.
John Black’s grandson, George Nixon Black, who used the house only in the spring and fall, died in 1927, leaving Woodlawn, its expansive park-like grounds, and three generations of family furnishings to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, who administer it as a house museum and park. The house’s lovely furnishings are as Mr. Black left them in 1927. For more information, visit the Woodlawn website http://www.woodlawnmuseum.com/ It is one of half a dozen exceptional historic houses to be visited in this region.
Incidentally, the last Mr. Black, in addition to his munificent gift of Woodlawn to down east Maine, was also a major benefactor of the American collections at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has also achieved immortality in architectural history for having commissioned one of the most admired houses of the shingle style, his summer home at Manchester Massachusetts, designed by Peabody & Stearns. This is definitely not a house out of the pattern books, and is a virtuoso performance by young architects at the beginning of their successful practice. Kragsyde was demolished in 1929, two years after Black’s death, but interestingly, a copy has been built, reversed from the original plans, on Swan’s Island, not 25 miles from Woodlawn.
Kragsyde, George Nixon Black’s summer home
Photo Credits: Color Photos by Dilettante or from Woodlawn website, black & white photos of Woodlawn from Historic American Buildings Survey. Staircase 1 from Sotheby’s Realty