Friday, August 29, 2008

What Style is it?

“What style is my house?” This is a common query from homeowners as they wonder how their home fits into the local architectural landscape. This is, however, a question that can be difficult to answer. Is a house a Victorian, Folk Victorian, National Folk, Vernacular, Queen Anne, Italianate, Second Empire or something else? Answers depend on the eye of the beholder and the ways different people classify houses. Each observer focuses on particular architectural features and creates categories that reflect their own perspectives on style and history. Since such categories are arbitrary as people try to organize disparate things, there often isn’t agreement on which style a house represents.

The Cummins house in Eden Prairie, MN is a good example. The house was built between 1879 and 1880 by John R. Cummins, a prominent farmer and horticulturalist. The house is constructed of Chaska brick, a cream colored brick manufactured in nearby Chaska, MN, in the classic gable and wing form.

Most people would recognize it in a general sense as a Victorian, and they would be correct. But what else can we say about its architectural style? Its listing on the National Register of Historic Places describes it as having both Greek Revival and Italianate features, including wide trim on the gable ends and arched windows.

Segmented arch windows are characteristic of the Italianate just as wide trim boards are common on the gables of Greek Revival homes. So, does this mean the Cummins house is a Italianate/Greek Revival hybrid? Actually, no. Most Italianate brick homes do have arched windows, but not all arched windows are Italianate. The same is true for the trim.

This really gets at the heart of the matter. 19th century houses can be divided broadly into two categories: High Style and Vernacular. High Style homes were designed by trained architects or master builders to suit the tastes of a client and complement a particular setting. These homes are more easily attributed to particular styles such as the Queen Anne or Second Empire. Vernacular homes were designed and built by local tradesmen or the homeowners themselves using simple forms such as the gable and wing or the side-gable. Often using pattern books as a guide, builders incorporated decorative details from High Style examples into their less complicated designs. This was especially common after the arrival of railroads, which allowed the wide distribution mass-produced architectural elements such as brackets, spindles, turned porch posts and barge boards.
Vernacular homes such as the Cummins House are sometimes classified into sub-categories such as Folk, National Style, Folk Victorian or could simply just be called Vernacular. All these terms are common and some observers make the following distinctions between them. Some use the term National Style to describe homes constructed throughout the United States using simple, popular forms such as the gable-front, gable-front and wing, the hall and parlor and the I-house. These homes have little ornament and are quite utilitarian. Builders of Folk Victorian homes utilized these same simple shapes, but decorated them with Victorian detailing found on High Style homes such as the Queen Anne or Italianate. The decoration on these homes is often quite eclectic as the builders used whatever ornament they liked in any manner that suited them. Others use the term Vernacular to refer more broadly to late 19th and early 20th century homes that were inspired by pattern books and were built with machine made, mass produced components (indeed, many later examples were kit homes bought from companies such as Sears or Aladdin). Vernacular homes share shapes and ornament with higher style designs but are as a whole  simpler.

So, what style is the Cummins house? My vote is Folk Victorian.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tools of the Trades

Wooden hand planes were found in virtually every 19th century tool box. Tradesmen, farmers and amateurs needed at least a few planes to try, true and finish wood stock. The most common planes were the bench planes which were used to square and finish boards for carpentry, cabinetmaking and joinery. These planes are long and rectangular with handles (called totes) and single cutting irons. This group includes joiners, which were used to true edges and faces of stock, and the shorter fore and jack planes, which removed larger amounts of wood easily and quickly.
Illustrated Catalog and Invoice Price List of Joiners’ Bench Planes,
Moulding Tools, Handles,
Planes Irons, &c., Manufactured by the Greenfield Tool Company. Greenfield: 1872. Reprinted by the Astragal Press.
Also common are molding planes which were used to shape and decorate molding and millwork. These planes were produced in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes and were given esoteric names such as scotia, astragal, ogee or torus bead. Some were quite simple in shape, like the hollows and rounds I used to make the bit of molding in an earlier post. Others were quite complex and were used to make the ornate cornices and architraves in fine Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival homes.

As styles in furniture and architecture changed during the 19th century, so did the types of molding planes. Historians and architects are often able to date furniture and architecture according to the differing styles of molding and decoration. The study of the molding planes is an important way to trace the development of these decorative styles. Following is a short primer on molding planes which shows a few of the many different shapes and profiles used in the 19th century.

The most common molding planes were the hollows and rounds. These planes were often bought in pairs of one hollow and one round of the same size. One plane could be used alone to form a groove or bead or in tandem to make more complex shapes like an S shaped ogee. Cabinet makers and joiners who frequently made molding often bought complete sets of hollows and rounds in graduated sizes. In this photo there are three rounds and one hollow from the #72 series of the Ohio Tool Company and one round from Chapin and Sons.

Also quite common are the various bead planes. Side beads, which cut a rounded profile on the edge of a board, were bought either singly or in graduated sets. Center beads, which cut a rounded bead profile in the middle of a board, were especially useful for furniture makers. Reeding planes, which cut several parallel beads in the middle of a board were also common. Below are three graduated side beads from the #105 series from the Auburn Tool Company and a #41 center bead from the Ohio Tool Company.

The ogee, which is a gentle S curve, is the most common of complex molding planes. The ogee can have two profiles: The cyma recta, where the concave section is at the bottom of the profile, and the cyma reversa, where the concave section is at the top. Below are three graduated ogees from the Ohio Tool Company. Roman style ogees, which were characteristic of the Georgian Style, are based on the circle while Grecian ogees are based on the ellipse and usually have quirk defining the inside edge of the top part of molding.

Following are a few examples of some other complex molding planes. These include (from left to right) an ogee sash plane for making window sashes and muntins, a Grecian ogee, a simple cyma recta, an ovolo, a Grecian ogee with quirk and fillet and finally a window sash coping plane.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Gideon and Agnes Pond House

The 1856 Gideon and Agnes Pond house is one of the few Minnesota examples of the Federal Style. Gideon Pond was a Connecticut carpenter who came to Minnesota in 1834 with his brother Samuel to serve as Christian missionaries to the Dakota Indians and to teach the natives European farming methods. He settled in Bloomington, MN in 1854 and founded a mission near the village of the Dakota chief Cloudman. In 1856 he built this two-story house near his mission with bricks made on-site from clay found in the adjacent Minnesota River valley.

Although late for the Federal, which had been losing favor in the East since the 1820s, Pond decided to build in this refined style which had been common in Connecticut when he left in 1834. Some experts hesitate to call later examples like the Pond House Federal, preferring instead to describe them as vernacular or a Federal style remnant. Although certainly quite provincial, the Pond House has some of the classic features of the Federal and I believe the name is appropriate despite its plainness and late date.

Federal buildings are usually box-like, with a symmetrical arrangement of windows and low-pitched gabled or hipped roofs. High style examples have refined, but decorated cornices beneath the roof line with fanlights and sidelights surrounding the entrance door. The Pond house features a symmetrical arrangement of windows, although many Federal examples of a similar scale have a third window centered above the entrance.

The focus of a Federal facade was the front entrance. Entrance doors were sometimes flanked by half or three-quarter sidelights while higher style homes often had elaborate fanlights as a transom. In this example there is no fanlight although full-length sidelights are present.  Although the sidelights appear somewhat wide and blocky (reminiscent of those often found on contemporary Greek Revival homes), the entrance suits the proportions of building. The door slab is a recent (and quite incorrect) replacement.

Rather than an elaborate cornice with dentils and molding which were common on higher style homes, Pond constructed a simplified version in brick.

The Pond house is located at 401 East 104th Street in Bloomington, MN and is open for visits on Sundays from 1:30 to 4.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Workshop

I have already received a couple questions about the workshop where I made the molding in my first post. I was working in the Druke House, an 1854 Greek Revival home which is set up as an 1860s/1870s era woodshop. The Druke is one of many historic buildings moved to The Landing, a living history museum located in Shakopee, MN.

Here is an interior shot showing the workbench and some of my cabinet making and joiner’s tools. The house is divided into two rooms in the familiar hall-and parlor plan, with each room having a stove and chimney.

The house was built by a pair of brothers, Peter and Franz Karl Drüke, who had immigrated around 1853 to Chanhassen, MN from Nordrhein-Wesfalen, Germany (what was then part of the Kingdom of Prussia). Germans used stone frequently in their home country and the Drukes continued this practice in Minnesota, though they adopted a building style then popular in their adopted home. A few, similar examples built by German immigrants still remain in nearby St. Paul, MN. These were also constructed with stone and feature similar transoms over their entrance doors.

Like much frontier architecture, the house is rather small and has little ornament.
The principal features that identify it as a modest example of the Greek Revival are the wide frieze boards on the gable ends, gable returns, the transom light over the door and windows with 6 over 6 glazing (only the attic windows appear to be original). Features that were common in on higher style examples but are absent here are wide frieze boards along the sides and columns or pilasters framing the entrance and the building corners. The windows on the lower level and the door have been replaced. The 1-pane window glazing and bead molding on the window muntins and door stiles are more characteristic of the 1910s.

The walls are constructed of local materials, including rubble stonework, field stone and brick. Often frontier builders started buildings using dressed stones taken from earlier structures and, as their supply ran out, used other, less refined materials. In other cases, builders simply ran out of time, money or ambition and resorted to coarser field stone or brickwork. It is not clear which is the case here, but the bottom sections of the walls are constructed of lightly dressed, coursed rubble. Above this are field stones. As can been seen on the east gable end, brickwork was used at the top. Bricks were sometimes used to repair stonework, so we can speculate that the bricks at the top of the gable end might have been added at a later date.

The Greek Revival appeared in America around1830 and spread into the Mississippi Valley as settlers moved west. It was popularized by several pattern books and carpenter’s guides, including The Modern Builder’s Guide by Minard Lafever and The Practical House Carpenter by Asher Benjamin. By the 1850s the Greek Revival began to be supplanted by the picturesque styles such as the Gothic Revival and Italianate, although the Greek style did persist much longer in the South.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Making Molding the Old-Fashioned Way

I am occasionally asked how molding such as window casing or base was produced during the 19th century. The answer depends on when and where.  By the middle of the 19th century steam and water powered mills were producing most millwork, including casing, base, cornices, spindles, doors and windows. However, in some remote regions people continued to rely on carpenters and house joiners to make molding by hand using a variety of hand planes. By the end of the century factory produced millwork had become the norm, as railroads made quick and inexpensive transportation possible to most parts of the country.

In the following photos I will demonstrate how I made one part of a molding profile on a piece of sample window casing using 19th century hand planes. I am using a scrap piece of basswood approximately 4 inches wide and am working in the wood shop at The Landing, a living history museum located in Shakopee, MN.

I began by adding beads along both edges of the casing using snipe's bills and a #2 round (a side bead plane would work just as well). For t
he next step I will add a  shallow, rounded groove down the middle of the casing.  To start I lay out a small groove which will serve as a guide for a molding plane.   Here I am using an adjustable plow plane with a movable fence and depth stop which allow me to place a groove of any depth anywhere on the face of the stock.

Once I have struck the groove into the middle of the board I will use a rabbet plane to chamfer both of the groove's edges.  The chamfers will provide a good surface for the next molding plane, a #5 round, to ride upon. 

The chamfers guide the #5 round along the length of the casing.  I plane the entire length until the groove from the plow plane has disappeared and I have one, full-width shaving. 

After a bit of refining and smoothing you are done.  You can continue and use other planes to add more complexity to the molding, including hollows to round off the sharp corners.