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THE VILLAGE'S VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE
The Village Offices


by Eric Van Schaack

"A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture."



Thus begins Nikolaus Pevsner’s popular and influential survey titled An Outline of European Architecture. In the book he introduced his readers to what he considered Architecture, with a capital A: tombs and temples, churches and palaces. It was 1943 and Pevsner was in his early thirties. The book went through countless reprints and revisions — a critic once referred to him as "one of the most learned and stimulating writers on art in England" — and Pevsner was eventually knighted for his many distinguished works of architectural scholarship.

Pevsner’s view of architecture as "the art of the establishment" (churches and palaces are never cheap) was shared by most architectural historians. Those who were interested in more modest structures were considered merely antiquarians, not full-fledged historians, and by Pevsner’s standards there is practically no Architecture in the village of Hamilton. True, some of the commercial structures in the downtown area were designed by professional architects, but compared to the buildings Pevsner presented to his readers, they would hardly rank as high style. And, in his eyes there was little beauty in most late nineteenth-century architecture. It was, he felt, the product of a "diseased century" that was "smugly satisfied with the imitation of the past" and could be relegated to the ash heap of history without much loss.


Saint Thomas

But during the last 20 or so years, there has been a growing interest in what Pevsner called "buildings" and what we now call "vernacular architecture": ordinary, everyday architecture, the domestic and commercial structures that constitute the bulk of our "built environment." Today, the charm of the vernacular architecture is becoming appreciated by scholars as well as by the general public. For the past ten years, at family weekends and reunions, I’ve given architectural tours of the village and I’m always gratified by the enthusiastic response of guests to our architectural environment and the fine examples of the vernacular styles of the nineteenth century.


No visible traces of the village’s earliest homes and stores remain, and the earliest surviving buildings in Hamilton were built in what is called the Federal (or sometimes Federalist) style, the rather severe and aristocratic style that Charles Bulfinch (1763–1844) popularized in and around Boston between the mid-1790s and 1811. During the late 1820s and ’30s a number of Hamiltonians built Federal style houses. These elegant brick structures must have given the village a remarkably "up-to-date" look and contrasted vividly with the wooden structures built by the village’s first settlers.

Number 30 Broad St. is one of Hamilton’s finest Federal style buildings. It may have been built as early as 1832 and, like many central New York houses in this style, it has a blind arcade across the front, a series of arches that are attached to the fašade and divide it neatly into vertical units, or bays, each capped with a flat arch.

Originally the two-story central section was flanked by wings that were only one story. This type of three-part house is typical of the Federal style, as is the elliptical window, or fanlight, over the front door. The Hamilton Public Library (c. 1830) was originally a Federal-style house, although the roof was drastically altered at a later date. Sixty Broad St. (c. 1835) and 62 Broad St. (c. 1840) are also well-preserved examples, and there are several more Federal style houses on Madison and Payne streets.


Professor Jerry Balmuth's mansard home

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, many Americans felt a stong nostalgia for cultures far removed in time and place from their own. They associated historic architectural styles with cultural values: the architecture of fifth-century B.C. Greece symbolized their democratic aspirations and the Gothic style of thirteenth-century Europe echoed their fascination with the picturesqueness of the Middle Ages. This so-called "revival mentality" can be seen in the domestic architecture of the period. Both the Greek temple and the Gothic church provided the basis for homes of the period.


The splendid Greek Revival temple house at 81 Hamilton St. and the more modest residence at 9 Hamilton St. may be the only original Greek Revival houses that remain in the village, but a number of older Federal Style houses were brought up to date by the addition of a tall, pedimental portico to give them a more temple-like appearance. The house at 40 Broad St. and its neighbor were both given this type of remodeling, one in the Doric style and the other in the Ionic, as was the residence at 9 Madison St.

The Gothic Revival house at 38 Maple Ave. (c. 1855) is one of the finest in this area, with the decorative jigsaw work, or bargeboards, under its steeply pointed gables. The vertical siding with the joints covered by long, narrow boards is a form of exterior sheathing called "board and batten" siding, and is one of the most distinctive features of the style. Number 17 Maple Ave. (c. 1855) is also a fine example of the Gothic Revival cottage.

Hamilton’s Gothic Revival masterpiece, though, is Saint Thomas church on Madison Street. In 1846 one of America’s finest architects, Richard Upjohn (1802–1878), agreed to furnish the designs for the church at no charge and by June 1847 the work was completed. In the architect’s Upjohn’s Rural Architecture he published the plans of a small church that is nearly identical to Saint Thomas, and although Upjohn designed these small frame churches at the rate of about one per year, only a few of them survive.


Gothic Revival

By the middle of the century, a new type of residence that was a radical departure from the Greek and Gothic revival styles was becoming popular. The Village Office Building at 3 Broad St. (c. 1850) is a splendid example of this new type and is the only building in the village listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural historians today refer to this style as the Italianate or Italian Villa Style. The broad, low-pitched roof with its wide overhang and the carved brackets are some of the most common features of the style, and there is either a gazebo — a small tower in the middle of the roof — such as the one on the Village Office, or a tall, commanding tower as in the fine example at 23 Madison St.


During the second half of the century Hamiltonians continued to erect spacious and elegant homes in the newest and most fashionable styles. After the Civil War, residences began to appear with an unusual type of double-pitched roof, often covered with multi-colored slate shingles, called a mansard roof. It took its name from the French 17th century-architect Jules H. Mansart, but how the French "mansart" became the American "mansard" is a mystery that still perplexes architectural historians. The mansard roof was being used on what was then the most important building project in Europe, the expansion of the Louvre palace in Paris, and for this reason, houses with this type of roof are commonly called Second Empire houses, in reference to Napoleon III’s Second French Empire. The residences at 52 Maple and 70 Broad St. are the village’s best examples this style, but a number of older houses, such as the Federal style residence next to the Hamilton Public Library, were given a mansard roof so that the owners could have an extra story.

There are many houses in the village that have the large corner tower, the rich bands of decoration and the mixtures of clapboards and shingles that are typical of what is called the Queen Anne Style. The beautifully restored residence at 49 Payne Street (1896) is the finest example in the village, but there are other fine Queen Anne houses — 17 Payne St. (c. 1893) and on East Kendrick Street are fine examples, too.

But it is the downtown business district that is the most unusual and distinguished aspect of our architectural environment. The terrible fire on the night of February 19, 1895 destroyed the entire center of the village, but by October, a few of the buildings were rebuilt, and the next year the rebuilding of downtown was completed. Some of the best architects in central New York provided the plans for the buildings. Orland K. Foote of Rochester designed the Oneida Savings Bank and the Smith Block (2 – 12 Broad St.) and Frederick Hamilton Gouge of Utica designed the Rowlands Building on 8 – 12 Lebanon St.

The rich and varied architecture of our business district represents a cross-section of all the commercial styles of late nineteenth-century America. This period has been greatly neglected by architectural historians who, until quite recently, have been willing to lump them together as Victorian, an odd choice of title when one considers that Queen Victoria’s long reign extended from 1837 until 1901.

It may not be too long before the outlines of the development of the various architectural styles seen in Hamilton’s business district begin to emerge. It is architecture worth saving and the jewel in the architectural crown of Hamilton.

Hamilton’s building boom ended with the first World War, and as the village’s prosperity declined, few new buildings were built, but we do have one relatively recent building that is an interesting addition. In the 1940s the Lustron Corporation developed a prefabricated steel house with a porcelain enamel coating. The "Lustron House" was supposed to sell for $7,000; the company hoped to produce 100 houses a day but was never able to meet this ambitious production quota and eventually went bankrupt. Hamilton has one of the last Lustron Houses, at 19 Hamilton St. It was delivered in 1949 and was, I understand, thoroughly hated by most Hamiltonians, who thought it was simply an ugly metal box.


Eric Van Schaack conducts an alumni tour

Time, I think, has softened our judgement of the Lustron House and as the years pass, it seems more at home among its neighbors, an interesting part of our man-built environment. And, unlike some of the resources of our natural environment, the man-built environment of Hamilton can never be replaced once it has been destroyed. The buildings of Hamilton are part of the heritage left to us and we owe it to our descendants to make sure that we are good stewards of this precious heritage.

Professor of Art and Art History Eric Van Schaack, who retired this year after 20 years at Colgate, says: "When we teach American architecture our students are in the midst of the subject matter."