Investigations

On this page, are collected some of the “unsolved mysteries” of the Dr. Oliver Bronson House.  Some are mysteries, some are working theories we would like to confirm with evidence, and some are just maddening discrepancies between the evidence we do have.   Such is the nature of working with old houses with complicated stories.  As we begin the restoration and conduct further research into the house, we are hoping to some answers to these questions.   We will update this page with fresh evidence and findings as the project develops.

To some the sampling below might seem like the very essence of architectural minutiae. And they are.  But the details of how the house and landscape evolved over time tell us a lot about the larger intentions of the designers, the way people actually lived in the house, and the social and cultural context into which they fit.   Plus, for some, finding answers to these architectural puzzles is an addictive habit.  For those so inclined, read on…

1.   WHO DESIGNED THE ORIGINAL PLUMB ESTATE?

Some experts have concluded that Barnabas Waterman (1776-1839) was the architect/builder of the original Samuel Plumb house.  A native of Bridgewater, MA, Waterman was active as “master mechanic” in Hudson during the period as well as active in city politics.  This attribution is based on similarities between the delicate Neoclassical decorative details and soaring elliptical staircase in the Plumb House and the James Vanderpoel House in Kinderhook, NY,  built circa 1816-20 (below) which is attributed to Waterman:

James Vanderpoel House, c. 1816-20. Photo: Peter Watson

Other high-style Federal period estate houses ascribed to Waterman include the Haight-Gantley House in Athens, circa 1812, and the Anthony R. Livingston House, circa 1825, also in Athens.  While the architectural detailing and general sophistication of the design strongly suggest the hand of a common architect/builder, the evidence identifying Waterman as that builder is limited.   To date, we have not uncovered any specific documentary evidence linking Waterman to the house.

2.   FIVE BAYS OR THREE BAYS?

A close examination of Wall’s watercolor, reveals an odd pattern of fenestration on the first floor east elevation:

Detail of watercolor by William Guy Wall, circa 1819, collection of the New York Historical Society

There are a pair of windows to the left of the door (centered underneath the window above) and only a single window (which appears to the left-hand member of a pair) to the right of door.  An unsymetrical composition seems highly unlikely given the overall design.  Did Wall omit the fourth window to make the watercolor read better from a distance, or did he take artistic license with the house design since his primary goal was to depict the house and outbuildings’ relationship to the vast Picturesque landscape surrounding it?  Or did Davis alter what was originally a five-bay design to the present three bay arrangement to better suit his elaborate filigreed verandah composition which was supported by four trellised posts (rather than the eight posts shown above)?  The plaster and framing of the two eastern parlors (SE Davis parlor, and NE Federal Dining room) need to be inspected further for clues.

3.   WAS THERE ORIGINALLY A SECOND PORCH?

Wall’s watercolor only shows the east elevation of the house and Davis’s 1849 addition eliminated the original western elevation of the house and any porch that existed in the original 1812 design.  Was there a Federal porch here?  Symmetry would argue for it as would the terrific view of the river and mountains beyond.  The architectural evidence needs to analyzed as this part of the house is restored.

4.   THE HILLOCK

Wall’s watercolor shows the Federal period house sited on a relatively flat terrace at the edge of a promontory.  Today, there is a distinct and abrupt hillock on the north side of the house next to a modern two car garage while on the south side of the house, the earth has been carved away to provide direct access to basement rooms.   Was this a Picturesque era “scoop and dump” by Davis to provide more contrast and irregularity in the landscape or simply the excavated material from the twentieth century garage foundation.  The hillock seems too big and well-shaped to be accounted for by the foundation alone.  Perhaps we will find more about in archival records or through site archaeology.

5.   THE KITCHEN ADDITION

The utilitarian, but semi-octagonal (like everything else) 1st floor kitchen addition appears in an 1890s photo of the house so it’s construction predates 1900.  The hardware on the doors and cabinets appears to date from the 1880s.  This would place the kitchen addition most likely in the Phoenix (1864-1883) or McIntyre (1883-1915) ownership.  But it would be nice to find archival or architectural evidence that more precisely date this feature.

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