The Dr. Oliver Bronson House is an amalgam of a high style Federal period country house, constructed circa 1811-12, with Picturesque style overlays/additions designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in 1839 and 1849. Because of the sensitive and organic way in which Davis approached his interventions, it is still possible to “read” the Federal house underneath its Picturesque exterior. Over the last decade, a number of architects, landscape architects, and architectural historians have studied the house including the late Jane Davies, Marilyn Kaplan, Bill Krattinger, John Mesick, Alan Neumann, and Bob Toole. This essay draws from the body of knowledge these experts have assembled as well as ongoing investigations associated with the restoration.
THE 1812 HOUSE
Despite all of the work done in the past, we have much to learn about the house including identifying the original designer/builder and other specific details of how the house evolved. (For more on this subject, see the Investigations page.) We are hoping that the restoration process and the involvement of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker, Architects will help us fill in many of the details. As a starting point, however, we do have this incredible document:
Noted Irish-American artist William Guy Wall painted this scene of the Plumb estate in what is presumed to be its completed form. The three-story main block was originally connected by fencing to a pair of ornamental outbuilding “hyphens, ” repeating a common Palladian architectural formula. Note the repetition of the semi-elliptical (crescent) forms in the central doorway and windows of the main house, the transom lights and wagon doors of the outbuildings, and the plan itself.
1812 HOUSE – EXTERIOR DETAILING
The east elevation of the house still preserves most of the original Neo-Classical Federal exterior details including the shallow attic pediment, the large six-over-six window sash with very delicate muntins, the semi-elliptical fanlights, and the elaborately carved doorway with sidelights:
Missing today, but part of the original house design were a roof top balustrade above the second floor hip roof and a pair of decorative spandrels on either side of the attic addition. These features are visible in historic photograph below (The egg-and-dart vergeboard below the attic story pediment is thought to have been added by A.J. Davis in 1839). (Note that all the house blinds are tightly shut in the characteristic nineteenth century fashion to control the summer heat):
1812 HOUSE – INTERIOR
The main house block was organized around a double pile center hall plan with projecting single story semi-octagonal bays on the east elevation. I have used Davis’s 1849 sketch of the house plan (with a little help from Photoshop) to create a conjectural floor plan for the original house:
The east porch (top) in this drawing is clearly shown in Wall’s watercolor, the west porch is speculation (see Investigations). The central element of the original interior, largely preserved by Davis, is a soaring three-story elliptical staircase:
The octagonal Federal North West parlor (top left in the sketch above) contains the most high-style woodwork in the house including beautifully carved hall door surround consisting of a pair of foliated consoles supporting a frieze with an ellipse in the center:
A similar motif is featured on the mantel piece in this room (one of the two surviving federal mantel pieces in the house). While the basic design is relatively common for New York during the period, the quality of the carving sets this work apart as can be seen in the detail of the console bracket supporting the mantel:
1839 A.J. DAVIS REMODELING CAMPAIGN
Likely on the advice of his brother-in-law Robert Donaldson, Dr. Oliver Bronson hired A.J. Davis to “refit” the house in 1839. Davis’s Daybook indicated that he visited Dr. Bronson in Hudson on April 17th, and while there “designed various fixtures and embellishments” at a cost of thirty dollars. In June, he recorded “sketch of stables, barn and ornament for Dr. Bronson” with a price of fifteen dollars. In December 9, 1839, he recorded “Drawing Dr. O. Bronson’s villa, H. Whitney’s, J. A. Hillhouse, landscape views.” The 1839 drawing unfortunately is lost, but the Daybook entry suggests the work was substantially complete: a nine month remodeling job.
1839 EAST VERANDAH
So, what exactly did Davis do to transform the house in 1839? The most important change was to create an elaborately filigreed Picturesque style verandah with extended eaves and a concave metal roof across the entire east elevation of the house (this replaced the original Federal style porch shown in Wall’s watercolor). The verandah, or “umbrage” as Davis called it, was an essential component of the picturesque philosophy, forming a physical link between the house and its setting. For Dr. Bronson, Davis created a multi-layered design that framed and filtered the light through architecture and plant life. The porch roof was supported by four trellised posts with an openwork geometric design that carried a frieze consisting of a molded architrave, a band of guilloche (lobed curvilinear pattern) work, and a bottom apron of oak leaves. Clearly, Davis “pulled out all the stops” here for an important client linked by marriage to Davis’ most important patron and benefactor, Robert Donaldson. We are fortunate to have a few fragments of these elaborate, and beautifully carved, architectural elements from the east verandah:
To complete his composition for the east elevation, Davis also extended the eaves of the second floor roof and added brackets embellished with acorn drops pendants below it. He also reworked the chimneys with tall octagonal terra-cotta chimney pots with a brownstone coping. It is thought that Davis also added the egg-and-dart vergeboard below the attic story pediment at this time although the motif is of Classical rather than Picturesque style. So what did all this look like? Below is a digital reconstruction, based on a composite of old and new photos of what the east elevation might have looked like after Davis’s 1839 work:
1839 LANDSCAPE AND STABLES
Originally, the Plumb estate (based on Wall’s watercolor) was set in an open landscape with the dependencies set on either side of the house linked by fencing. In 1839, Davis completely eliminated this somewhat stark classical composition, removing the dependencies and fencing, and substituting a new Picturesque style bracketed stable and barn to the south-west of the house. The latter is an important and early survivor of a bracket form outbuilding:
In addition to adding the stables, Davis also reworked the carriage drives and likely consulted on the planting of irregular copses of trees in front of the house. Both were characteristic strategies of English landscape theory designed to create a more picturesque approach to the house, screening it from view until the last moment when it dramatically appears to best effect. Records show that Dr. Bronson purchased ninety-three dollars of plant material from famed nurseryman and later Davis collaborator Andrew Jackson Downing. This was a substantial sum at the time equivalent to perhaps two hundred trees. The exact nature of the Downing and Davis’s involvement with the landscape process is unknown but highly important and suggestive.
1849 A.J. DAVIS ADDITION
On September 24th, 1849, Davis recorded that he “arranged [the new] plan” for Dr. Bronson creating a set of nine drawings and specifications that were prepared in early October for a cost of thirty dollars. He designed a major addition to the west elevation of the house recasting it in the Italian Villa or Tuscan mode, and re-orienting the entire house to toward the Hudson River. This transformation was handled in a characteristically sensitive way. A three-story, single pile addition was joined on to the original house with the center hall preserved and the openings reused to access the new rooms. Davis’s Daybook sketch below shows the new plan of the house which repeats the semi-octagonal forms of the original design to create a new, geometrically sophisticated plan. (Compare it with the sketch above to see the changes):
At the center of the new plan is an octagonal gallery that serves as the base of the tower and creates circulation paths through the hall to the new verandah and outward to the semi-octagonal parlors. This new design created an elegant enfilade of octagonal entertaining spaces that could be closed off with sliding partitions. Upstairs, a pair of large semi-octagonal bedrooms were connected by a sitting room overlooking the Hudson. A smaller third story provided a wide prospect over the river and Catskill mountains beyond. The effect was much grander than the size of the addition.
1849 ADDITION – EXTERIOR DETAILING
Unlike the 1839 work, three original drawings from the 1849 redesign campaign survive. Davis’s 1849 Daybook sketch is reproduced in the header to this webpage, a second more finished sketch appears below:
Davis’s redesign centers around the three-story Italianate tower which projects slightly from the main body of the addition. The height of the tower was carefully modulated by Davis so that it is not visible from the other side of the house creating the type of picturesque contrast and surprise that was prized by Davis and Downing. Flanking the tower are two-story semi-octagonal projections with bracketed roofs. Davis also repeated the balustrade of the original Federal design to provide continuity. Across the front of the first story is another ornamental verandah supported by four trellised posts. The openwork pattern is somewhat different from that of the east verandah, and this time Davis capped the posts with anthemia on the roof, and a frieze of Norman arcading with acorn drop finials below the roof. The final “as-built” design differs from the surviving drawing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in several respects. First, the shape of the openings for the fenestration and doorway were changed from a square-headed to a segmental arch form both surrounded by a thick architrave:
Second, Davis further embellished the semi-octagonal parlor and dining room with a single-story semi-octagonal bay window. One of these bay windows can be seen in the third surviving Davis drawing, a tiny pencil sketch of the completed addition viewed from the southwest:
In addition to Davis’s drawings, we have several important historic photos documenting the appearance of the west elevation after it was transformed by Davis including the photo below which is believed to date from the residency of John F. McIntyre and descendants (circa 1883-1915):
Another historic photo from the 1870s shows a detail of the west verandah with the niches on either side of the door, and the cross ventilation provided by the connection to the original center hall:
1849 – INTERIOR DETAILING The new addition created grand entertaining spaces, and Davis’s confidence in handling the complex play of octagonal and segmental arch forms is seen to full effect in the new northwest parlor:
The new parlors were connected to an octagonal gallery complete with wall niches that opened new vistas across the parlors and back through the original house:
Complementing these spaces were elegant and luxurious finishes such as the white marble picturesque fireplace mantels fitted with coal grates installed throughout the principal rooms of the house one of which survives in the new southwest dining room:
In 1854, only five years after the 1849 A.J. Davis remodeling campaign, Dr. Oliver Bronson sold the house due to declining health, eventually settling in St. Augustine, Florida. Subsequent owners made a few changes to the house including adding a utilitarian one story kitchen addition to the south elevation, adding bathrooms, changing a few partitions, and making other minor changes. But all-in-all, the house is virtually intact from Davis’s last campaign. And not only the 1849 house, but also the 1839 and 1812 houses, all carefully arranged in a single unified composition as only Davis, the great artist, could have accomplished.