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Forum on Form: High Victorian Gothic


July 06, 2008

This is the house that Mark built.
These are the bricks of various hue
And shape and position, straight and askew,
With the nooks and angles and gables too,
Which make up the house presented to view,
The curious house that Mark built ...

This little ditty, which appeared in a newspaper description of the Mark Twain house, is often attributed to Twain but it may in fact have been written by a reporter. In any case, it captures vividly the personality of the house, which was built in 1873-74 to designs by New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter. As the poem shows, the Twain house was flamboyant even for its time, a splashy residence for a splashy personality. But it shares a family resemblance with many of its contemporaries, even if they're less fanciful.

Today, architectural historians might classify the Twain house as "High Victorian Gothic," a style that in the 1870s represented an attempt to develop a new way of building to meet the needs of the current day. Not by scrapping the past entirely in favor of a totally new, style-less way of building, as 20th-century Modernists would do, but rather by adopting a style from the past as a jumping-off point for a new style that would suit contemporary needs and take advantage of up-to-date technology and materials — a process of evolution, not revolution. In recognition of both its roots in the past and its commitment to the present day, Potter might have referred to the house's style as "Modern Gothic."

In the years after the Civil War, many designers looked to the Middle Ages for inspiration. Medieval styles were the functionalism of the day: free from the rules of proportion and symmetry that governed classical styles, they seemed the most adaptable to modern needs.

The Twain house features many Gothic elements, but instead of English churches (the favored models earlier in the century), these elements come from the domestic architecture of France and northern Europe. Steep roofs with flared eaves throw off the region's heavy snowstorms, while ornamental trusses in the gables turn structural necessity into an opportunity for visual delight. The multicolored brickwork is a French style that had been revived in the 1850s for seaside resorts in Normandy and then introduced in the United States by American architects who had studied in France —including Potter's partner, Alfred Thorp. This patterning first appeared on summer cottages and then spread to year-round buildings like the Twain house, once clients had gotten used to its jazzy appearance.

But what the newspaper poet concentrated on, and what we still tend to see first, isn't really the house's style. Instead, it's the house's picturesque form — "the nooks and angles and gables too" — and the ways that Potter ties the building to its setting. The big windows and porches and balconies provide views of the surrounding scenery, which in the 1870s was more picturesque than now: Down the hill, where Hartford Public High School and its athletic fields now stand, were peaceful meadows and a winding river.

These sheltered outdoor spaces allowed the family to live in harmony with nature, an aim of much 19th-century art and architecture. The house even looks a bit like a natural formation, with the gables and dormers of its roof suggesting a line of sharp hilltops.

In contrast, the elements that make up this picturesque assemblage are crisp and precise. The walls are smooth and sharp-edged. Decorative banding — of colored bricks set flush with the wall or ordinary bricks set at angles like teeth in a zipper — is straight and uniform. Similarly, the wooden railings and brackets and trusses are slim and regular, assembled from stock lumber cut to standard sizes and put together with precision. Everywhere the lines are straight, the surfaces flat and the corners sharp.

For all its naturalistic qualities, the Twain house is clearly a product of the Industrial Age, and its forward-looking adaptation to the lifestyles of the day, its efforts to harmonize with nature, and its acceptance of the latest building technology were important to both architect and client. Twain, who had one of the first private telephones in the country, clearly admired technical progress. Sadly, it was his failed investment in another technological innovation, the Paige Compositor, which drove him from this house that he loved so well.

Christopher Wigren is deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, based in Hamden.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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