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The foundations of Northwest Corner architecture

SALISBURY — After listening to Geoff Rossano and Chris Brennan’s talk on the architecture and interior furnishings of Salisbury and environs, driving home was tough. The urge to analyze houses while driving by them created a distraction.In their talk, “Living in Style: Exterior Architecture and Interior Furnishings, 1760-1860” (first in this year’s Era of Elegance series of talks, sponsored by the Salisbury Association and the Scoville Memorial Library), Rossano and Brennan took the standing-room-only crowd through the development of European styles and their impact on the young United States and this part of New England.Rossano started by asking, “Why do things look the way they do? What was here before the American Revolution?”The answer: “Houses without architectural pretension, what you could call New England vernacular. Or folk houses.”American architecture has always had a classical influence. Rossano showed a series of slides, including one of the Parthenon of Nashville, Tenn., which is in somewhat better shape than the original in Greece.But the story of the development of the styles that are dominant in Salisbury and neighboring towns begins with the Renaissance — and Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who designed villas and, more importantly for Americans, published stylebooks.The stylebooks made it to England by the early 17th century. By the early 1700s the style known as Georgian had evolved, featuring classical references, a blocky, heavy feel, and bold and prominent details. “A masculine style,” Rossano said.The Georgian style appeared in New England sometime after 1760. Rossano pointed out that Salisbury and other towns had been founded only a few years prior, and there were not a lot of big houses. “These were, essentially, frontier communities.”He gave as examples the South Canaan Meeting House in Falls Village and the Salisbury Congregational Church.The Federal style, as with almost all architectural styles, moved from England to the United States after a lag of several years, Rossano continued.The Federal (known as Adam style in England) was “lighter, delicate, more attenuated.”The style has features such as curves, swells and bows, and lighter colors, plus the classical references.“Georgian interiors used dark colors,” said Rossano. “Dark red, dark green. With the Federal style they used the whole palette and really lightened up. The exterior design vocabulary was much more delicate.”Style migrated via pattern books. “Remember, Thomas Chippendale made only a fraction of the Chippendale furniture out there, but he did publish a book,” said Rossano. “Even if you were not a trained architect you could get a book with the mathematical formulas and details” to build in the Federal style.“Ancient architecture was logical and mathematical. It featured symmetry, proportion and balance. A column of a certain height demands a certain width, otherwise it just wouldn’t look right.”The Federal style kept the temple-style front, but used taller, thinner columns. The typical Federal house is red and white, with a five-bay front.Rossano said the Academy Building in Salisbury “is Federal style in its simplest form.“It’s very much of its period, 1820-1830. And the style was ubiquitous” — used for homes, for churches, for commercial buildings.The Holley-Williams house on Millerton Road in the Salisbury Historic District, Rossano said, “has all of the pieces of a high-style Federal house of the 19th century.”The next style was Greek Revival, from 1840-50. Rossano said a combination of factors — a rapidly growing U.S. economy, a revolution in Greece itself — contributed to renewed interest in Greek forms and saw “more explicitly Greek motifs in the architectural vocabulary.”Rossano cited “the house we know as ‘Shagroy,’” on Belgo Road, as an example.“Stripped-down Greek Revival houses with plain friezes and recessed entries continued to be built well into the 20th century.”Also coming into play was the Gothic style, which Rossano said was associated with the revival of the Episcopal (Anglican) church.It was an era of Romanticism — “art appealing to emotion, rather than logic,” said Rossano.The Gothic was “never as popular as Greek revival, but it was a very distinctive, very vertical style. Think cathedral.”The revived Episcopal church — “which didn’t want these pagan Greek things” — provided examples such as the Kent Episcopal Church with its lancet windows. A secular example is the Bad Corner Antiques store off Main Street in Lakeville, with its tall narrow windows adapted to a barn.The last style discussed was the Italianate, “which brings us full circle back to Palladio in a rustic form,” Rossano said. Villa style — homes built for a warmer climate — produces buildings that are not rigidly symmetrical. The style often has a lot of porch area, “and terms like piazza and belvedere sneak into the architectural language.”Holleywood, on Millerton Road, “which is getting an extreme makeover, is a squared villa with a bell tower.”Brennan offered complementary looks at interior furnishings for each period, beginning with the Georgian: Chippendale furniture, claw feet on the chairs, a chest with a shell design and tea tables with a piecrust edge. Silver was ornate and substantial.The Federal period emphasized a lighter, more delicate style. “After 1800 the stylebooks were from Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite — Sheraton with round, turned legs and fabrics such as damask, and Hepplewhite with square legs, shield backs on chairs, and a serpentine front on a chest of drawers.”She showed slides of silver creamers on a solid base — “much simpler than the Georgian.” The furnishings contemporary with the Greek revival became known as Empire fashion in the 1820s, with chairs with splayed rear legs and silver jugs on embossed pedestals. And one slide of the prototypical Gothic bedroom showed something that looked like Mrs. Bates’ bedroom from “Psycho” — substantial stuff, with hanging pendant things everywhere.“Who would actually want to sit on it?” quipped Rossano.And to go with the Italianate style were examples of Empire furniture — not as ornate as the later Victorian period, and utilising wallpaper and lace curtains.

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