Episode 48: Heritage Lost

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America was growing rapidly in the 1810s, and growth meant building. Buildings of all kinds, from churches, markets and houses to banks and government offices, were sprouting up everywhere. Only a tiny fraction of the many buildings constructed between 1810 and 1820 still survive today, and the loss of the majority—through demolition, development, decay, accident, neglect, or deliberate destruction—represents a staggering loss of architectural heritage and history. Though many buildings have been lost, traces of some remain, through photographs, drawings, eyewitness accounts, memories, and, in a few lucky cases, some physical artifacts. These traces tell tantalizing and compelling stories of what the built environment of the Second Decade was like, and, by extension, glimpses of the lives of the people who lived and worked within it.

In this unique, stand-alone episode of Second Decade, historian Sean Munger will profile 9 specific buildings, constructed between 1808 and 1820 and which no longer exist, that represent a piece of the architectural heritage of the decade. You’ll visit Federal-style mansions in Rhode Island, an Ohio courthouse built to try to lure politicians to a frontier boomtown, a market and exhibition hall at the center of Boston, more than one Southern plantation built by slave labor, a farmhouse that remained frozen in time for nearly two centuries, and several others. The stories of these buildings, the people who built them and why they were lost represent only a small portion of the enormous wealth of historical and architectural heritage of America that is now gone forever.

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Additional Materials About This Episode

[Above] Google Street View maps of the site where the house of Ben Franklin stood, roughly in the position of the steel frame, between 1762 and its short-sighted demolition in 1812. The National Park Service has conducted archaeological digs on the site, and the concrete windows looking down into the ground offer views of what’s been excavated as the foundation of the buildings. Alas, this is all we have left of Franklin’s house.

[Above] The header image of this article, shown here with a copy of Constance Grieff’s book Lost America, depicts the DeWolf-Middleton House, also known as Hey Bonny Hall, pictured in either 1934 or 1937.

[Above] Interiors of Hey Bonny Hall. These were taken about 1914, or at least appeared in a 1914 book titled Historic Homes of New England by Mary Northend. Only three decades later this beautiful mansion was gone.

[Above] The Old Courthouse at Zanesville, Ohio. Given the clothing and photographic style, I would guess this picture dates from the 1850s, perhaps twenty years before the building was demolished. Only the central portion dates from the Second Decade, as the two wings were built in the 1830s. A stone from the Old Courthouse, bearing the date 1809, was incorporated into the third courthouse, now called the Muskingum County Courthouse, which was completed in 1876.

[Above] Boylston Market, Boston, as it appeared at about the time of the Civil War. Note the tenants’ signs out front and the general appearance of the street around it.

[Above] The belfry of Calvary Methodist Church in Arlington, Massachusetts—which was also the belfry of Boylston Market. The church became interested in the belfry when its architect, James MacNaughton, heard that the Bolyston Market architect, Charles Bulfinch, had planned a similar belfry for King’s Chapel in Boston which could not be built due to cost. Additionally, the Calvary Methodist Church itself was facing overruns, and acquiring the old Boylston Market belfry did double duty as a cost-saving measure.

[Above] New South Church in Boston, as it appeared in 1858, ten years before its demolition. The building itself appears to have been hexagonal in design (in the episode I may have said it was octagonal; the steeple was, but not the building itself).

[Above] The interior of New South Church, probably not long before 1868. Murky but visible is the Thomas Appleton-designed pipe organ. It is not know what happened to the organ itself; although organs of this nature do often survive the demolition of their host buildings, I couldn’t find a record of this specific organ existing today.

[Above] The exterior of Zante Plantation, Calhoun County, South Carolina. These photos may have been taken as part of the HABS (WPA) program in the 1930s, or they may have been taken later; they are in the South Carolina Department of Archives and History collection (here). As you can see, the house was in severe disrepair at that time. It’s a miracle that any part of it was still standing in 2016.

[Above] Interior doorways at Zante Plantation. Note the woodwork over the doors, a classic Second Decade pattern. Who lived in these rooms? What were their lives like? All we have are glimpses.

[Above] The exterior of Burlington, also known as the Elliston-Farrel House. It’s not clear which part of the mansion dates from the Second Decade, as it was substantially enlarged about 1858 and again in 1887. At the far right you can see the gazebo which has survived to the modern day, although transplanted to another site.

[Above] Three views of the interior of the Burlington mansion, photographed about 1899. A heavy late Victorian era sensibility is visible in the décor. In the Second Decade the house would have been much less ornately furnished, possibly even Spartan in appearance.

[Above] Two exterior views of the Hermitage, Senator Nicholas Van Dyke’s summer retreat at New Castle, Delaware which was constructed between 1801 and 1818. It is an absolutely beautiful place; note the ivy on the wall. These photographs were taken as part of the HABS program in October 1936.

[Above] Two views of the interior of the Hermitage. Except for the one that’s boarded over, these fireplaces probably look much the way they did at the end of the Second Decade. The destruction of this beautiful piece of architectural history by fire in 2007 was literally a crime, but I was unable to determine if the perpetrator was caught. Nevertheless, the beauty of the Hermitage is gone forever.

[Above] The lovely William Wilkinson House, sometimes called the William Watson House, formerly 69 College Street, Providence, Rhode Island. Although the house is extensively documented at least in blueprints (see the HABS files here), I could find out very little about Wilkinson and nothing about whoever else lived in the house during its 140 years of existence.

[Above] Here is the sad monstrosity that replaced the Wilkinson House: the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. (Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, used under Creative Commons 4.0 license). A prime example of Brutalist architecture, it was apparently designed during the six-month window in 1962 when people thought this sort of thing was attractive.

[Above] The only photograph available of the Valentine Wilson House, probably taken sometime in the 19th century. It is not known for sure when the house was demolished; at least I couldn’t find out that information from my sources. The house is said to have kept pretty much its original form until the end. Had it survived, it would be a unique look at 1810s rural architecture.

Unless specifically indicated, all pictures are believed to be in the public domain.

2 thoughts on “Episode 48: Heritage Lost

  1. I love your podcast, and as a fan of old architecture I was particularly pleased by this episode. Imagine my further enjoyment on seeing my CC-licensed photo of the “sad monstrosity” that is the Rockefeller Library in your show notes. Uses such as this are exactly why I release my images to the world.

    Well done, and I heartily agree with the sentiment. (If you think The Rock is ugly, though, you should see Brown’s Science Library, it’s much much uglier).

    – Ken Zirkel

    Liked by 1 person

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