Nestled in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains along the shore of Lake Champlain is the historic Town of Essex, one of the most unspoiled ensembles of Federal and Greek Revival village architecture in rural America. The hamlet of Essex, founded in the 18th century, was listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Essex has no shopping centers, fast food or franchised lodging. Essex’s quiet integrity, sense of history, intact architecture, beautiful location on Lake Champlain, antique, craft and other shops and many fine accomodations, richly reward the independent visitor seeking an alternative to over-commericalized resort communities.
In 1765, William Gilliland, an Irish soldier turned successful colonial merchant, moved his family
up the Hudson river from New York city to the wilds of northern New York, where he had purchased large tracts of land on the west shore of Lake Champlain between Split Rock and the Boquet River. Within a decade his farming communities, which included present-day Essex, were well established.
In 1777 the revolution reached Essex. The young settlement lay directly in the path of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’s march from Canada to Saratoga. Gilliland, who sympathized with the American cause, also became involved in the bickering between Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, thus earning Arnold’s lifelong enmity.
By 1778 the settlements were in ashes. In the period of displacement following the war, Gilliland returned, now joined by a growing stream of young settlers and entrepreneurs eager to carve out new lives and fortunes on the northern frontier. Soon forest products, iron, leather and textile manufacturing, stone quarrying, ship building and lake commerce made the little harbor town of Essex prosperous – a principal port on Lake Champlain. By the early 1800’s two shipyards were flourishing near the South Bay. If the Revolution had nearly finished off Gilliland’s settlement, the War of 1812 contributed largely to its growth. At least 250 bateaux and two sloops – the Growler and the Eagle – were produced in Essex yards and used in Commodore MacDonough’s American fleet.
Before 1790 a ferry service had been established between Essex and Vermont. First driven by sail, the boats later were powered by horses on a treadmill, still later by steam. The commercial center of Essex was a natural stopping place for travelers; the first tavern was built in 1786 and was quickly followed by at least a half dozen other inns and taverns, two of which still stand on Essex’s Main Street.
The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, connecting the northern producers to the urban markets of the south, tremendously stimulated economic growth in Essex. Shipyards hummed with activity; dozens of Essex -built canal boats joined the sloops which whitened the lake with their sails. Shipbuilding, lumbering, the mining and processing of iron, lake commerce and agriculture provided prosperity for the population of 2,351 counted in the 1850 census.
Essex’s maritime-dependent economy collapsed with the coming of the first railroads to the Champlain Valley in 1849. By 1860 the population had fallen to 1,633. It never regained its; previous level; the 1980 census showed only 880 people in the town.
With the declining population there was little demand for new housing. With the cessation of economic growth no new buildings were needed or could be afforded. For the most part what was standing in 1860 had to make do; it was used and preserved. As a result Essex today retains one of the most remarkably intact ensembles of pre-Civil War architecture in New York State.
The early nineteenth century middle class merchants, shipwrights, hotel keepers and lawyers, shoemakers and tailors of Essex were conservative, canny and fiercely individual. They tended to be conventional in their tastes, while at the same time knowledgeable and particular in the quality of their workmanship. The town they built and the structures they left behind are tangible evidence of their concern for both their private and public lives.
The vigor that established this town and caused it to prosper is now more than a century and a quarter gone. But the once flourishing spirit of commercial enterprise left in its wake a visible heritage that can be read in the streets and buildings of Essex. How people read the buildings of Essex no doubt varies from person to person. To a resident the sight of a house recalls the people who live and have lived there. The visitor, on the other hand, is attracted to the town by the sense of the past that has survived here; even the casual passerby is impressed by the beauty and uniqueness of the setting as well as by the buildings. Resident and visitor alike can appreciate the wealth of nineteenth century building styles to be found here Federal, Greek Revival, Carpenter Gothic, Italianate, and even French Second Empire. Essex presents a virtual text book on these styles.
But style is only what remains after the lives that produced a structure have disappeared It is like a seashell washed upon the shore that was once a living, evolving thing, but now exhibits only the shape of a former, remote life. To appreciate the whys and wherefores of these shapes or styles of building, we must understand the cultural forces which gave rise to them.
Before the various styles could take root here, something more fundamental had to occur. At the outset survival in the wilderness and settlement to foster commerce and industry required a most basic way of building. The earliest structures undoubtedly were erected in the common vernacular style of the time. This style was characterized only by those features which were essential for accommodation of function and could be achieved with minimal expenditure of labor and materials. The vernacular in its economy of form, use of materials at hand, frugality of detail, and smallness of scale seems almost devoid of any identifiable elements of style. Yet, the majority of structures found in Essex at any period were simple commercial buildings and modest dwellings conceived without ambitious notions of architectural style against this vernacular townscape the civic landmarks and more pretentious dwellings exhibit a conscious and changing sense of style.
Style evolves naturally out of the intent and aspirations of a builder. The form a particular building takes may be shaped by an image of the desirable that is carried in the mind. For an immigrant, this may be the remembered forms of his native land. For the affluent citizen, it may be the lingering image of forms seen on travels to more cosmopolitan areas. The carpenter or mason may be striving to equal the perfection of forms seen in architectural pattern books. All these images, and more, converge at a construction site to influence the form of the completed structure. The resulting building will be marked by the unique building language of the day. Only with the passage of time will this unique language be recognized as a distinct style.
But building language is not solely a matter of mental imagery, because the intent of the builder is always tempered by what is possible in a particular place at a given time. A brief examination of the surviving stone buildings in the hamlet will illustrate this. Though good building stone underlies Essex, the settlement had been established for more than two decades before buildings were erected with dressed stone walls. The material was at hand, but skilled masons were not available until there was sufficient wealth and need to summon their efforts. Construction of military fortifications probably caused the initial influx of quarrymen and stone masons into the Champlain Valley Later, canal construction brought even more After completing these large public work projects, many workers, no doubt, stayed and plied their trade in towns bordering the lake.In Essex, stores and warehouses near the harbor, erected 1810-15, were the first stone structures. The wealth generated by this early commercial activity allowed construction, in the following decades, of four stone dwellings and three churches. But after the erection of the Community Church and Greystone in the mid 185Os, no more stone structures were built in Essex. By then the first generation of quarrymen and stone masons probably had ceased working, and without large construction projects in the region, others did not follow. The stone mason¼s work in Essex mirrors America’s architectural development in the early decades of the nineteenth century From the simple, vernacular construction of the stone warehouses on the waterfront and the Billings cottage (1828), to the stately sobriety of the late Federal style houses of Dr. Shumway (1832) and John Gould (183q3), there evolved the polished high style of the Greek Revival Noble house, called Greystone, (1853) and the romantic Italianate style of the Community Church (circa 1855). The mason¼s growing mastery of their craft kept abreast of their employer¼s increasing wealth and pretensions.
But the stone buildings are only one aspect of Essex’s architectural development. The much more numerous brick structures and timber buildings further illustrate changing architectural taste in nineteenth century America. While all these buildings exhibit the telltale signs of architectural style by which labels can be attached to them, it should be kept in mind that most of the distinctive features or style elements are rarely decorative whims of the builder. Each feature speaks of the time in which it was conceived. It answers a functional need and owes its realization to the skills and materials available at a particular moment. A careful look at representative buildings will help explain this stylistic evolution that is so visible in Essex.
On Elm Street, two of the town’s finest dwellings – Hickory Hill, erected in 1822, and the Noble Clemons house, built more than three decades later – illustrate this progression over the course of the most prosperous years here Hickory Hill is the most prominent example of the Federal style in town. It retains the symmetrical facade and emphasis of an elaborate central entrance with a Palladian window above, common features of the earlier Georgian style.
But notice how the house exhibits greater delicacy in its decorative details, and also reveals on the exterior several changes in internal arrangement. The attenuated, almost fragile columns of the entrance portico screen a delicate entrance way featuring a lacy fanlight and sidelights. Even the proportions of the Palladian window have been lightened and lengthened.
While these changes created the characteristic appearance of the Federal style, they also result from a simple desire to get more daylight inside the dwelling. Interior spaces were further lightened and opened up by creating large openings between front and rear rooms. To achieve this it was necessary to shift the traditional position of the fireplaces from the partition between the two rooms to the outer side walls, and provide a separate chimney to serve each of the four principal rooms. This reduced the size of the individual chimney and lightened its appearance as it emerged through the roof. The massive, central, Georgian chimneys of the eighteenth century were thereby eliminated.
At the same time, innovations in fireplace de sign provided greater heating efficiency, thus making it possible to locate fireplaces on exterior walls without sacrificing the comfort afforded by older centrally located fireplaces. Later, the installation of even more efficient stoves in the 1830s and 1840s made it possible to increase the size of first floor windows without an accompanying loss of comfort in winter.
To enhance the view, from within, of the extensive lawn and distant lake, the window sill height was lowered. At the same time, all the double hung window sash on the front facade were changed to hinged casement sash. The new sash could be swung inward to open the entire window to the view and summer breezes.
At the rear, unseen from the street, a large wing provided increased accommodation for a huge kitchen with an immense cooking fireplace, pantries and other service rooms. just as the elegant features of the front facade speak of the increased wealth of the family, so too do the ample facilities and large scale of this service wing indicate increased reliance on servants to attend to the household’s daily needs. These service rooms were connected to a spacious cellar under the front portion of the house where ample provisions for storage of food and drink were created. In order to insure proper ventilation and light in this cellar, the house had been built with the first floor well above grade at the front.
These utilitarian concerns thereby contributed to the dignity of the facade by lifting it to an imposing height. Thus the style of the building, which at first glance may be seen solely as a matter of taste and aesthetic preference, is found to be greatly influenced by functional need and technological progress.
A short distance south on Elm Street is the Noble Clemons house. It utilizes the same materials brick, stone, glass and wood – as the earlier house at Hickory Hill, yet the impression it makes is quite different. It is bold, four-square and solidly built, with remarkable craftsmanship . The openings are fewer, but seem larger The roof is so gently pitched that only the wide overhanging eaves are visible. At the top is a curiously large square lantern These features describe the typical Italianate style house of mid-nineteenth century America. Taste and fashion had clearly changed since construction of Hickory Hill, yet more significantly, an evolving building technology made the new style possible. By the 1850s the widespread use of tin-plated sheet iron, imported from England, made it possible to construct low, nearly flat roofs. This innovation was so fully exploited by the Italianate style that the low roof became its chief hallmark. At the same time, millwork factories were being established throughout the country that used newly developed water or steam powered woodworking machines to produce large quantities of decorative trim to ornament gables, overhangs and porches. The massive, plain, curved cornice brackets of the Clemons house are clearly the result of machine production. Compare them to the delicate, complex handcrafted cornice on Hickory Hill. Inside, stoves had eliminated fireplaces altogether. None are to be found in this house – not even in the kitchen. Stoves, being much more efficient sources of heat, provided necessary comfort in rooms with lofty ceilings. Indeed, the first floor was open all the way to the roof top lantern via open stairways Throughout the house, spaces are marked by an openness, light, and generosity of scale not found in the earlier homes of Essex,
The spirit of this house is summed up in the lantern. This is really a rooftop viewing pavilion. At the windows, pairs of sash slide into wall pockets out of sight so that nothing will intrude upon the pleasure of looking out in any direction. Clearly in its day this house combined the latest fashion with contemporary building technology to provide its occupants with daily pleasure and comfort. No other house in Essex recognizes so well in its architectural conception the delight of living beside a beautiful lake amid the green countryside. How appropriate that the style of the house should hark back four centuries to those Italian villas that escaped the city to embrace the countryside of Tuscany!
Each of the buildings of Essex can be similarly considered to better appreciate the meaning of the various building styles found here. keep in mind, while looking at the telltale signs of style by which labels are attached to most of these buildings, that each feature embodies a reason for its origin. It may be helpful, when trying to recognize the stylistic variations of buildings, to mentally place yourself here in the early days of settlement and imagine the reaction of town folk as they saw each new building arise. No doubt in the years when Essex was taking shape the changing building styles were greeted differently by each generation, the older generation always questioning the eager enthusiasm with which the next generation embraced the new style. One can well imagine the man who erected an austere, solid Georgian house criticizing his son’s Federal style dwelling. Its too-delicate portico and ostentatious fanlight or large windows and high ceilings would have struck the father as flimsy, fancy decoration – all puffery, and probably he would have thought the house impossible to heat as well. Then perhaps in another quarter century the discount viagra son in his turn would find the bold, massive Greek Revival house too coarse and lacking subtlety with its almost archeological replication of classical features. And then still later imagine with what disbelief the builder of the Greek Revival house would encounter the extravagant display and profusion of discordant details found on a French Second Empire style house.
Through it all there is a constant. Each generation creates its own world and most often in its youth rejects the old and in its old age is appalled by the new. The personal experience of each generation is the touchstone by which it judges both past and future. The wonder of Essex is that we can see here what many generations have created and cherished. Once the realization has taken hold that wonderful things have preceded us, and will undoubtedly survive after our day, we should take greater care to cherish and preserve what we have inherited and at the same time create in our own day an environment that will earn for us the gratitude of future generations.