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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Portico Project:
Part II - Stanford White's Influences

This post is the second in a series about Staatsburgh's portico, which was restored to its original glory in 2014.  In December 2014 we first posted a blog that explored the history of portico design and the stylistic architectural developments of McKim, Mead & White.  This post will explore some of the potential portico models that likely influenced Stanford White when he was designing Staatsburgh's remodel in 1895.  Unfortunately, no records from the commission or actual construction process survive, but White's work from the same era can give us some insight about Staatsburgh's design.

Portico Inspirations: The English Country Home

By the 1890s, the firm of McKim, Mead & White was transitioning stylistically towards plans that were classical in scope. Since a portico was a prominent feature of neo-classical architecture, it is not uncommon that Stanford White would design one for the Millses. He did, however, have familiarity with several examples of porticos in architecture that could have potentially influenced his design.




The portico was a common feature of the English country house, and the Millses certainly seemed to desire that their home would resemble the country homes of the British nobility. Vistors to the earlier Staatsburgh home often referred to it as the “Manor Livingston” and White’s designs helped perpetuate this sense. Ruth was also very familiar with the country life of the British aristocracy because her twin sister Elizabeth had married William George Cavendish-Bentinck who was the great-grandson of the 3rd Duke of Portland.  Ruth would have visited her sister on an annual basis and spent time calling upon other estates in the English countryside.



Moor Park, Hertfordshire, 1720

One building that very much resembles Staatsburgh was Moor Park in Hertfordshire.  It is unlikely that Ruth visited this particular estate, but it illustrates how closely Staatsburgh resembled the general style of English country homes.  Designed by an Italian, Giacomo Leoni, Moor Park was built in the 1720s and looks strikingly similar to Staatsburgh.

Claremont House, Surrey, 1769


Others have surmised that perhaps White drew from Claremont House in Surrey (1769) based on the knowledge that Ruth’s great-grandmother and grandmother were born at Clermont in Germantown, NY. In this engraving, in addition to a portico flanked by simple wings, the position of the house on the crest of a hill is very similar to Staatsburgh. While these are just two examples, it is clear that many English country homes were a variation of this style and Staatsburgh would have belonged just as much in the 18th century English countryside as it did alongside the Hudson during the Gilded Age.

 

Thomas Jefferson as Muse

In addition to the tradition of the country homes of the British nobility, it is possible that Stanford White was also influenced by Thomas Jefferson. While White was working on Staatsburgh, he was also designing the Gould Library for NYU. In his design of the library, White used Jefferson’s designs for the rotunda at the University of Virginia as one of his main models. While exploring the Jeffersonian style, it is easy to see the similarities between the portico for the Virginia State Capitol, another one of Jefferson's designs, and Staatsburgh.  There are some differences – Staatsburgh has a shorter pediment with a fan light as well as size and proportional differences, but overall the six column front looks quite similar to Staatsburgh’s portico. Jefferson’s architectural designs were often very classical stylistically and similar to the current direction of White’s designs so Jefferson would have been a natural inspiration to White.

Portico of the Virginia State Capitol, completed 1799

Portico at Staatsburgh

 "It looks like The White House!"

Many visitors have commented on a similarity between Staatsburgh and the White House and this idea would be very astute.  A 1902 Town and Country article pointed out the similarity, "As one approaches the house for the first time he is impressed with a sense of substantial simplicity and a suggestion of resemblance to the White House at Washington."  The architect of the White House, James Hoban, was from Ireland and the principle model for his White House designs was Leinster House in Dublin.  Leinster House was built between 1745-1748 and was the residence of the Duke of Leinster who was the highest ranking aristocrat in Ireland.  When Hoban designed the White House in 1792 he borrowed both interior and exterior elements from Leinster House. Below are the drawings for Leinster House, the White House, and Staatsburgh which reveal a similarly styled portico on each home. 



Leinster House, Dublin, as it appeared in 1790.

Study for the North Elevation of the President's House, circa 1793.  This drawing shows the building as it was originally designed without the North portico.

East Elevation of Staatsburgh



Taking a look at Staatsburgh and the White House, there are many similarities between the two beginning with the width - both are 170 feet wide.  The surface of the White House is Virginia sandstone and while the exterior of Staatsburgh is painted stucco, both surfaces greatly resemble each other.  At quick glance Staatsburgh's portico is visually similar to the portico on the North elevation of the White House, but at closer look it is longer (62 ft vs. 50 ft) and has a shallower projection. Staatsburgh's portico dominates a longer section of the front facade and requires six columns along sixty-two feet. The south portico on the White House also has 6 columns but it is in the shape of a curved semi-circle.  As a result, Staatsburgh’s portico could be seen as an amalgamation of the two sides of the White House.


South Elevation of the White House

North Elevation of the White House, which includes the North Portico added in 1812

East Elevation of Staatsburgh


"Frequently this dignified home, bearing proof of its pedigree in every window and door, reminds the visitor of the White House in Washington." (December 14, 1907, Town and Country) By the time the remodel was complete Ruth and Ogden Mills now had a much larger country home and one that resembled one of the most important residences in the country to boot.

The challenge for future generations, however, was to maintain the regal appearance of the building in spite of harsh weather, poor materials, and the ravages of time.  The expense and time needed to repair the building today is certainly a testament to the amount of wealth families like the Millses had amassed to build and maintain large homes like Staatsburgh.  It has been difficult to maintain the same look on the building's exterior over the ensuing years, but we are thrilled that the 2014 portico restoration greatly enhanced the look of the mansion's facade.

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