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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Portico Project, Part I - History

Now that 2014 is nearing the end, we wanted to take a moment and reflect on one of the great changes at Staatsburgh this year.  Our east portico was completely restored and the beautiful white facade gleams as you approach the mansion.  The planning stages were in motion many years earlier, and work on the portico began in September 2012 with $4.2 million in funds that Govenor Cuomo allotted as part of NY Works projects.  The funds also helped restore the mansion's roof and the estate wall; both of which were completed in 2013.

Staatsburgh's Restored Portico, Summer 2014

This post is the first in a series about Staatsburgh's portico, which was designed by Stanford White and provides an awe-inspiring first impression to all who approach the house.  Since the portico is such a keystone of Staatsburgh, these posts will provide the architectural and historical context to better understand the significance of the project.  This series will explore the history and importance of the portico to the house and some of the work done on the recent restoration.

What is a Portico?

If you are perhaps unfamiliar with the term portico or exactly what it means, architects define portico as “ a porch leading to the entrance of a building or extended as a colonnade with a roof structure over a walkway, supported by columns or enclosed by walls.” A portico is a classically inspired architectural element and the oldest examples of porticos were constructed to be entrances to Egyptian and Greek temples. The use of a classical portico was meant to express the ancient ideals of trust, truth and democracy.  Because of these associations, once the use of a portico became common in the modern world, it lent a sense of history and authority to any building it adorned.

Temple of Concordia at Agrigentum, circa 430 BCE


The Cultural Influences on Staatsburgh’s Design

When Ruth Livingston Mills inherited Staatsburgh in 1890, it was not long before she decided the house needed to be larger and grander.  Ruth and Ogden Mills decided to approach Stanford White to remodel the house.  They wanted a country home that was not only large in size, but one that made an undeniable visual impact to all who approached the home.  Stanford White joined Charles McKim and William Mead in 1879 and by the 1890's McKim, Mead & White was on the verge of becoming the most prominent and sought after architectural firm in the country.  Ruth and Ogden had utilized the premiere American architect Richard Morris Hunt to design their New York City home, but he died mid-1895 and was in poor health during his later years which made McKim, Mead & White the next logical choice.  Not only was Ogden's father Darius a principal investor in White's masterpiece Madison Square Garden, White had also designed two homes for Ogden Mills's brother in law and sister, Whitelaw and Elisabeth Mills Reid. In fact, Ogden Mills and Whitelaw Reid visited the offices of McKim, Mead & White together during April 1894 as the plans for Staatsburgh were still in the early stages.

Stanford White c.1892

In order to understand why White's design for Staatsburgh was neo-classical and included a portico, it is important to understand the direction and development of architectural design at the time including the development of McKim, Mead & White as a firm. In the 1880s most of McKim, Mead & White’s residential designs were shingle style, which was the modern colonial style.  It was the size of the homes and not the style that set apart homes for wealthy families from the more modest cottages owned by those with lesser means.

Ochre Point in Newport, RI (1882-1884)

By the mid to late 1880s, however, the ultra rich now wanted architecture that celebrated the differences between them and others. McKim, Mead & White designed their last shingle style home in 1887 because clients no longer admired its egalitarian expression and found it too modest.  Instead architects began to adapt European palaces with all of their grandeur and size for their rich American clients. European palaces were seen as expressing the proper level of status for their socially ambitious builders. Many American millionaires were suddenly rich and they desired the presence of European antiquities to give them clout and the sense of established history that they lacked.  In the case of Ruth Livingston Mills, her long and venerable family history demanded this type of architectural expression.

One of the grand events of the era when the United States presented itself on a global scale was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. McKim, Mead & White designed the New York pavilion and the agriculture building, which were both a part of the "White City".  All of the buildings in the White City were built in a neo-classical style. Following the success of the fair, a classical architectural vocabulary was adopted for all important buildings. Another similarity between the fair buildings and Staatsburgh was the use of painted stucco for the exterior of both Staatsburgh and the buildings in the White City.  Oddly Staatsburgh appears to be the only private house designed by McKim, Mead & White with a painted stucco exterior. It was used at the fair (as a mixture of plaster and fiber instead of cement) because those buildings were meant to be temporary structures, but at Staatsburgh it neatly disguised the joints between the old house and the new additions.

Agriculture Building, 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago

By the 1890s the firm of McKim, Mead & White were 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 Mills' Staatsburgh remodel.  In addition, Stanford White would have had many examples of porticos to draw inspiration from and in Part II we will explore some of those potential models.

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