Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Many Architects of the Kittredge House

This week, we are pleased to have David Amory, architect of the restoration of the Kittredge House, as our guest blogger. As current architect of the building, he has an interesting vantage point from which to view the decisions made by previous designers.

The restoration and redevelopment of the Alvah Kittredge House – so what’s the big deal? Why not tear it down and start over, and for a lot less money? Well, it is a big deal - not just preserving and reinventing this remarkable house in Roxbury’s Highland Park, but preserving the vision of its stewards over nearly two centuries. In 1836 Alvah Kittredge realized his “Grecian” dream; in the 1880s Nathaniel Bradlee fashioned a gracious home in the Victorian age and opened his lushly planted grounds to the neighborhood; years later AKH became the home of RAP (Roxbury Action Program) reflecting a new vision for a black community; and now, after years of vacancy and deterioration, Historic Boston is channeling resurgent development into Alvah Kittredge House for 21st century living.

Alvah Kittredge
We can speculate on Alvah Kittredge’s personal vision. For the design of his new house in the country, on the site of a Revolutionary War fort, he chose Greek Revival, the emerging architectural style that symbolized democratic ideals, the new republic, and American growth and prosperity - a good match for Mr. Kittredge, a prosperous merchant and church deacon. The origin of Kittredge’s interest in Greek Revival? In his book The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter (1830), Asher Benjamin (1773 – 1845), the well-known American architect and author who was influential in the transition from Federal to Greek Revival architectural styles in America, writes that he himself had become an “admirer of Grecian architecture,” and that he wanted this book to “be useful to the practical builder.” Here he refers specifically to the same Greek Ionic order that Alvah Kittredge chose for his front porch: “…Ionic orders, giving first an example from the Temple of Minerva Polias at Prieve, which is considered one of the best Greek examples.” (Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and defense.) The architect/author continues:

I consider it necessary that all practical house carpenters should be fully acquainted with the orders of architecture, particularly those who reside in the country, where they have no opportunity of consulting with an architect.

Was Kittredge or his skilled builder familiar with Asher Benjamin? He must have been impressed by prominent new buildings up in Boston, such as Quincy Market (Alexander Parris 1825-27) and St Paul’s Church (now the Episcopal Cathedral – Parris & Willard 1820). Alexander Parris’s and Solomon Willard’s St. Paul's, standing on Tremont Street opposite Boston Common, was Boston’s first Greek Revival building; its monumental stone portico and high pediment challenged the 1809 brick steeple of Park Street Church across the street, and, of course, Charles Bulfinch’s State House up on Beacon Hill. Kittredge topped his residential “temple” with a more modest pediment – keep an eye out for signs of its restoration.

Nathaniel Bradlee, Architect
Thirty-five years later in 1871 Nathaniel Bradley purchased AKH for his family, and left the exterior of the main house intact, including the portico and front door, added side wings, and renovated portions of the interior. Departing from the original Greek Revival design, Bradlee covered the painted plaster stair hall ceiling (pieces of which can still be seen) with a colored glass ceiling, and added dark ceiling beams, doors, and other woodwork, the pinnacle of
prevailing Victorian taste.

An excerpt in an 1888 memorial to Bradlee portrays his dedication to community and lends insight to the spirit of AKH:

…But nothing, perhaps, better illustrated this kindly spirit of Mr. Bradlee than the wideopen gates, which thus invited visitors, day after day, year after year, into the pleasant grounds, where, as in a public park, little children were free to play, tired invalids to rest, and the passer-by to make it a convenient thoroughfare…

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