Last Friday I finished up an article for the August issue of JLC titled A Look at Traditional Trim Designs by Gary Katz. The article delves into the classical orders of the Greeks and Romans and how those architectural elements and proportions have worked their way into the molding we see in historic homes in this country, as well as the designs of much of the trim that we use today. Having spent many of my years as a contractor working on older homes in southern Rhode Island, I was particularly interested in the lessons in Gary’s article.
Then at Sunday breakfast my wife mentioned to me that the Crosby Mansion in Brewster, MA was having an open house, and would I like to go. I jumped at the chance.
The Crosby Mansion would hardly qualify as a “mansion” in most parts of the country, but in the sleepy rural town of Brewster, it was and still is one of the most magnificent buildings in the town. (For more on the history of Crosby Mansion, go to http://www.crosbymansion.com/. ) I’d driven by the place dozens of times in the 10 years I’ve lived on the Cape Cod, and have always been curious to see what was behind the spindly-pillared porches that line the front of this grand building nestled in the woods of the Cape (photo 1).
With Gary’s article fresh in my mind, I walked in the main entry like an art history student walking into the Louvre after final exams. The interior of the building was filled with elaborate examples of every type of detail that Gary describes in his article. At first, the carpenter in me was bowled over by the intricacies of the woodwork, but as I studied the details and heard the eager volunteers talk about the history of the place, I wished that I could have been privy to some of the design decisions that had been made. I longed to “set the way-back machine” and talk to the highly-skilled boat joiners that supposedly made and fitted all the trim back in 1888, the year the house was built.
To be honest and fair the house was not meant to reflect or follow a particular style. The open entry foyer festooned with curved balustrades was supposed to evoke feelings of Buckingham Palace—a stretch of the imagination at best (photo 2). A room off the entry has a highly ornate floor-to-ceiling mirrored fireplace reminiscent of one at the Palace of Versailles—again supposedly (photo 3). And off that room is the billiard room that felt more (to me) like it belonged in an English country estate (photo 4). The trim and ornamentation in these rooms were as varied as the rooms themselves.
In the Versailles room, one doorway was framed with square columns topped with an elaborate entablature (photo 5). In another doorway in the room, the columns became casing (photo 6), (which in those days would probably have been known as architrave molding). The trim around the ceilings (that I believe is also called entablature—Gary, correct me if I’m wrong) was also elaborate with multiple layers of crown molding, an ornate frieze and picture-hanging molding (photo 7). It must have been a fun carpentry project!
But Gary’s article delves particularly into casing, and these details really piqued my curiosity. Outside of the most ornate rooms in the house, window and door casing seemed to vary quite a bit. In these “public” rooms of the house, windows were cased in a classic profile with a backband, descending fillets and mitered corners (Photo 8). On the second floor the openings around the Buckingham balcony used the same detail. But in the bedrooms and hallways just off the balcony area, the predominant casing had rosettes in the top corners with continuous backband around the rosettes (Photo 9). In some doorways the casing sat on plinth blocks, while in others the casing ran all the way to the floor. Oddly enough the casing in the large walk-in closets was a mitered detail that resembled the public areas of the first floor (Photo 10).
The strangest mix of moldings was in the third floor where the servants’ quarters were located. In addition to wrapped-rosette detail described before, some of the windows and doors were trimmed with flat square-edge stock with the head casing projecting slightly past the jambs (Photo 11). But on some of the windows and doors—sometimes on adjacent walls in the same room— there was a completely different profile that looked thicker and heavier with rounded back band and curved transitions between the decorative elements of the profile (Photo 12). The head casing for these openings was simple flat stock that had to be quite thick to project over the heavy casing. A cornice detail then wrapped around the top of the head casing. The head casing seemed too large and cumbersome, even for the heavier casing profile. It was the only place in the mansion where the molding felt out of proportion—a key part of Gary’s article and something the pattern book authors stressed as being vital to aesthetically pleasing ornamentation.
We learned from the various volunteers that the mansion had changed owners a few times over the years. At one point fairly recently it had fallen into serious disrepair and had been vandalized. It was only through the diligent hard work of volunteers that it has been (and is still being) restored. As we walked back to our car, I was left with many questions—curiosities mostly. Apart from the highly ornate rooms on the main floor, why wasn’t the same molding used throughout the remainder of the house, or at least on the same floor? Did it really matter? (I believe it was Emmerson who said “…consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”). Had the doors and windows originally been trimmed the same, but then changed over the course of time with different owners and building upgrades? Had different carpenters on the crew had different opinions of what should be done? Were Albert Crosby and his wife, Matilda, the micro-managing types while the house was being built, fussing over and changing little details? My over-active imagination played out dozens of scenarios.
And then there was the curious third floor. Did they run short of funds and change the detailing to something more affordable and less pleasing? Was that odd profile just something that was easy to get through local suppliers? But in the end then did they have to resort to the simplest square stock just to finish the place? I plan to go back at the next open house armed with a better camera and a whole head full of questions that I’ll bet someone there knows the answer to. Or maybe the answers are known only to the ghosts that have been seen roaming the rooms of the Crosby Mansion.