This past weekend I visited Hill-Stead, a 152-acre, 10-building museum and a National Historic Landmark in Farmington, Connecticut. It was primarily designed by the architect Theodore Pope Riddle, the very same woman who designed the Avon Old Farms School I wrote about several months back (Part I, II):

The builder was a local named Richard Jones.

Hillstead is the place she designed for her parents to live in, and was constructed in the period spanning 1989~1901, in the Colonial Revival Style:

Some additions were made to the house over the next few years after its completion. The history of Hillstead has been covered well by other writers, so I will not delve into that here. What struck me, funny enough, was the parallel between this place and sukiya teahouse architecture. Not any parallel in visual or constructional terms obviously, but in the fact that the common concept for the two forms is that of wealthy people trying to capture something rustic, yet quite refined, in their built environment. Also, like a Japanese house, at Hillstead it was the floor plan that determined the overall form; the rooms were not stuffed into a preconceived format like most Victorian-era structures. Roofs were drawn deliberately at an assortment of angles, the layout of the place was on the ‘big house – little house – back house – barn’ archetype of connected farm buildings seen in other parts of New England. The barn had to not only look old fashioned, but be timber framed with exposed pegging and uneven width siding. The apex of the barn roof has holes to simulate a dovecote. Hand forged nails were exposed prominently, etc. The object for this residence was to convey a ‘charming sense of rambling informality’, and the goal was attained, it is clear, in a high class way. Yes, it’s a little artificial in that it’s trying to simulate something else, but it’s a well designed and well made place, and perfectly preserved.

The Popes collected many paintings and inside you can see works by Monet, Degas, and other French Impressionists of the period. The Popes clearly had good taste, collecting these works before the artists gained their fame. There is an extensive library inside with some 3300 volumes, some of which are quite unusual, though some apparently are in very fragile condition. There is a sweet set of Ming Dynasty Ox-Blood glazed vases and Chinese chessmen, lots of neat clocks, etc., etc. A lot of neat stuff to gawk at. Every bedroom seemed to have a 4-post bed, each one different. I managed to locate a few pictures of these beds elsewhere, which I’ll share. This first one is my favorite in form, though the columns are veneered it would appear:

Another one:

And another:

There were lots of nice furniture pieces in the house.

To be honest, I don’t really notice the accoutrement other than the furniture – mostly I stare the architecture, the room arrangements, the staircase work, the hardware. All the doors, for instance, are nice and thick at 2.5″ – even the louvered interior doors are a full 2″ thick. Many of the interior walls appear to be about 12~14″ thick, which I find very pleasing. I like thick walls in a house.

Photography was not permitted inside the house, and though there was much I would have loved to record, I contented myself with taking snaps of various exterior features, pictures which I would like to share with you today.

One of the first things I always notice, and have written about in the past (see “A Bracing Situation“, II, III, and IV), are braced doors and gates. setting aside the roadway gates, the first board and batten doors I saw at Hillstead were well-designed:

A close up shows that the joinery details are cleanly executed with the let-in braces:

Those doors weren’t a fluke in their design either, as these nearby doors attest:

I like little garden structures, though it is a bit rare to come across anything all that nice. At Hillstead, there’s a beautifully configured sunken garden near the house, on a stretched octagonal plan and with a summerhouse:

Another view:

Though it’s not really a double roof, the skylight framing did remind me of that with the double rafters visible:

Another view:

It’s a good-looking little building, ah, but the devil is in the details, now ain’t it? The long openings on the sides, for example, feature scant 4×6″ headers over some 16″ span, which have sagged noticeably over time:

Those headers might be more appropriately sized at 4x 12 or so I imagine.

While sitting in the summerhouse, I noticed some non-native conifers in the garden:

So I went over to take a look, and to my surprise these are trees of Japanese origin:

Sawara(椹) reaches a maximum height of about 30m, and is a close relative of Japanese Hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa), along with Alaskan Yellow ‘Cedar’ (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), Port Orford ‘Cedar’ (Chamaecyparis lawsonia), and here on the East Coast of the US, Atlantic White ‘Cedar’ (Chamaecyparis thyoides). I’m using the term ‘cedar’ loosely, as none of those trees are true cedars.

Check that! – I just learned that sands have shifted in the plant classifications for ‘Alaskan Yellow Cedar’ – chamaecyparis nootkatensis: it has now been transferred on the basis of strong genetic and morphological evidence to the separate genus, callitropsis, as calliptropsis nootkatensis, or, possibly, back to cupressus nootkatensis (the name it was originally described under in 1824 apparently). The terminological details are to be hammered out in the upcoming 2011 International Botanical Congress. It’s no longer classified by botanists as chamaecyparis. One key difference relates to the amount of time it take the cones to mature, which is 2 years for the Yellow cedar, and 1 year for the members of chamaecyparis.

In Japan, sawara is a premium choice for wood shingles and wooden bathtubs, rice bowls, cookpot lids, among other applications. Here’s a sawara bathtub as one example:

The botanical name for Sawara, chamaecyparis pisifera, tells you much. The first word, chamaecyparis, in Greek breaks down into khamai, meaning ‘ground’, and kuparissos, for ‘cypress’. The second word, pisifera, means ‘little peas’, a reference to the small cones produced by this variety:

I haven’t come across too many of these in North America, and it was fun to discover these specimens here in Connecticut. There is another Sawara in Elizabeth Park, in Hartford CT, though is is not in good health.

Well, all for today – I recommend a visit to Hillstead, one of the finest examples of Colonial Revival architecture in the US, to anyone who happens to be in the area. A tour is $10, and the docents are very enthusiastic.

2 Replies to “Hillstead”

  1. Thanks Chris. An interesting post. Both this house and the school you posted about earlier are very appealing. Especially like the various details. The side trip into botany was also very interesting.

    Also enjoyed the “A Way Forward” post about the hemp/lime construction method. Nice to see some of these alternate approaches to building. Hopefully by gaining more exposure there will be less resistance to acceptance. Please keep 'em coming!

    John Kissel

  2. Hi John,

    rereading this post I came across your kind comment which for some reason I never replied to – my apologies!

    I plan to share more posts like the one above in coming months and years as there is a lot of interesting architecture out there, and most of the time it is not written about from a craftsmanship perspective.

    Glad you've been enjoying the reads!


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