Orrin W. Burritt Mansion — History and Architecture Photos and text by Bruce G. Harvey, Historian

The Orrin W. Burritt Mansion in Weedsport is a classic example of high-style residential architecture in Victorian America, with a mix of international styles blended to create a picturesque unity. Architectural styles in 19th century America were used deliberately by architects and builders to create images and associations in the minds of those who visited the house or just passed by on the street. One of the key proponents of this use of specific styles in domestic architecture was Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape architect, designer, and general arbiter of taste in the 1840s and early 1850s. Downing published a number of books in his short life, in an attempt to foster a sense of taste and civility in the selection of architectural designs. His most influential book was Cottage Residences, published in 1842 and updated several times until Downing died in 1852. Though a generation removed from Downing, the Burritt Mansion incorporates a number of the concepts in Downing’s books.

The house essentially is a symmetrical two-story rectangular block, with a central entrance on the north side that faces Van Buren Street. This symmetry and simplicity of form, however, is augmented by a profusion of architectural details and structures to the point that the house appears asymmetrical. It has a hipped roof, which allows for eaves on all sides of the house; these eaves are opportunities for additional decorations. It is interesting to note that the roof of the house is clad in raised-seam metal. Orrin Burritt, in addition to owning a successful hardware store in Weedsport, was an inventor with patents for two machines that crimped and put seams in metal. While the current roof likely is a modern replacement, it clearly suggests Burritt’s inventive capacities.

The most important stylistic influence in the Burritt Mansion is the Italianate, which was popular throughout the northeast from the 1850s into the 1880s. Downing frequently promoted the “Italian” style, “with its verandas and balconies, its projecting roofs, and the capacity and variety of its form.” He was particularly fond of the sentiments that people at the time would associate with the Italianate style: “So, too, an Italian villa may recall, to one familiar with Italy and art, by its bold roof lines, its campanile and its shady balconies, the classic beauty of that fair and smiling land, where pictures, sculpted figures, vases, and urns, in all exquisite forms, make part of the decorations and ‘surroundings’ of domestic and public edifices.”

Even a quick glance at the Burritt Mansion confirms its Italianate pedigree. The clearest feature is the overhanging eaves on all sides of the house. The eaves are supported by a dense and richly detailed mix of decoratively sawn curved brackets and dentils, the small tooth-like blocks between the brackets.

In addition to the Italianate, the Queen Anne style informs the Burritt Mansion. While this style arrived on the American scene only in the 1870s, well after Downing, it contributed to the sense of the picturesque that he favored. Drawing loosely upon medieval English buildings, the Queen Anne style in America included such features as turrets, wrap-around porches, and projecting two-story window bays. When it was built in 1876, the Burritt Mansion included a prominent turret rising from the front roof above the central entrance bay. It is not clear when this turret was removed.

Other Queen Anne features remain, however. The first floor of the Burritt Mansion clearly is dominated by the open porch that wraps around the façade and the west side and that is canted at the northwest corner. In addition, the east, north, and west sides of the house feature window bays in the Queen Anne style.

Downing, however, was no stranger to the use of architectural features that later were part of the Queen Anne style. After singing the praises of verandas as necessary to a comfortable house, he noted that “bay or oriel windows, balconies, and terraces, added to villas, increase their interest, not only by their beauty of form, but by their denoting more forcibly those elegant enjoyments which belong to the habitation of man in a cultivated and refined state of society.”

One of Downing’s key concepts was fitness: a building should express its purpose clearly in its design and design features. In Cottage Residences, he identified three crucial features that conveyed an expression of purpose: “the chimneys, the windows, and the porch, veranda, or piazza; and for this reason, whenever it is desired to raise the character of a cottage or villa above mediocrity, attention should first by bestowed on those portions of the building.” When it was built, the Burritt Mansion emphasized all three of these key design features, and most remain intact. As noted above, the porch is crucial to the design of the Burritt Mansion. The windows, moreover, served as opportunities for extravagant design. The caps above the windows were designed in a mix of designs and geometrical forms, including segmental arches, triangular pediments, and straight horizontal cornices. Only the chimneys no longer contribute to Downing’s sense of completeness, as they have been rebuilt with standard bricks and straight sides. As seen in the historical photographs, the tops of the chimneys originally were corbelled, in which the bricks extend outward as they reach the top of the chimney.

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1. General view of the house looking southeast, showing the porte-cochere and verandah

This general view of the house, looking to the southeast from Van Buren Street, shows the angle from which it was supposed to be seen. Like portraits of people, houses also have their best sides, and this view was designed to be just that. All of the key elements of the house are here, in a glorious profusion of details. While the front door to the house faces Van Buren Street, which is on the left in this view, the real entrance, the one that welcomes visitors, is at the northwest corner of the wrap-around porch. The corner is canted, or cut at an angle, with a richly decorated triangular pediment rising from the eave of the porch identifying the stairs which lead to the verandah. The canted corner of the porch continues on the second floor, where a single window is looks out of the corner beneath a projecting hipped-roof window cap, supported by decorative curved brackets with ornate carving on the sides leading to a small drop pendant in the center. This feature even continues above the second floor to the roof, which is canted to match the first and second floors; this segmental nature of the roof line gives an additional visual emphasis to the richly detailed overhanging eaves, supported by elaborate curved wooden brackets that indicate the Italianate style. The west side of the house, which faces the camera in this view, is now dominated by the porte-cochere, the open structure that gave those who lived in the house and their guests protection from the elements when stepping out of their carriages. The porte-cochere was added in 1910, and shows its later construction with square wooden posts resting on yellow brick piers, and the deeply recessed triangular pediment facing Van Buren Street above Colonial Revival-inspired tooth-like dentil moldings.

2. A view of the staircase from the foyer showing the carved newell post, the coffered panels beneath the second flight of stairs, and a portion of the elaborate first floor ceiling.


The front door of the house opens to a small vestibule, lined with coffered wood panels on the sides and ceiling. The vestibule in turn opens to this formal foyer, with a central wood staircase as the key visual element. The mix of design elements from various architectural styles, so visible on the exterior, continues with this staircase. The undersides of the staircase, seen here on the right side of the photograph, are lined with coffered wood panels, which is reminiscent of classical architecture and is the sort of thing that would be expected in a house from the early 19th century when classical revival styles were still in vogue. The same goes for the niche in the wall at the first landing, containing the classical sculpture. The other details visible in this photo, though, show the Victorian love for ornamentation and for drawing from a variety of design sources. The drop pendants that mark the turning points on the staircase, for example, are drawn from English Baroque houses of the 16th and 17th centuries, while the newel post with its squat urn decoration and classically-inspired volutes above, and the carved door surrounds (visible at the far left and far right of the photo), are hallmarks of the Italianate style, which was popular in America in the from the 1850s to the 1880s. The walls and the ceilings, meanwhile, demonstrate the Victorian fear of unadorned surfaces, with wallpapers in contrasting floral patterns and the ceiling clad in various geometrical designs.

3. This is a view of the rear of the porte-cochere, looking north from the driveway toward Van Buren Street, along with the west side of the house. It being the rear of the house, the porte-cochere’s tympanum (the triangular area within the pediment above the columns) is plain unlike the decorative floral motif in the tympanum on the front of the porte-cochere. Everything else, though, is just as ornate and decorative, with the elaborate brackets between the porte-cochere’s pediment and the columns, the dentil moldings at the bottom of the pediment, and the multi-layered cornice molding. The west side of the house that is visible in this photograph also includes significant architectural details. The porte-cochere, which was added in 1912, leads to an enclosed breezeway that is in turn connected to an enclosed porch and to the wrap-around front porch. Family could come directly through the enclosed porch into the dining room, while guests could make their way along the porch to the front door on the north side of the house. The most prominent architectural feature on the west side of the house, however, is the two story projecting bay. Enclosed by the porch on the first floor, it is fully visible on the second floor, capped by segmental arches.

4. This close view of the north side of the house that faces Van Buren Street shows several key design elements. The wrap-around porch is a vital part of the design of the house, and was designed to be a sign of both comfort and welcome. The relatively simple entablature above the columns leads to highly ornate pediments with deeply recessed molding and a carved floral decoration in the tympanum within the triangular pediment. Things become even more interesting on the second floor, where the canted corner provides a base for the extensively carved and highly decorative curved brackets that support a hip roofed cap. The single window adjacent to the corner on the front features a segmental arch for a cap, supported by a complicated molding. This view of the overhanging eaves, moreover, clearly shows the richness of architectural detail with the grouped curved brackets of different sizes, interspersed with smaller dentil moldings. Perhaps the greatest interest, however, is created by the balcony that rises above the central front door. With its slender columns with spiral turning, the gently pointed arches, and the faceted dome above, it is drawn from Moorish sources. Based loosely on Islamic architecture in both Turkey and in southern Spain, this style was in vogue in America from the mid-19th century, after the publication of Washington Irving’s travel book, Tales of the Alhambra, into the early 20th century. More often used on large-scale commercial buildings and movie theaters, it only occasionally shows up in small-scale residential architecture, making this element on the Burritt Mansion in Weedsport a rarity. Just beyond the balcony, moreover, lies a two-story projecting window bay, one of the hallmarks of the Queen Anne style of architecture.

5. The interior of the house has a formal arrangement in which family areas are clearly distinguished from public areas. Particularly after the Civil War, families and the business world were designed not to collide in Victorian America, as a protective measure for the family. This view of the first floor of the Burritt Mansion, looking from the east parlor into the west parlor, clearly shows this divide. The central foyer, in the center of this photograph, is designated as a public space, where guests would remain until allowed into the family portions of the house, in the parlors. These twin parlors are on either side of the foyer, and each can be closed by means of the double pocket doors to create safe family spaces; both sets of pocket doors continue to function as they were designed. The focal point of each parlor is a fireplace with an elaborate carved wooden surround. The fireplace in the west parlor, in the background of this photograph, features square ceramic tiles surrounding the firebox which contains a metal coal grate that appears to have been produced using Burritt’s patented metal crimping machines.

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6. This view of the second floor staircase landing reinforces the symmetry of the Burritt Mansion’s internal arrangement. Wide arched door openings on either side of the hallway lead to bedroom suites complete with closets and bathrooms. The carved door surrounds, meanwhile, were executed in the Italianate style, in keeping with many of them architectural details on the exterior.

7. The Victorian love of ornamentation is on full display in this view of the dining room. The ceiling is nearly breathtaking in its complexity, with its intermingling of geometrical and floral forms. An central oval, set within rectangular patterns on the edges, features intricately patterned fabric. This photograph was taken from the west parlor, where a double door leads into the dining room. At the other end of the dining room, two doors are set within Italianate style door frames with classical style cornices on top; the single door on the left leads to a butler’s pantry and the kitchen, while the double door leads to a small sitting room. The dining room is on the west side of the house, with French doors opening to the enclosed porch and the porte-cochere, and thus receives abundant light.

8. This is a view of the east side of the house, taken from the corner of Van Buren and Horton Streets. The key element on this side of the house clearly is the projecting three-sided bay, which was an important component in the Queen Anne style of architecture. Unlike the projecting window bay on the west side of the house above the porte-cochere, the side walls on this bay extend from the wall of the house at less than 90 degrees, making for an asymmetrical-looking bay that was an important component of the Queen Anne style of architecture. Two other features are worthy of note in this view. First, take note of the windows, particularly the window caps. Andrew Jackson Downing in the 19th century placed great emphasis on the windows as expressing the purpose of a house, and the architect of the Burritt Mansion used nearly every type of window cap that was available with little regard to consistency of arrangement. On the main walls, the first floor windows are capped by a complex cornice supported by curved brackets, while the second floor windows feature pedimented window caps rising above complex corbelled moldings, meaning that each row of molding extends further from the wall than the one below it. On the bay, meanwhile, the first floor features the pedimented window caps while the second floor windows are capped by segmental arches with carved sunburst patterns within, supported by curved brackets. All of the windows on the house, meanwhile are framed by fluted pilasters that add an extra layer of richness to the visual appeal.

The second feature to note is the gable that rises from the eaves above the projecting bay and projects outward from the wall, drawing additional attention to the bay. Here, the architect truly let his imagination run riot, creating an extraordinarily richly textured architectural feature. Groupings of heavily decorated curved brackets support the eaves of the gable, while the gable structure itself is supported above the chamfered edges of the bay by corbelled three-sided blocks. The single window within the gable, meanwhile is protected on each side by a projecting narrow curved bracket. The gable itself is recessed, with a secondary pediment within. Written descriptions of this bay and gable could carry on for pages; it certainly merits a very close examination in the photograph.

 

9. This close view of the porte-cochere on the west side of the house shows continues to show the contrasting mix of various design styles. The severely geometrical pediment above the porte-cochere, for example, is softened by the delicate floral design in the tympanum, while the segmental arch at the top of the projecting three-sided bay on the second floor contrasts with the pedimented cap above the single window adjacent to the bay. The projecting bay itself, meanwhile, is positively tame by comparison to the three-sided bay on the west side of the house, in the picture above. In contrast to the projecting bays on the east and north sides of the house, the sides of this bay extend from the wall of the house at 90-degree angles, forming a rectangular plan. The top of the bay features a segmental arch facing outward over the wide part of the bay, and portions of arches on the narrow sides of the bay adjacent to the house. The gable that rises above the bay on this side would be considered elaborate on nearly any other house; by comparison to the gable on the east side of the house, however, it shows remarkable restraint.

 

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