The Freestyle dominates the Fan – UPDATE

What makes our row on South Cathedral Place isn’t just the history of who built it and who lived there, but the style.  The row combines the best of the Modern French, Queen Anne and Italianate into it’s own cohesive Freestyle cluster.  The Freestyle became a pattern in itself in many instances in the Fan. Even prominent defining elements of passe architectural styles, such as the Mansard roof, were prominently incorporated into desirable house patterns through the early 1900s. Here is the excerpt from my paper on this topic:

Try summoning the Spirit of Styles Past at Shafer’s row, and we are inundated with a profusion of exotic flavors and motifs.  Is this a mishmash or an intentional blend?  The leading handbook for understanding American architecture, A Field Guide To American Houses, is helpful in instances of stylistic cohesion, but it doesn’t do us any good in identifying the fusion happening here. The Spirit of Styles Past will show us that in Richmond’s Fan District, from the late 19th century through well into the 20th century, production builders followed a new industry model of deliberate blending of style to fashion a “cohesive contradiction” in middle class house patterns.

Arguably the most prominent feature of the row is the Modern French or Second Empire mansard roofline, housing a third story on the front portion of the dwellings, a technique ideal for urban town house designs.  But, is it a surprise to see this element applied in 1889 Richmond? A Field Guide to American Houses identifies the span of popularity of this style from 1860-1880, “with late examples not uncommon in the 1880s.”[1] But here we are pushing 1890, with the replication of this element far from being finished in the Fan District of Richmond.  A near duplication of the mansard-roofed row was executed in 1895 by an unknown architect at 1206-1210 Park Avenue, using a side hall plan with a three story canted bay, but with a rock faced coursed ashlar stone façade, and side stone porch with round stone columns and stylized capitals (fig. 5).  In fact, as Fan area production builders developed westerly lots over the next few decades, the mansard roof is applied in the majority of instances, but often in only a half or three-quarters third story.

The answer to our question of timely placement is given by architectural innovators such as William T. Comstock, when in 1881 he acknowledged the French style as having “been supplanted by our present modified Gothic, which appears as ‘Queen Anne,’ ‘Elizabethan,’ ‘Jacobean,’ or ‘Colonial’…[and] while bearing many characteristics of their prototypes, do not adhere strictly to any of them. Thus, in what is known as the Queen Anne (of the present day) is frequently introduced classic features, and the same is true of the other styles.”[2] Elements were being used in conjunction with other — sometimes classical — stylistic features to create a “free style.” The architectural communities’ call for a blend of styles, and “cohesive contradiction” continued, and was even recommended, as detailed in American Vernacular:

In 1889 the National Architect’s Union in Philadelphia recommended “a model of convenience and good arrangement” on the interior, while retaining an “irregular exterior” with “a pleasing effect upon the eye.” In one submittal for an inexpensive dwelling, the magazine described the design as combining “convenience, good taste, and economy,” as well as a “neat dressy exterior.”[3]

We observe the intent of this approach in Shafer’s row: Italianate ornamental cornice, plus Second Empire mansard roof, plus Queen Anne porch or Neoclassical portico, plus ornamental iron cresting, equals a mixture of architectural ingredients.  This technique was refined as the Fan continued to develop, so that eventually we see a variety of ingredients repeated across patterns, including one offering a concave towered mansard roof, plus neoclassic Ionic porch, plus aesthetic divided light windows and iron cresting, sprouting as late as 1910 (see Appendix D).


[1] McAlester and McAlester, 242.

[2] Bicknell and Comstock, Preface, Modern Architectural Designs and Details, n.p.

[3] Gottfried and Jennings, 19.

Bibliography HERE.

At the turn of the century in the Fan District of Richmond, production builders and architects followed a new industry model of deliberate blending of style to fashion a “cohesive contradiction” in middle class house patterns.

This thesis is modeled on the recognition of a sequence of contrast in middle class dwellings’ overall exterior style; and even a sequence of contrast in the style of multiple dwellings across streetscapes, as evidenced in an inventory of one vernacular pattern in the fan I’ve been tracking.

Below is an updated inventory of a recurring vernacular house pattern has so far been identified in at least 40 addresses the Fan, Museum District and even Carver neighborhoods, built between 1907 and 1912. It features a brick stretcher bond facade and side hall plan with the “hall” portion bumped out in a 2-story bay, and an intricate circle top window in the 3rd story/attic space.  A principle feature is a Bell-Cast Mansard roof over the towered bay, in the Modern French style, considered out of date by 1885, according to Virginia and Lee McAlester’s Field Guide To American Houses.  Original elements since altered in some dwellings include iron cresting along the full length of the roof line and a classical Colonial Revival full porch with Ionic columns and modillion cornice.

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