Architectural Ambler: Brattle Street

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The English Palladian style is beautifully represented at 105 Brattle Street.

The English Palladian style is beautifully represented at 105 Brattle Street.

This month, the Architectural Ambler visits historic Brattle Street, a prominent thoroughfare in the Old Cambridge National Register Historic District in Cambridge, Mass.

Allegedly named for 18th-century Brattle Street resident – and British Loyalist – Col. William Brattle Jr., Brattle Street extends westward from Cambridge’s original historic core near Harvard Square, where the town’s first streets were laid out in the early 1630s.

Brattle Street grew slowly during Cambridge’s first century. In the 1700s, wealthy Anglicans – as opposed to the humbler Puritans, Cambridge’s first residents – built elegant, fashionable homes along the street. By the American Revolution, Brattle Street was known as “Tory Row” for this small group of Loyalists who lived and entertained on a lavish scale.

During the Revolution, the fine Tory homes were abandoned, and some were confiscated by Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army. New homes continued to be built along the street throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries, always in the latest architectural styles.

Near the beginning of Tory Row, at 92 Brattle Street, a Stick Style house was constructed in 1881 for Sarah and Emma Cary, the sisters of Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, a co-founder of Radcliffe College. As an American variant of the British Queen Anne style of the 1870s and 1880s, the Stick Style was marked by picturesque asymmetry and light, delicate details in wood.

Stick Style at 92 Brattle Street

Stick Style at 92 Brattle Street

Stick Style architects delineated the structure of a building on its outside facades. Here, each façade and floor level is outlined by a gray-painted post or joist. Stick-like details in the upper stories derive from this mode of structural expression. The scalloped, “fish-scale” shingles of the second floor are classic Queen Anne details.

Georgian style at 94 Brattle Street

Georgian style at 94 Brattle Street

Next door, at 94 Brattle St., a Georgian-style house was constructed by the middle of the 18th century for Henry Vassall, a Tory. During the war, the house was confiscated by the Continental Army and used as its medical headquarters, and army doctor Benjamin Church was jailed here in 1775 after being caught sending traitorous messages to the British commanding general.

The Georgian elements of this house include the hipped roof, orderly arrangement of sash windows, denticulated tooth-like moldings under the eaves of the roof, and the delicate, denticulated pediment and engaged pilasters of the entrance door surround.

Greek Revival at 101 Brattle Street

Greek Revival at 101 Brattle Street

Across the street, at 101 Brattle St., a Greek Revival house was constructed in 1844 by local architect-builder Oliver Hastings for himself. The Greek Revival style was very popular in the United States from the 1820s through the 1860s, as its use suggested an affinity between the young American democracy and that of Ancient Greece.

This house’s low-sloped roof, symmetrical front façade, and wide and tall windows are Greek Revival hallmarks. The semi-circular entrance portico of fluted Corinthian columns and the transom and side lights about the entrance door constitute a classic Greek Revival entrance.
Nearby, at 105 Brattle St., a grand English Palladian home was built in 1759 for Maj. John Vassall, another Tory loyal to the King. The house’s unknown builder may have referenced British architectural pattern books by Inigo Jones, the 17th-century British architect who introduced Italian Renaissance architecture to Britain.

Jones’ work was inspired by the architecture of Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Italian architect and architectural theorist who specialized in elegantly designed and perfectly proportioned classical villas and townhouses.

This house’s Palladian elements include a giant order of four Ionic pilasters, a hipped roof and balustrade, and the bold, denticulated cornice and pediment moldings. The design of the front façade is also quintessentially Palladian in its symmetry and proportions: The central section under the pediment, for example, is a double-square rectangle.

Washington used this house as his military headquarters from July 1775 to April 1776. During the post-war ownership of the house by the Craigie family (Andrew Craigie had been the Continental Army’s first apothecary general), side porches were added, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rented rooms in the house as a young Harvard professor beginning in 1837.

In 1843, Longfellow married Fanny Appleton, whose father purchased the house for the newlyweds as a wedding gift. Seventy years later, Longfellow’s surviving children set up the Longfellow House Trust to preserve the house, now an historic house museum.

Queen Anne style at 113 Brattle Street

Queen Anne style at 113 Brattle Street

At 113 Brattle St., a Queen Anne house was built in 1887 for Edith Longfellow Dana – one of Longfellow’s three daughters – and her husband Richard Henry Dana III.

Queen Anne architects fused delicate classical details with more rustic elements to create a bucolic architectural style suggestive of the pre-industrial English countryside around the time of Queen Anne (1702-1714). The architect of this Queen Anne house incorporated details from the American Shingle Style and Colonial Revival style as well.

The double-gable roof, dainty portico columns, decorative side lights about the entrance door, diamond-paned windows of the attic story, and two projecting sets of windows at the second floor (note that the left-hand set of projecting windows has three windows, while the right-hand set has only two) are all Queen Anne touches.

The shingles of the second and attic stories suggest both the Shingle Style and New England’s 17th- and 18th-century colonial homes, which were often sheathed with shingles.

Colonial Revival style at 115 Brattle Street

Colonial Revival style at 115 Brattle Street

Next door, at 115 Brattle St., a Colonial Revival home was built for another Longfellow daughter, Annie Allegra Longfellow Thorp, also in 1887.

In the 1880s, the Colonial Revival style was championed as a uniquely American, home-grown style of architecture, and Colonial Revival architects drew inspiration from colonial-era houses.

Here, the wooden clapboards, gambrel roof, boldly denticulated cornice, and semi-circular entrance portico suggest the high-style homes of the colonial era. The large tri-partite windows of the first floor and the wide side lights flanking the entrance would not have been possible in colonial times, when glass was very costly.

This house was designed by Annie Allegra’s cousin, Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow Jr., who worked for a time in the office of Boston architect H.H. Richardson before starting his own firm. The house’s design was partly inspired by the Longfellow house at 105 Brattle Street, but a comparison between the two houses illustrates some of the differences between the Palladian and the Colonial Revival styles: While the Palladian house is bold and grand – almost pretentious – with its giant order of pilasters and crowing pediment and balustrade, the Colonial Revival house is more discreet, lacking giant pilasters, and swapping a more traditional gambrel roof for the pediment.

The Tories, the Longfellows, and the Continental Army may be long-gone from Brattle Street, but their houses still remain to help us visualize the fascinating history of Brattle Street and Cambridge. Be sure to check it out during your next visit to the Boston area!

For more information on Cambridge’s historic architecture, visit the website of the Cambridge Historical Society, and the Longfellow National Historic Site.

 

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