Architectural Ambler: County Street Historic District

New Bedford, MA

404 County Street, Queen Anne style house built in 1883.

404 County Street, Queen Anne style house built in 1883.

To walk through the County Street Historic District of New Bedford, Massachusetts is to enter into a three-dimensional textbook of 19th-century American residential architecture. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the district features a treasure trove of 19th-century houses designed by such prominent architects as Richard Upjohn, Russell Warren, and Peabody and Stearns, as well as local architects from New Bedford. This month’s Architectural Ambler visits four houses in the County Street Historic District, each one representative of a different 19th-century American architectural style.

When one hears “Oil Capital of the World,” one usually thinks of Dubai or Houston, but back in the 19th century, that title went to New Bedford, the global headquarters of the whaling industry. Whale oil was one of the most common, clean-burning lamp oils of the time; New Bedford’s motto was “We Light the World,” and in 1857, it had the world’s highest per capita income. And, like Dubai in the 21st century, New Bedford in the 19th century was an architectural showcase.

New Bedford had begun humbly enough, settled in the mid-18th century by Quaker dissenters. But its deep harbor soon attracted the fledgling whaling industry of Nantucket, and before long, millions of dollars worth of whale oil were arriving into the city’s harbor each year.

With the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the near-extinction of whales in the latter half of the 19th century, New Bedford’s whaling industry declined and its merchants entered into the cotton textile industry, which became the city’s primary source of wealth in the 1880s. By the 1920s, New Bedford was one of the leading textile manufactures in the country.

Throughout the 19th century, then, New Bedford was home to many families that had become extremely wealthy from these enterprises, and who used their wealth to build lavish homes in the latest architectural styles. The most fashionable of these homes were built on and around County Street, described by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851) as one of the grandest residential streets in America.

Originally a Native American path, County Street winds its way along the crest of a hill running parallel to the harbor docks below it and to the east. Farmhouses dotted County Street in the 18th century, but in the 1820s, Greek Revival mansions with magnificent gardens began to crowd them out. County Street became the established home of the rich, and architectural opulence was de rigueur.

388 County Street, designed by Russell Warren in 1833.

388 County Street, designed by Russell Warren in 1833.

One of the oldest of these mansions was constructed at 388 County Street between 1833 and 1836 for banker and whaling merchant William Rotch Rodman; in the 1850s, it served as the residence of the city’s mayor. Designed by Rhode Island architect Russell Warren, known for his sumptuous Greek Revival buildings, this stately, granite-faced mansion was most striking at the time of its construction for its giant wooden portico of fluted Corinthian columns, which were considered extremely ornate back then.

The Greek Revival style was popular in the United States from the 1820s through the 1850s for its democratic associations with Ancient Greece, excavation of which began in the early 19th century. Quintessential Greek Revival elements included columns, porticos, and wide, denticulated (“toothed”) cornices. Roofs tended to be either flat, with small attic windows, or gabled, with roofs styled to resemble Grecian temple pediments. Function was generally subservient to symmetry.

 100 Madison Street villa, constructed in 1855 for Katherine Melville Hoadley, sister of Herman Melville.

100 Madison Street villa, constructed in 1855 for Katherine Melville Hoadley, sister of Herman Melville.

At 100 Madison Street, a few blocks to the north, an exquisite Italianate villa was constructed in 1855 for Katherine Melville Hoadley, sister of Herman Melville, and her husband John Hoadley. This picturesque, asymmetrical style, which began in England as a reaction against the rigid rules of symmetry and proportion in classical architecture, was popular in the United States from the 1840s through the 1880s.

Italianate architects combined classical detailing, such as round-arched windows and wide cornices, with rustic elements – square cupolas (also known as belvederes), bracketed eaves, low-pitched roofs, and wide porches and balconies – all inspired by the rambling farmhouses and villas dotting the North Italian countryside. Italianate villas were typically painted with the colors of nature – shades of brown, gray, green, and blue. The style’s bucolic associations made it a favorite for country houses.

81 Hawthorn Street, Gothic Revival house constructed in 1871 for New Bedford whale merchant, Matthew Howland.

81 Hawthorn Street, Gothic Revival house constructed in 1871 for New Bedford whale merchant, Matthew Howland.

An eclectic mix of elements makes up 81 Hawthorne Street, constructed in 1871 for Matthew Howland – whale merchant, banker and Quaker. The house’s steep cross-gables with deep eaves, muscular brackets, and lancet arch-shaped verge boards are characteristic of the Gothic Revival style (c. 1830-1870), as are the pointed-arch attic-story windows. The lattice-work verge board and gambrel roof of the rear cross-gable are emblematic of the American Stick style (c. 1855-1890), as are the long side verandah and the decorative moldings around the dormer windows. The columns of the front portico and side verandah, the barrel roof of the front portico, the bay window above it, and the pediment of the verandah allude to the more classically-inspired contemporary Queen Anne style.

This blending of styles was common in the later half of the 19th century. Eclectic architects were considered highly erudite, well-versed in all the styles, and exceedingly creative. By mixing familiar architectural styles and details to create unique combinations, they endowed their buildings with a high level of visual interest – a quintessential quality of the Victorian era. Today, we can make a pastime out of identifying the different styles from which these various elements were derived.

An unadulterated example of the Queen Anne style was built at 404 County Street in 1883 for New Bedford businessman J. Arthur Beauvais, one of the founders of Citizen’s National Bank. Popular from the 1870s to the turn of the 20th century, the Queen Anne style was named after the simple, rustic architecture of rural England that blended medieval and classical elements in picturesque combinations during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714).

In America in the late-19th century, Queen Anne houses were fanciful and imaginative, asymmetrical compositions of various elements, including turrets, cross-gable roofs, dormer windows, balconies and verandahs, classical columns, and Palladian and bay windows. Panels, pediments, and friezes depicted classically-inspired motifs like garlands and urns; whimsical details included lattice work, decorative chimney stacks and pots, and little oriel windows. All were artistically applied with a delicate hand and light-hearted touch in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and materials. The lattice-work chimney panels and belt course of gray scalloped shingles and red molded brick at 404 County Street are classic Queen Anne details.

These four examples only begin to hint at the wide variety of houses to be found in the County Street Historic District, and the numerous styles (and variants thereof) present in American architecture in the 19th century. Our nation has a rich and wonderful architectural past – stay tuned to the Architectural Ambler to learn more about America’s architectural history next month!

For more information on the architecture of historic New Bedford, visit the New Bedford Preservation Society and download the County Street Historic District walking tour. For an in-depth history of New Bedford, you can also read Safely Moored at Last: Cultural Landscape Report for New Bedford Whaling National Park.

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