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Burritt Mansion

2696 Van Buren Street, Weedsport, , 13166 , Property Website Dated Posted: August 23, 2014


Circa 1850

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About This Old House

SOLDThe 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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