the Carpentry Way: Turrets and Towers of Greenfield                                                          

Turrets and Towers of Greenfield

I don't know why it is, but for the longest time I have been a fool for turrets and towers. I'm not interested in them so much on castles, but on houses, I find them delightful, depending upon design of course.

What's the difference between a turret and a tower, you may ask? They are similar, however a turret is part of a bump-out, or projection from the building wall. Turrets typically do not continue all the way to the ground, whereas towers do. A turret is not necessarily taller than the rest of the building and often is part of a room, or rooms, and may be walked into. Some have staircases inside, as of course do some towers.

The heyday of houses built with turrets and towers undoubtedly was the 'Queen Anne style', as it is called in the US. This is not so much a formulaic style as it is a term used to loosely describe picturesque buildings with many of these characteristic features:

I first saw these buildings in detail and number in the San Francisco bay area, where some of these structures are called 'painted ladies'. The Queen Anne style flourished from about 1880 until 1900. It's origins are credited to an English architect, Richard Norman Shaw:

Now, Queen Anne style never had much to do with the historical Queen Anne who ruled from 1702~14, nor did it have much to do with the Renaissance architecture popular in England during those years. The sources for this style were a combination of 17th and 18th century English and Flemish domestic architecture, though the style incorporated eclectic motifs drawn from many sources. In the US, this style varied somewhat from that in Britain, featuring an extensive use of wood rather than brick or stone, and a less formalized interior arrangement of rooms.

The style developed by Shaw first saw exposure in the US at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, as the British exhibit had several buildings constructed in that manner. Later, Shaw published a book of sketches and provided material for the first magazine of architecture, The American Architect and Building News, which was widely read, and then a spate of pattern books published in the last decade of the 19th century served to further popularize the style. Here's a link to (-->) volume III (<--) of that journal, and the link will take you directly to an article I found quite entertaining on page 82~3, titled "The Conscience of a Contractor". It seems like the more things change the more they remain the same in that regard. There's quite a lot of interesting stuff in there, a window into the building world of 1873 at least.

The Queen Anne style is a Victorian style, and like other aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement, was a reaction against the onslaught of the machine as the industrial revolution gathered full steam. The Queen Anne style was a flow-on of sorts from the Gothic revival style popularized by Ruskin and others. In the US it supplanted the Second Empire Style, which had taken center stage for the 1860~1880 period. Faddism in American architecture was becoming well established by this point, as the Master Builder tradition, where construction was governed by proven precedent and pattern, was fading into the background. You'll find more posts on this topic if you care to read them - look under the term "Master Builder Tradition in the labels index to the right of the page.

I live in Greenfield Massachusetts, located in the Northwest corner of the state. Greenfield is situated along the Connecticut river, and is about 15 minute's south of the Vermont border. Across the river to the east is Turners Falls and Millers Fall. Millers Falls should be a familiar name to carpenters out there, as the Millers Falls Tool Company (<-- link) made woodworking equipment, like drilling machines, miter boxes, hand planes, breast drills, etc., from about 1870 until it was bought out and moved elsewhere in 1982.

I mentioned above the architectural pattern books which proliferated in the late 19th century - Asher Benjamin (<-- link) was an author of one one such widely read pattern book, and one of his earliest houses, the Leavitt-Hovey House, is now in fact the Greenfield Public Library. Here's an artist's rendering of the house as it looked after construction was complete:

While those stately trees are long gone, some fine pictures of the house can be found here (<-- link)

I live in a middle class neighborhood just at the edge of an area of older upscale homes. The library is 5 minute's walk away. Many of the homes in the part of town were of the Queen Anne style, and it would appear nearly all of them were constructed in or around 1895. I recently brought my camera along and snapped pictures of various details - especially turrets - and thought I'd share them with y'all here on the Carpentry Way.

At the first Queen Anne house I came to, I spotted the owner in the yard doing some maintenance. I said "hello", explained what I was interested in doing, and asked him if he would mind if I took a photograph of his house and it's tower. His reply: "No, not today, thanks"

So, onward...the first one on today's tour is undoubtedly one of my favorites in this area:

What I like about this house is the large volumetric mass of the tower, fitted about halfway into the rest of the structure and serving to partially enclose a semi-circular porch. After meeting the owner, Russ, and explaining my interest in taking photos, he allowed my free run to take whatever pictures of the house I wanted. Here's a view from another corner of the yard:

Slightly obscured in this photo by the tree is a small eyebrow dormer in the roof. Love those!

Then Russ's wife came out and said "hello". When she found out what I we were up to, she asked if we (my wife was along for the ride) would like to see inside the house. Well, "You betcha!" As we went around to the back, I snapped another picture, taking in the enclosed solarium and oriel window to the side:

I really like the detail where the second floor wall terminates in a slight flare, or skirt at the bottom. That treatment both looks nice and serves to break up the flow of rainwater down the wall surface. Note too that the second floor is slightly jettied on this side of the house.

Inside, we have a bedroom where that eyebrow dormer was situated:

Then we went up another floor and I got to see inside the tower roof itself:

The conical turret employs a king post, and the sheathing is composed of 1 x 4' s placed on a slight bias. Fitting horizontal boards to a conical roof is one of those tricky geometrical problems of a curved nature, and requires wide blanks of wood and a lot of waste, so the solution employed here makes good sense.

Here's a look at the rafters of the turret meeting the main slope of the roof:

A very enjoyable experience, and I thank the kindly owners for the opportunity.

A little further down the street I came across another gem, this one with an octagonal tower:

The opening in the middle of the second floor facade, with its elliptical frame, is quite neat.

Here's a close-up of the tower's ogee, or campaniform, roof, with it's copper finial:

Another view, showing the shingling which wraps in and around the window openings:

As with many houses in this style, there is a dominant gable on the facade, with well-detailed shingling:

Looks like the slate work around that valley though is needing some attention. The carved brackets under the jetty are particularly nice.

A few yards down the road, I came upon this house:

Many of the houses, like the one above, in this area have an octagonal bay window or tower base surmounted with a squared wall section, leaving the delightful corner overhangs. I also like the enclosed veranda with polygonal bump-out.

Another view - note that the roof of the tower does not come to a point, but has a short ridge with a unique finial:

Next door is this house also with an octagonal tower

This house does not have the dominant gabled end on the front facade, but has an intriguing octagonal dormer to one side of the tower.

Another house in this area also features an octagonal dormer and tower:

Another view:

Light was fading and the sun setting but I managed to snap this picture:

I really like how the circular tower sits atop a square base, and the lovely roof which transitions between the two shapes. The mix of gable detailing on the facade is interesting and the veranda balustrade is quite unusual in form. I think the cylindrical towers look better when they are larger, as the windows, with their flat faces, do not interrupt the visual flow of the eye along the cylinder quite so much. There are curved front double sash windows mind you, just not on the one pictured above.

And one last one for today:

Again we see the cool flared skirt along the second story wall where it meets the lower story. Note the mix of materials on the walls - stone on the first floor of the tower, shingles elsewhere.

A close-up:

A simple shed dormer this time, and the tower roof is slightly flared at the bottom. Nice!

There are other buildings in Greenfield with similarly beautiful architectural detailing, but I feel I have shared at least a decent representational group of photos today. I hope you enjoyed the tour.

I think when I build my own house, there will definitely be towers and turrets involved. They are so delightful to me, and I'm sure that I am not alone in that appreciation.