Monday, October 15, 2012

The Chester F. Wickwire House, Cortland, New York

The city of Cortland, located in Cortland County on a plain formed by the intersection of seven valleys, was first settled in 1791.  Chartered as a village in 1853 and ultimately incorporated as a city in 1900, Cortland has served as the county seat since 1808.  By the mid-nineteenth century, the village boasted tree-lined streets, attractive houses surrounded by neatly planted grounds, five churches, three banks, four hotels and the State Normal School, which occupied an elegant Second Empire-style building erected 1867-1868.  Its economy was supported by a number of manufacturing establishments, including an iron foundry, a machine cooperage, a woolen factory, two carriage shops, a sash, door and blind factory, and oil, grist, planing and saw mills.

By the late nineteenth century, the largest and most successful manufacturer in Cortland was Wickwire Brothers Manufacturing Company, founded in 1873 by Chester F. Wickwire (fig. 1) and his younger brother, Theodore. The factory specialized in the manufacture of wire cloth, a mesh of drawn metal wire woven on looms. Initially used to produce corn poppers, flour sieves and dish covers, the wire cloth was later employed in the fabrication of door and window screens.

Fig. 1  Chester F. Wickwire.  Photograph, c.1900.
The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian
Art, Cortland, New York.
The second of five children, Chester Franklin Wickwire (1843-1910) was born in 1843 to Raymond and Elmira Wickwire.  At twenty-two years of age, Chester left his family's farm in Cortlandville and settled in Cortland village where he opened a grocery.  One year later, he sold the grocery stock and began a hardware store.  After experimenting with a wire weaving loom he acquired in 1873 as part settlement of a customer's debt, Chester, in partnership with his brother Theodore, began producing wire cloth in a small building located behind the store. The new venture proved so successful that in 1876, Chester sold the hardware business and focused solely on the manufacture of wire cloth.  The wire drawing and wire weaving operations were moved respectively in 1881 and 1884 to a new factory on South Main Street in order to accommodate the increasing demands of production.  By 1883, Wickwire Brothers was the second largest manufacturer of wire cloth in the United States.

Fig. 2  Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. 
Photograph, c.1890. The 1890 House Museum and
Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.
In 1888, Chester began construction of a new residence that reflected his financial success and social stature in Cortland (fig. 2).  The large and impressive limestone house, built on a lot at 37 Tompkins Street, was designed by New York architect Samuel B. Reed (1834-1905). Reed's design, which combines elements of the Chateauesque and Richardsonian Romanesque styles, features towers and turrets, shaped gables, and windows in a variety of sizes and shapes, all combining to create the impression of a castle.  Chester, his wife Ardell, and their two sons, Charles and Frederic, moved into the completed house in June 1890.

The Wickwires' house is a virtual mirror image of a residence that Reed built 1886-1888 in the Hamilton Heights section of New York City for another client, James A. Bailey, partner in the Barnum & Bailey Circus.  According to Wickwire family tradition, Chester noticed Bailey's residence while on a business trip in New York City and commissioned Reed to build a similar house for himself and his family.

The interior architectural decoration of Chester's new residence was designed by Joseph Burr Tiffany (1856-1917), the decorator responsible for the interiors of Bailey's house.  Joseph B. Tiffany, a cousin of the more famous Louis Comfort Tiffany, established a decorating firm in New York City in the late 1880s and had recently designed the decorative schemes for the first-floor rooms of Wilderstein, the Suckley family home on the Hudson River in Rhinebeck. An article published in the October 28, 1888, issue of the New-York Daily Tribune indicates that Tiffany had also planned the interior decoration of the Mexican Legation house in Washington, D.C., as well as of Ellerslie, the Rhinebeck estate of successful banker and Vice President Levi P. Morton, built 1887-1888 by New York architect Richard Morris Hunt.

The Syracuse firm of Henry C. Allewelt & Sons, fresco and decorative painters, executed stenciled and freehand painted decoration on the walls and ceilings of a number of rooms throughout the Wickwires' house.  The firm's painted wall borders, friezes, and ceiling decoration complemented the architectural woodwork designed by J. B. Tiffany.

The interiors of the Wickwires' residence were photographed in the 1890s.  These images provide detailed views of rooms including the entrance hall, parlor, reception room, dining room and several bedrooms.  

The entrance hall (fig. 3), located at the center of the house and comprised of two areas that intersect to form a "T," is decorated with oak woodwork in the Renaissance style.  The decorative scheme, a creative rendering of elements derived from sixteenth-century architectural sources, includes dado paneling with three tiers of square and oblong panels, door frames composed of pilasters surmounted by an entablature with console brackets, and coffered ceilings with intersecting molded beams enclosing sets of four square panels.  A stenciled frieze of Celtic design, possibly inspired by plates of Celtic ornament illustrated in Owen Jones' The Grammar of Ornament (1856), wraps around the walls.  Highly polished hardwood parquet floors, arranged with Oriental rugs, are enclosed by inlaid geometric borders.

Fig. 3  Entrance hall. Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.

Located under the staircase in the back part of the hall is a paneled alcove with built-in benches flanking a fireplace, known as an "inglenook."  The inglenook first appeared in American homes in the 1870s and became a common feature of entrance halls in fashionable houses built over the next few decades.  This cozy, intimate space softened the formality of the hall, which for many years served strictly as a waiting area for visitors, and made it conducive to use by the family as a living room.

The front of the entrance hall is furnished with a Colonial Revival carved oak tall-case clock retailed by Tiffany & Co. of New York City, a Renaissance-style carved oak hall stand with a pair of winged griffins flanking the seat, and a brass-mounted ceramic stand to hold umbrellas and walking sticks.  Suspended from the center of the ceiling is a large brass and colored glass hall lantern illuminated by gas. In the center of the back part of the hall is a Renaissance-style carved oak table arranged with a kerosene lamp.  Japanese bronze figures of cranes, purchased by the Wickwires in 1895, stand to either side of the arched opening of the inglenook.

The reception room (fig. 4), located at the front of the house on the eastern side, is decorated with Renaissance-style woodwork similar to that found in the entrance hall, but executed in cherry.  Doors are framed by pilasters surmounted by an entablature with a paneled frieze and paired console brackets while windows have surrounds of superimposed pilasters rising to a cornice with dentils.  Dominating the room is a large mantelpiece embellished with panels, arched niches with galleried shelves, and console brackets under a gadrooned frieze, the tall overmantel above centering an inset beveled mirror flanked by tiers of small shelves rising to a segmental pediment.

Fig. 4  Reception room. Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.

Above a low paneled dado, the walls are stenciled with a repeating pattern imitating fabric.  A picture molding separates the patterned walls from a wide frieze decorated with stenciled and free-hand painted scrolling vines and leaves.  A number of gilt-framed oil paintings are hung from cords suspended from hooks attached to the picture molding.

The stenciled and freehand painted decoration on the walls continues onto the ceiling, where it forms a border consisting of a colored band with corner ornaments of scrolling tendrils, sprays of leaves, and pendant flowers.  Suspended from the center of the ceiling is a brass gas chandelier with scrolled branches, each terminating in a gas jet concealed under a porcelain sleeve in the form of a candle.

The windows are hung with lace curtains suspended from rings on an exposed pole.  Above each is a stained glass transom window made by the Belcher Mosaic Glass Company, a New York firm that patented a process for making stained glass by sandwiching small pieces of colored glass in between two sheets of heavy plate glass and then pouring in a liquid metal alloy to bind the pieces.  Instead of a hardwood floor arranged with Oriental rugs, as seen in other rooms in the house, the reception room has a wall-to-wall carpet.

The furniture in the reception room is a combination of old and new pieces.  Older furniture, undoubtedly brought from the Wickwires' former residence, includes two Rococo Revival balloon-back side chairs, c.1870, and a Cottage-style side table of approximately the same date, all standing in the alcove formed by the tower at the northeast corner of the house.  More up-to-date, modish furniture is represented by the "Turkish" settee with silk upholstery fabric, deep-buttoned back and bullion and tassel fringe, positioned to the right of the fireplace, a fully upholstered armchair in the alcove, and the small Eastern-inspired hassock standing in the foreground.

Decorative objects, books and potted plants are scattered throughout the room.  Some are arranged on small side tables draped with machine-made wool table covers patterned with designs borrowed from Oriental rugs.  The mantelpiece is arranged with a mantel clock and a pair of Art pottery vases of Eastern inspiration, possibly made by the Zsolnay factory in Hungary, while other Art porcelain and pottery vases are displayed on the overmantel shelves.

A number of gas fixtures are used to light the reception room, including a brass chandelier with scrolled branches, each terminating in a gas jet concealed under a porcelain sleeve in the form of a candle; matching sconces in the alcove; and a table lamp supplied with gas by means of an India rubber hose connected to the wall sconce above.

On the west side of the house, opposite the reception room, is the parlor (figs. 5 & 6), which features a light and airy decorative scheme of woodwork and plasterwork in the Colonial Revival style.  Achieving popularity after the United States celebrated its centennial in 1876, this style borrowed elements from eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American Georgian and Federal architecture, such as paneling, classical moldings, pilasters, columns, pediments, console brackets, fluted fans, and oval paterae.  

Fig. 5  Parlor. Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.

The woodwork is painted white and gold and the plasterwork on the ceiling is gilded.  Like the reception room across the hall, the parlor is fitted with a wall-to-wall Wilton carpet, patterned with colorful swirling leaves.  The walls above the low paneled dado are covered with gold silk damask.  Crowning the walls is a molding from which rises a deep cove with plaster relief decoration of ribbon-tied festoons, pendants, and wreaths of husks. A large medallion composed of chains and festoons of husks decorates the center of the ceiling.

The mantelpiece with pairs of console brackets and decoration of scrolling acanthus leaves and rosettes is surmounted by an overmantel with pairs of rope-turned columns rising to an entablature and segmental pediment.  Set into the chimney breast is a stained glass window made by the Belcher Mosaic Glass Company. The mirrored sides of the recess reflect the colorful pattern as light passes through the window. 

Fig. 6  Parlor. Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.

While the woodwork and plasterwork of the parlor are in the Colonial Revival style, the white-and-gold color scheme and the silk damask on the walls lend to the room a decidedly French character, which is enhanced by the giltwood furniture that borrows from the Louis XV and Louis XVI periods.  Supplementing the "Louis-style" furniture, which includes a center table, two side chairs, an armchair and a settee, are a fully upholstered "Turkish" sofa and similar armchair, so named because of the exotic quality conveyed by the extensive use of rich upholstery fabrics and elaborate trims.

Lighting fixtures in the parlor include a six-branch gas chandelier suspended from the center of the ceiling and a large brass and onyx kerosene lamp with fabric shade, standing on the center table.

Beyond the doorway framed by an architrave, frieze, and denticulated cornice is the adjoining music room, which is carpeted en suite with the parlor and furnished with Turkish-style seating furniture, including a tête-à-tête standing in the center of the room.  First appearing in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, this French seating form consists of two side-by-side seats that face each other to facilitate conversation.

The dining room (figs. 7 & 8), in the southeast corner of the house, is octagonal in shape and features a three-sided bay window.  The room is decorated with oak woodwork in the Renaissance style, including dado paneling with three tiers of square and oblong panels, door and window frames of fluted and paneled pilasters rising to a cornice resting on console brackets,  and a coffered ceiling with intersecting beams framing compartments, each with eight rectangular panels.  In front of the mantelpiece with a paneled frieze are robust superimposed columns that support the deep spindle frieze and pediment of the overmantel with a beveled mirror flanked by small shelves on brackets.  Opposite the mantelpiece is a door leading to the pantry and the kitchen beyond.

Fig. 7  Dining room. Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.

Above the paneled dado, the painted walls are surmounted by a frieze of an embossed material, probably Anaglypta, a heavy paper wall covering that could be stamped with a design in relief.  Introduced in 1887, Anaglypta became popular for friezes and ceilings.  The frieze of the dining room is embossed with pendants of leaves and berries and clusters of fruit, motifs suggestive of bounty and the harvest.

The dining room is furnished with heavily carved oak Renaissance-style furniture, including an extension dining table, leather-upholstered dining chairs, a sideboard with mirror, and a serving table.  The two views of the dining room appear to have been photographed at separate times, as each shows a different arrangement of furniture.  In one view, the sideboard stands before the window in the south wall while the serving table is placed at the western end of the room, to the left of the mantelpiece.  The other view shows the sideboard positioned at the western end of the dining room and the serving table standing to the right of the window in the south wall.  Perhaps the Wickwires had recently acquired the Colonial Revival oak china cabinet that stands to the left of the south-facing window, visible in the photograph in fig. 8, and found it necessary to re-position the sideboard in order to accommodate the new piece of furniture.

Fig. 8  Dining room. Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.

In both views, the serving table is used to display a silverplate tilting ice water pitcher and two goblets while the sideboard is arranged with a silverplate tea and coffee service, various silverplate serving pieces, and cut glass water pitchers.

Fig. 9  Bedroom. Chester Wickwire House,
Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The
1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art,
Cortland, New York.
Bedrooms (figs. 9 & 10) feature wall-to-wall carpeting, mantelpieces with tiled surrounds, mirrored overmantels, and stenciled and freehand painted decoration. The bedroom illustrated in fig. 9 has walls embellished with a frieze of trelliswork and leafy vines and is furnished with a bedstead with carved foot board, a Louis XV-style lady's writing desk, a  spindle-back side chair, and a footstool with spiral-turned legs, each probably made of oak.  

On the walls of the tower bedroom (fig.10) is a frieze of scrolling leaves and vines similar to the frieze decoration of the reception room below.  Furnishings visible in the view of this room are a couch, or daybed, with deep-buttoned upholstery trimmed with tassels and bullion fringe, a Renaissance Revival side table, c.1870, arranged with a kerosene lamp and decorative objects, and a Rococo Revival side chair standing in the alcove formed by the tower.  The kerosene lamp provides light for reading and other activities in addition to supplementing illumination from the gas chandelier hanging above.

Fig. 10  Bedroom. Chester Wickwire House, Cortland, New York. Photograph, 1890-1900. The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art, Cortland, New York.
After the death of Ardell Wickwire in 1915, the house remained vacant for seven years  In 1923, Frederic Wickwire, Chester's younger son, decided to move into the residence.  He commissioned a local architect to renovate the exterior of the house and to redecorate a number of rooms.  In 1925, the house was ready to receive Frederic, his wife, and their four children, one of whom lived in the house until her death in 1973.

The Wickwire family's residence still stands and is currently a historic house museum that has been fully restored.  Many of the original furnishings, dispersed at auction in the 1970s, have been returned to the house. Now known as The 1890 House Museum, the site is open to the public for tours.  For more information, please visit The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art website.


  1. Informative, professionally presented with journalistic writing explaining how these rooms were occupied and lived in. There are wonderful period photographs which Ritchie decodes (were you aware, for example, that gas table lamps were in use powered by hoses connected to gas wall sconces?) Reading this is as if you are being led on an exclusive, private tour of the past by a consummate historian and material culture expert. The author never panders and dumbs down what he's explaining, and his writing is a model for house museum docents, other historical writers, and the curious public everywhere. Bravo!

  2. Amazing! Thank you SO much for sharing!