Featured in "Wisconsin's Own-Twenty Remarkable Homes"
Published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin

   
 

 

THE GOTHIC REVIVAL STYLE

Seven Gables was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in December, 1978 because of its architectural significance.

The architectural style of Seven Gables would be characterized as Rural Gothic or Carpenter Gothic. Gothic architecture in its purity, was characterized by the pointed arch. The most striking feature of this style is the pointed gable. The gables are finished with a projecting roof and vergeboards carved in a fanciful and highly decorative shape. The apex of the gable is crowned with a finial. In Rural America of the 1840 to 1860 period, Gothic Revival homes often utilized vertical board & batten siding which served to accentuate the pointed features and skyline of this style. Other features common to the style include projecting bay windows, steeply pitched roofs with gabled dormer windows and large verandas embellished with scrollwork detail of quatrefoils, diamonds and arches,.

The genre received its impetus from the 1838 publication by Alexander Jackson Davis, Rural Residences. This was followed in 1841 by Andrew Jackson Downing’s first book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. In 1842 Downing collaborated with Davis on the book Cottage Residences, a highly influential pattern book of houses. The book did much to spread the so-called "Carpenter Gothic" and Hudson River Bracketed architectural styles among Victorian builders, both commercial and private. This was followed by The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), another influential pattern book. Many of the plans and specifications and most of the sketches for Downing’s books were supplied by A.J. Davis.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Davis was America's leading architect of country houses in a variety of picturesque styles, the most popular among them being Gothic Revival and Italianate. Over one hundred of his designs for villas and cottages were built. He received commissions from patrons on the east coast of the United States from Massachusetts to Kentucky, as well as from people interested in building in other midwestern states. Most houses constructed from his designs outside of the New York City area were supervised by local builders; Davis provided only a set of drawings and specifications.


WHO WAS THE ARCHITECT OF SEVEN GABLES?

Following are the most salient facts concerning the identity of the designer of the plan for Seven Gables.

While the exact house plan has not been located, it is clear that most of the elements of the design of Seven Gables were derived from these sources:


                  “Gatehouse in Rustic Cottage Style”,
       Rural Residences, 1838, by A. J. Davis


        “Design XXIV-Cottage Villa
in the Rural Gothic Style”,
Architecture of Country Houses,

1850, A. J. Downing

Many design details of Seven Gables can be found in Andrew Jackson Downing’s “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1841, 1859. A number of other features of the Seven Gables plan are prominent on homes designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in the late 1850’s.


It is highly probable that a qualified architect prepared the house plans.

In Cottage Residences, at page 133 referring to “An Irregular Cottage in the Old English Style”, Downing strongly advises the person planning to build a Rural Gothic cottage to “to employ a competent builder, and to procure accurate working drawings from an architect of ability before he commences.”

At page 253, Downing states: “we would strongly recommend the employment, in any building of importance, of the best professional talent. They may then feel assured not only of having a satisfactory production, but one which, being correctly designed, will rather grow than lessen in their admiration, as their knowledge or taste for architectural beauty increases. When we have really decided to build, the difference between a common form and an excellent one may at once be secured in favor of the latter, by applying to an architect of talent and experience.”
Much of the fine detail on the exterior of Seven Gables, especially the design of the veranda and the brackets and pendants display the work of an imaginative and innovative designer. The home was described in an 1860 newspaper article as Baraboo’s most elegant residence.


 “Design II-Cottage in The
English or Rural Gothic Style”,
Cottage Residences
, 1842, A. J. Downing

The original owner, Terrell Thomas, was capable of hiring a competent architect. He was quite prosperous at the time he built Seven Gables. He was actively speculating in real estate, and, according to the 1860 census, he had assets exceeding $50,000. His wife, Sarah Thomas, was one of the heirs to the estate of her late father Micajah T. Williams who had been one of the wealthiest businessmen in Ohio and formerly the owner of substantial land holdings in Milwaukee.


Seven Gables Floor Plan

According to a hand written note dating from 1936, the person who held the contract for the construction of Seven Gables was Col. Stephen Van Renssalaer Ableman. However, we have concluded that it is unlikely that Col. Ableman drafted the plans for the home.

Accordingly, we have reached some tentative conclusions about the architect/designer of Seven Gables.

 

 

In order of probability, the possible candidates are as follows:

1.The plans were prepared by the Madison architectural firm of Donnel & Kutzbock using the Downing/Davis pattern books.

Samuel H. Donnel started his architectural practice in Madison in 1855 in the bank building where Terrell Thomas was the Cashier from 1854 to 1857. Donnel and his partner August Kutzbock designed some of the finest homes in Madison between 1855 and 1860. They also designed the second State Capitol building. Their business card featured the 1842 Gothic Villa designed by A. J. Davis for Joel Rathbone in Albany, N.Y. In 1857, Donnel and Kutzbock designed a Gothic Villa in Madison, apparently using one of A.J. Davis’s plans.

One of the Madison mansions designed by the firm utilizes the cranberry glass sidelights similar to that of Seven Gables.

Terrell Thomas’ partner in the Baraboo Bank venture was Madison banker Simeon Mills. Numerous ads for Architect S.H. Donnel listed Simeon Mills as a reference.

It would seem a certainty that Terrell Thomas knew Donnel and Kutzbock. The use of A.J. Davis’ etching of a prominent Gothic Revival residence on the Donnel & Kutzbock business card, combined with their known work in the Gothic Revival style and their design of other Madison mansions, in our opinion, make the Donnel and Kutzbock firm the leading contender for the designers of Seven Gables.

2.The plans were prepared by Milwaukee architect E. Townsend Mix.

His brief apprenticeship with New York architect, Richard Upjohn, gave Mix good exposure to the Gothic Revival style. With his background and his ongoing connections to East Coast architects who worked in the Gothic Revival, Mix was capable of designing this house. He also would have known of the Milwaukee Glass Works which was producing the type of cranberry glass used in the sidelights to the front entrance of Seven Gables.

The original owner of Seven Gables, Terrell Thomas, employed Mix to build a new structure for the Bank of Baraboo in 1867. However, when Thomas acquired the land for the new bank building in January, 1859, it was stated that the new building would be constructed in the coming season. The 1867 article regarding the new Bank building mentions that Thomas had been planning the new bank building “for years”.

Mix designed a building for the Jefferson bank in 1859. If Thomas had Mix prepare plans in 1859 for a new bank building, he very likely would have considered Mix for the design of his new home in 1860. In any event, Thomas and his family members would have known of Mix before 1860.

3.The plans were drawn by New York architect, Alexander Jackson Davis.

Many of the homes in the Downing pattern books were designed by Davis. A number of Gothic Revival and Italianate cottages and villas were designed by Davis in the 1850’s for owners in the Midwest. Plans were drawn and delivered by mail to the owner or local contractor and the homes were built without active architectural oversight.

Some of the homes most closely resembling Seven Gables were designed by Davis in the late 1850’s. These homes were not publicized in the pattern books. Davis was highly recommended in Downing’s pattern books and he had a national reputation since he was also designing university buildings and State Capitol buildings in the Midwest during this period.

 

4.The house plans were drawn by the purported builder/contractor, Col. S. V. R. Ableman using the Downing/Davis pattern books.

Ableman had substantial building experience in the Albany, N.Y. area where the Gothic Revival style was birthed in the 1840’s. He also likely had knowledge of or was acquainted with Downing and Davis from their work in that area. However, there is no record of Ableman designing or building another home of this style or detail. In 1848, Ableman was hired by Terrell Thomas’ brother-in-law, Charles H. Williams, to furnish carpentry & joinery for the construction of stores in Milwaukee. The plans and specifications were prepared by someone other than Ableman. With Col. Ableman’s East coast background and connections, he could have contacted A. J. Davis to obtain the plans.

The strong exhortation by Downing for use of a competent architect, coupled with Terrell Thomas’s ability to hire one, would mitigate against the possiblity that Ableman designed the plans.
OTHER FRINGE CANDIDATES

Richard Upjohn
In addition to designing a number of fine Gothic Revival homes on the East coast, prominent New York Architect Richard Upjohn designed several Wisconsin churches in the 1850-1860 period. These include the fine 1851 Board & Batten Church in Delafield and the 1865 Gothic Chapel at the Episcopal Seminary at Nashotah. Terrell Thomas was raised as a Quaker but later joined Trinity Episcopal Church in Baraboo. He daughter attended Kemper Hall, an Episcopal school in Kenosha.

Louis J. Claude
English native Louis J. Claude settled in Sauk County in 1857 and built a rustic English rural Gothic cottage on the shores of Devil’s Lake. It was done in board & batten siding and the interior featured much ornately carved woodwork. Claude was educated as a civil engineer and practiced his profession in Kentucky before coming to Wisconsin. He was a fine draftsman and also built fine furniture. After the Civil War, he drafted the plans for the rustic Gothic style three-story hotel later named the Cliff House, situated near Devil’s Lake.
From around 1867 to the 1870’s, Claude was in partnership with Terrell Thomas in several ventures including the lumber mill business and a hub, spoke and wagon firm.

We have no evidence of other homes or buildings designed by Claude although he listed his occupation as a farmer and as a civil engineer.

Ansel Kellogg
In 1856, Baraboo could boast of a resident architect who had apprenticed to famed New York architect, Richard Upjohn, after obtaining his degree from Columbia College. Kellogg advertised as an architect and superintendant of buildings. He apparently changed course and became the publisher of the Baraboo Republic.

The August 9, 1860 article about the construction of Banker Thomas’ new home recites that “an inspection of the plans has convinced us that the cashier has shown both excellent taste in the general effect and in its interior arrangement and a just appreciation of what constitutes a home”.

This language would imply that Kellogg was viewing the plans for the first time and therefore did not draft them.

 

Shipman, Stephen Vaughan 1825 - 1905
Soldier, architect, born Montrose, Pa.
He learned the building trade with his father in Pennsylvania, and constructed several buildings there before moving to Chicago in 1854. In 1855 he moved his office to Madison, Wis., and in 1857 was appointed architect of the Central State Hospital for the Insane at Mendota. During the Civil War, Shipman served in the 1st Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry as 1st lieutenant in Co. G (1861-1862), as captain in Co. E (1862-1864), was wounded, but returned to the service as major (1865). During the final stages of the war, he collected Confederate archives and building plans in Georgia, and was mustered out of the service in Aug., 1865, with the brevet rank of colonel, U.S. Volunteers. Returning to Madison in 1865, he completed work on the Mendota hospital, designed the dome and rotunda of the state capitol, was the architect for the Madison post office, the Dane County court house, and the First National Bank. Shipman also designed numerous other public buildings in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. After 1870 he maintained his offices in Chicago. He was for many years a curator of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 13, 1905; Trans. Wis. Acad. Sci 15 (1907), pp. 927-931.
(Source: State Historical Society of Wisconsin)

Shipman designed homes in Reedsburg and other Wisconsin cities. No connection with Terrell Thomas has been found other than the fact that Shipman was actively engaged in the architecture field in Madison during the period that Thomas served as Cashier of the State Bank at Madison.

     

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