The Alsop House
The Davison Art Center was established in 1952 in an addition to the Alsop House on the campus of Wesleyan University, at 301 High Street, Middletown, Connecticut. (photo: Sureck)
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Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2010, the historic Alsop House is a distinguished architectural monument of the pre-Civil War period. The lot was acquired in 1835 and the house was built between 1838-1840 by Richard Alsop IV, son of the poet and "Hartford wit," Richard Alsop III. Originally built for Alsop's widowed mother, Maria Pomeroy Alsop Dana, the house remained in the Alsop family (although not occupied by them for a number of years) until 1948. In that year, it was purchased by Wesleyan with funds given by Harriet and George W. Davison (B.A. Wesleyan 1892).
In 1950, the Davisons commissioned the renovation and restoration of the house, adding to it the museum for storing and exhibiting their print collection, parts of which they had donated to the university over the previous two decades. The renovation, directed by architect A.L. Harmon of the New York firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon Associates, was completed in 1952.
The house has been described as an important example of Romantic Classicism in American architecture. According to tradition it was designed by a member of the Alsop family, but family correspondence indicates that the plans were drawn, or at least revised, by the New Haven firm of Platt and Benne. There are similarities in plan, design, and decoration between the Alsop House and the house of New Haven architect Ithiel Town. These similarities, coupled with the fact that Town was the architect of Samuel W. Russell's residence on High Street less than a decade earlier, have led some architectural historians to attribute the house to Town.
It is interesting to note the close resemblance of the Alsop House not only to Town's structures, but also to the work of Ludwig Persius and Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Germany. Persius's Landhaus in Potsdam is almost identical in its exterior design to the Alsop House, including the trompe l'oeil statues painted on the High Street façade and the decorative iron work. The exterior and interior paintings bear a correspondence to decoration in Schinkel's buildings, particularly at the Neues Schloss in Potsdam.
A view from the courtyard, showing part of the 1952 addition to the house (photo: Albert)
Entrance and Stair Hall
The original entrance of the Alsop House faced High Street and was located on the northeast corner of the building. It opened into a foyer with wall paintings of moldings, vines, and a potted plant. The area now used for restrooms was formerly a library and an alcove. The staircase in the central hall, which has a glass dome skylight, was originally free-standing, supported by a single Ionic column. In 1951 the column was removed and the present enclosed area built for support. The paintings in the stairwell are similar to the classical motifs on the façade of the house. The dancing woman on the upper wall of the stair hall derives from a sculpture by Antonio Canova. Other floating figures in the stair hall are derived from engravings of the Hours by Raphael or his school, which were painted in the Vatican and subsequently destroyed. The trompe-l'oeil features of the staircase and the hall, as well as the marble floor in the conservatory, are duplicated in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Front Parlors
The wall paintings in the parlors, also oil on plaster, represent figures of the Hours, copied from prints after Raphael's paintings in the Loggia at the Vatican. The two Raphaelesque ceiling paintings represent Apollo's Chariot and the Chariot of Jupiter. These were also executed after engravings made from images in the Vatican; the Chariot of Jupiter had been published in an engraving by the Piranesi family. Similarly, the winged figures in the drawing room ceilings and other motifs derive from this source. It is likely that the artist was familiar with ancient frescoes from Pompeii; he is believed to have been German. The red borders originally included are now replaced by reinforcing steel strips, painted to resemble the original coloring, and embedded into the floor above. The ceilings literally hang from these steel strips, added for preservation and safety, as the rooms above, once bedrooms, are now offices. The small round discs embedded in the ceiling were added at crack points for strength. The gold discs along the borders of the ceiling are original and the few that were lost were simulated by the restorers.
The smaller wall designs, the birds, patterns, brazier, and Cupids are all copied after Piranesi; the butterflies and birds elsewhere were added by the artist. It is clear that the painter was knowledgeable about glazing, as the figure in the southeast corner of the parlor illustrates. Here, one can see where the artist transferred his designs to the wall by pouncing, a process by which charcoal is patted through holes in tissue paper. The undecorated areas of the parlors were found to be in fairly poor condition; the plaster was entirely gone from the wall over the northeast front fireplace. In addition, the wall was discolored in several spots due to mold spores and old wallpaper paste. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, the walls were covered, and thus preserved, by flock wallpaper.
All of the colors in these walls were based on preserved areas of the originals. There was some "antiquing" in the restoration process, but not a great deal, and only in order to give a sense of age. In representing the skies, which were repainted, watercolor was used to distinguish these areas from the original oil, so that scholars who might come to study them would be able to distinguish immediately which areas were authentic. Most of the walls were cleaned and where it was necessary, the flaking original plaster was salvaged by applying heated wax with a warm iron.
The Morning Room and Dining Room
The wall and ceiling paintings in the morning room are especially charming. The formal classicism of the other rooms is here complemented by airy perspectives and arbors in the "rural" tradition of Italian wall decoration. Perspectives of sky are seen through lattice work enlivened by foliage, flowers, birds, and insects, all of local origin, with the exception of the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet, copied from Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology. Family records indicate that Richard Alsop III had a collection of stuffed birds and was interested in ornithology. The frieze along the top of the dining room's west wall is original; the rest of the decorations were duplicated by Thaddeus Beck.
The majority of the furniture in the Alsop House was purchased in the 1950s, and reflects the period in which the house was built. It includes works from the English Regency, French Empire and early American periods. Among the most noteworthy English and French pieces are two yellow covered fruitwood chairs, a console table, a secretary desk, and English provincial Sheraton dining chairs and armchairs. Important American furniture includes a sofa and a dining room table, which are by Duncan Phyffe, and a secretary in the south parlor. Given by the Dietrich Foundation, Inc. (H. Richard Dietrich, Jr., B.A. Wesleyan 1960), the desk was originally owned by the Alsops. It was made by the Townsend Brothers of Newport, Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War period.
Alsop House Wall Paintings
The exterior and interior decorations of the Alsop House were executed around 1840 in oil on plaster, an unusual method in American domestic architecture. The artist is unknown. The decoration has a superficial resemblance to that of the Empire Style, possibly suggesting a French influence. However, a similar classical taste prevailed throughout all of Europe at the time. The painter belonged to the decorative tradition stemming from Raphael, augmented by the Pompeiian mode of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This somewhat academic style is relieved by a lively naturalism. This effect is particularly evident in the morning room with its foliage, birds, and insects.
With the exception of the stable, which was remodeled as Wesleyan's art library, the fine exterior of the Alsop House was kept intact. Its pink color simulates a shade discovered in old, intact paint along the moldings on the sculpture porch. The restoration of the exterior paintings as well as the ceiling and wall paintings in the north and south parlors was directed by Richard Buck, Head of the Conservation Department at the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University. The entire restoration of the house and wall paintings took Buck and a colleague at the Fogg two years. They were assisted by Thaddeus Beck of Boston, trained as a church painter in Vienna. Allyn Cox worked on reproductions of the exterior frescoes.
The figures in the niches on the exterior of the Alsop House are reproductions of the grisaille originals. Since they were in a state of advanced deterioration, the frescoes could not be restored and are now hidden behind new panels. The reproductions were executed by Allyn Cox, who discovered that the original gray paint was mixed with yellow, suggesting the artist's familiarity with Pompeiian techniques. It is thought that Richard Alsop planned to have actual statues in niches but, because of the expense, decided to use trompe l'oeil figures instead. The figures on the exterior of the house were inspired, for the most part, by the neo-classical tradition. The central figure on the façade was taken from an engraving after the painting of Erato, muse of love poetry, in the Vatican. The two remaining figures on the façade are probably depictions of Juno and Victory.
Sources for information on these Alsop House pages: The history of the painted motifs is derived largely from research by Allyn Cox. For further research on the house and its decorations we are indebted to Samuel M. Green (Professor Emeritus, Art Department) and Dolores M. Gall. An earlier version of this text was prepared by Laura M. Edmiston (B.A. Wesleyan 1991).