Ohio History Journal




Country Carpenters, Federal

Buildings: An Early

Architectural Tradition

in Ohio's Western Reserve


The Western Reserve1 of Ohio was settled, in large part, by New

England emigrants and, slightly later, by upstate New Yorkers who

were themselves transplanted New Englanders. These people, migrat-

ing west in the 1810s and 1820s, brought with them a storehouse of

cultural tradition as well as dreams for prosperity and success.

Both the architectural historian Talbot Hamlin and the Ohio histori-

an I. T. Frary have recognized connections between Ohio and New

England architecture during the early nineteenth century, with Frary in

particular emphasizing the close ties between the Reserve and New

England.2 While one might not wish to go so far as one cultural

historian who said, "On the Reserve a 'way of life' was lifted from its

Atlantic mooring and deposited in a new setting,"3 still it is important

to realize that the cultural heritage of this area is deeply rooted in New

England. The Western Reserve, originally known as the Connecticut

Reserve, was a large parcel of land claimed by the colony of Connecticut






Nancy J. Break is Assistant Professor and Chair of Art History at Ithaca College.


1. The Western Reserve is that portion of Ohio extending south from Lake Erie to

the forty-first parallel, that is, a line slightly south of present-day Ohio Route 224, and

west from the Pennsylvania border approximately 120 miles to the western edge of Erie

and Huron counties. Completely within the boundaries of the Reserve are the modern

counties of Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga, Huron, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage,

and Trumbull. Straddling the southern border but located largely within the Reserve are

Mahoning and Summit counties. Additionally, a small section of land, originally part of

Huron county but today comprising the northern tip of Ashland county, completes the

land package known as the Western Reserve.

2. Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America (New York, 1944), 280,

and I. T. Frary, Early Homes of Ohio (reprint ed., New York, Dover, 1970), 3.

3. Kenneth Lottick, "Culture Transplantation in the Connecticut Reserve," Bulletin

of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, 17 (1959), 155.


132                                               OHIO HISTORY


in the seventeenth century and, after the Revolution, sold primarily to

the citizens of Connecticut and other New England states.4

Many New Englanders coming to the Reserve brought with them a

penchant for the Federal style in architecture. An early manifestation

in America of the international movement of Neoclassicism, Federal

architecture was extremely popular in America's Northeast. The style

featured block-like forms decorated with the slim, classical detailing

made popular by the contemporary English architect, Robert Adam.

Most Ohio carpenters of the late 1810s and 1820s did not know Adam,

but they were aware of the work of his most accomplished American

followers, principally the Massachusetts architect, Charles Bulfinch

(1763-1844) and his protege, the carpenter and author, Asher Benjamin


If Reserve builders favored the neoclassical forms that had been

popular in Federal New England from the late-eighteenth century

onward, they learned to create Federal-style buildings by observing

existing structures and participating in the construction of new build-

ings under the supervision of experienced craftsmen. Additionally,

Western Reserve builders, again following the tradition of New England

craftsmen, would often rely upon contemporary carpenter's manuals,

also called handbooks or pattern books, to aid them in their projects.

Among pattern book authors, the most important transmitter of the

Federal style was Asher Benjamin, the Greenfield, Massachusetts,

carpenter who had worked for Bulfinch. Benjamin's pattern books also

proved invaluable to the country builder as guides for solving problems

of construction, to such an extent that Hamlin, in his exhaustive study

of early nineteenth century building, concluded, "From 1800 on, the

country work obviously is deeply indebted to the books of Asher


Prior to the popularity of the Federal style, the Reserve's initial

frontier period of 1800-1815 saw the construction of rudimentary

dwellings-usually log cabins-to serve strictly functional purposes.

These structures often stood at the center of a plot freshly cleared of

trees but surrounded by stumps. Early arriving immigrants did all the




4. Also among the initial group of buyers were residents of upper New York State,

many of whom, not long before, had migrated from New England. The complicated yet

fascinating story of Connecticut's claim to northeastern Ohio cannot be told in full here.

See Harlan Hatcher, The Western Reserve: The Story of New Connecticut in Ohio

(Indianapolis, 1949).

5. Hamlin, 165. For more information on Benjamin, see also John Quinan, "Asher

Benjamin and American Architecture," Journal of the Society of Architectural Histori-

ans, 38 (1979), 247-48.

Country Carpenters, Federal Buildings 133

Country Carpenters, Federal Buildings                                 133


work themselves, but later settlers were welcomed by their neighbors

with house or barn raisings. Cabins, plain and rough, were built of logs

and chinked with mud and lime. They had earthen floors, a single door,

and were often windowless. More sophisticated examples had fireplac-

es and chimneys; however, some settlers skipped such fine points and

simply laid fires on the floor of the dwelling.6

Architect-builders who arrived early in this area, such as Jonathan

Goldsmith who migrated to Ohio in 1811, at first found no demand for

their expertise. Elizabeth Hitchcock, a biographer of Goldsmith,

reports that the New Haven-trained builder was forced to work as a

cobbler to support his family until the post-war boom provided a

market for his services.7 However, about 1818, Jonathan Goldsmith

was joined in the Western Reserve by a number of other New

England-born builders who favored the Federal mode. These men

included another native of Connecticut, Willie Smith, who in Ohio

created structures in and around the Trumbull County town of Kins-

man; and Lemuel Porter, formerly of Waterbury, Connecticut, who

worked in Hudson, Tallmadge, and Atwater, in present-day Summit

and Portage counties.

It is interesting to note that both Smith and Porter created churches

based on Federal-style designs found in Asher Benjamin's pattern

books. Smith's masterpiece, the Kinsman Congregational Church of

1831 (Fig. 1), is based on Benjamin's "Design for a Church" in The

American Builder's Companion of 1806 (Fig 2).8 Lemuel Porter's

Tallmadge Congregational Church, 1826 (Fig. 3), is one of the finest

interpretations of Plate 27 of Benjamin's The Country Builder's Assis-

tant (1797; Fig. 4) created during this period.9 Thus, when taking on




6. Hatcher, 84.

7. Elizabeth Hitchcock, Jonathan Goldsmith (Cleveland, 1980), 5-7.

8. The front elevation of each design features a projecting center section divided

horizontally and vertically by various architectural members. Resemblance to Benjamin's

Plate 57 is strongest in the upper portion of the Kinsman facade where the pattern of

fenestration is nearly identical with that of the pattern book design. Both the Benjamin

and the Smith plans feature a rectangular vestibule with staircases placed along the short

walls; each anteroom opens into an ample, rectangular auditorium containing an elevated

pulpit. Positioned on the wall opposite the entrance, and flanked by pews that face

inward toward it, the elaborate pulpit is the visual focus of the room. Benjamin's design,

large in scale and complex in detail, was an appropriate choice for a church project in the

thriving town of Kinsman.

9. Porter's Tallmadge church has elsewhere been likened to the Congregational

Church at Old Lyme, Connecticut (1816-1817), designed by Samuel Belcher. See

William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and their Architects: The Colonial and

Neo-Classical Styles (Garden City, New York, 1976), 239, for comments and an

illustration. However, it should be understood that these two architects shared a

common source, Plate 27 in the first edition of Benjamin's Country Builder's Assistant

(Fig. 4).


134                                             OHIO HISTORY


large and complicated projects, even experienced carpenter-builders

felt more comfortable when proceeding with a trusted pattern book in

hand. With this link to Benjamin, architecture in the Reserve parallels

developments elsewhere in America.

Willie (or Willis or William) Smith is believed to have migrated to

Kinsman, Ohio, about 1818.10 Ten years before undertaking the large

Congregational Church project, he designed the breathtaking Peter

Allen House (1821; Figs. 5 and 6). While several details of this building

can be traced to plates in Benjamin handbooks, the Allen house should

also be considered in the context of the much admired work of the

woodcarver, Samuel Mclntire (1757-1811) of Salem, Massachusetts

(Figs. 7 and 8). McIntire's designs were widely admired by his peers

and are still recognized as exceptionally well conceived and well

executed; and while he did not invent the character of Federal

ornament, he did perfect certain motifs that came to be used by country

builders throughout Federal America.

Like McIntire, Willie Smith concentrated his delicately carved

detailing at certain focal points, such as mantelpieces and door and

window surrounds. Smith's detailing has a decidedly linear quality

which brings to mind the interior decoration of Mclntire's Pingree

House (Fig. 8). (By contrast, Mclntire's exterior detail is restrained

and sparse.) And Smith's motifs, including the swag (Fig. 5) and the

sunburst and ellipse (Figs. 5 and 6), also recall the Salem craftsman's

work. Yet Smith broke with the Mclntire formula by placing on the

exterior of the Allen House a profusion of neoclassical detailing

(Fig. 5). His use of classically correct Ionic pilasters and entablature is

also evidence of the presence of a newer style, the Greek Revival, on

the Ohio landscape. Thus the Western Reserve carpenter, aware of

architectural developments taking place in the East, showed the

confidence and exuberance of the frontiersman by borrowing freely

from a variety of artistic sources.

Although information on Willie Smith's background and training is

sketchy, a bit more is known about the life and work of Lemuel Porter

(1775-1829). An established builder trained by Lemuel and James

Harrision of Waterbury, Connecticut, Porter probably came to the

Reserve at the urging of another son of Connecticut, David Hudson,

founder of the town of Hudson, Ohio.11 Lemuel Porter created

buildings for Hudson's newly established Western Reserve College.




10. Florence McLean Davis, Kinsman Memories (Warren, Ohio, 1970), 10.

11. Grace Goulder Izant, Hudson's Heritage (Kent, Ohio, 1985, 86), 153-55, and

Frary, 93.

Country Carpenters, Federal Buildings 135

Country Carpenters, Federal Buildings                   135


(David Hudson, a Yale graduate, saw to it that the area's first college

was located in his "back yard" by providing much of the land on which

the campus was built. He could not foresee that his beloved institution

would later be moved to Cleveland and transformed into a larger

university, Case Western Reserve.)

Lemuel Porter's last completed structure for the Western Reserve

campus was the President's House (1828-1830; Fig. 9). Once again the

decorative vocabulary is taken from the pages of Asher Benjamin,

although the form of the structure-a six-bay double house-does not

resemble any found in Federal pattern books. Unfortunately, the

promising career of Lemuel Porter was cut short by his early death,

and the commissions awarded by David Hudson to Porter were turned

over the the architect-builder's son and assistant, Simeon. The younger

man chose to design in the more progressive Greek Revival style and

to abandon almost completely the Federal mode his father had

mastered so thoroughly.

Penetrating further into the fabric of Federal architecture in the

Western Reserve, one finds a host of builders more obscure than

Jonathan Goldsmith, Willie Smith, and Lemuel Porter. In many cases

these individuals built only their own homes. The work of these

minimally trained, part-time craftsmen is essentially vernacular in

character, meaning that it employs the ordinary, everyday language of

building and only to a limited degree the language of "high style"


Taken as a whole, the Federal vernacular work that survives by

these little-known builders can be characterized as simple in form and

restrained in decoration. Yet, within such limits these structures

display a diversity that testifies to their authors' imaginations. Build-

ings such as Abraham Tappan's Connecticut Land Company Office,

Unionville (c. 1816, Fig. 10); the Ford Homestead, built in Burton by

John Ford in 1817 (Fig. 11); the Nettleton-Law Residence, also in

Burton, built by the original owner, Merritt Nettleton, in 1817 (Fig. 12);

and the Chauncey Eggleston House (Fig. 13) in Aurora, fashioned by

Eggleston about 1820, attest to this diversity. No particular orientation

or size prevailed. The Tappan and Nettleton buildings are deeper than

they are wide, with ridge poles placed perpendicular to the street, while

the Ford and Eggleston houses are wider than they are long, conceived

in the tradition of the detached houses of colonial and post-colonial

New England. The Nettleton and Ford homes are fully two stories in

height, while the Eggleston house is a story-and-a-half and the Tappan

structure, a single story.

Western Reserve carpenters utilized the limited variety of materials

available to them. The building resource most plentiful in early-


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nineteenth-century Ohio (as in New England) was wood, and two of

these four buildings are frame. However, both the Eggleston home and

the Land Office building are made of brick, the material favored by the

more sophisticated Federal designers of New England. In fact, "Gen-

eral" Eggleston made brick for his house from clay dug on the

property, and the limestone for the detailing and mortar was quarried

on the neighboring Sheldon farm.12

Clearly, even in these early works the owner-builders were interest-

ed in more than shelter. A sense of pride in the form and appearance of

the building-perhaps even a slight tendency toward "grandeur"-was

part of the Western Reserve carpenters' thinking.

The amount, placement, and nature of detailing on these structures

further testify to the diversity of Federal architecture in the Reserve as

well as to the ambition of the country builders.13 On the Nettleton

House, the motif of cornice and frieze with supporting pilasters which

graces the facade is echoed in a similar treatment of the doorway. By

contrast, detailing on the Ford building is concentrated solely in the

area of the entranceway, where delicately mullioned sidelights and a

carved lintel are the principal adornments. The doorway is the focus of

the Eggleston House, too, but here the massive, elliptical limestone

arch sets a tone decidedly more bold than the fragile linearity of the

Ford decoration. In yet another approach, Tappan created his detailing

in both brick and wood. Brick pilasters, capped with carved Ionic

capitals, support a full, wooden entablature; above, the raking,

modillioned cornice of the pedimented end gable originally framed an

elliptical wooden ornament.

Depending upon the country designer's level of skill, the Federal

mode could give rise to simple sturdy buildings or more elaborately

decorated ones. In this context it is useful to compare similar houses,

one designed by an informally schooled builder and one by a profes-

sional craftsman. Merritt Nettleton's house for himself (Fig. 12) and

Willie Smith's Allen House (Fig. 5) are both two-story, rectangular

structures with gabled roofs, clapboarding, and flush siding applied to

their front walls; each facade features four two-story pilasters support-

ing a horizontal member, a semi-elliptical decoration in the pediment,

and an off-center doorway. Yet, the Tuscan pilasters and partial

entablature of Nettleton's house cannot match the richness of detail

and sophisticated carving displayed on the Allen facade: the frieze of


12. Richard N. Campen, Architecture of the Western Reserve, 1800-1900 (Cleveland,

1971), 129.

13. Similarities should also be noted, among them the inclusion of an ornament in the

pediments of the Tappan and Nettleton buildings, the use of pilasters on these two


146                                                   OHIO HISTORY


Smith's full entablature is decorated with a swag motif, his finely

crafted Ionic pilasters are fluted, and the cornices are decorated with

dentils. Nettleton's naivete is especially evident in the area of the front

doorway where his fan decoration intrudes upon the frieze in a

decidedly unclassical way. Additionally, the proportions of the detail-

ing on the Nettleton home are awkward and unclassical in comparison

to those of Smith's work. It is tempting to say that Nettleton employed

the vocabulary of Federal architecture to write prose, while Smith used

it to create poetry.

Federal architecture in the Western Reserve, distant from "high

style" centers of culture, was both inhibited and enhanced by the skills

and sensibilities of its builders. In some cases, as in the Nettleton

House, the carpenter was unhampered by the restrictions of neoclas-

sical "correctness"; in other instances, including Smith's Allen House,

greater knowledge of classical vocabulary is expressed vividly through

the craftsman's skill.

The creative achievements of these country carpenters serve to

represent the overall output of the early Reserve builders working in

the Federal idiom. After choosing from a variety of established,

familiar building types, each designer added decoration taken from the

general vocabulary of Federal architecture (culled from memories of

existing structures and/or derived from carpenter's handbooks) but

suited to his own taste and skills. These buildings represent the

"countrified" version of the New England Federal style of Bulfinch,

Benjamin, and McIntire that was so characteristic of Reserve archi-

tecture around the year 1820.

In the Western Reserve, the Federal style was of primary importance

in those areas which were settled early.14 Thus, this mode was

prominent in the northeastern and southeastern counties but much less

significant in the Reserve's southwestern counties, which were settled

primarily in the 1830s and 1840s, and where only an occasional New

England immigrant or two stubbornly refused to abandon the style of

his father.15



structures, and the articulation of window and door surrounds on the Nettleton and

Eggleston houses.

14. The Federal style was also popular elsewhere in Ohio during the first quarter of

the nineteenth century. For example, in the southeastern portion of the state the Ohio

Land Company of New England settled what is now Washington County and filled its

principal settlement, Marietta, with handsome Federal buildings in the Benjamin-

Bulfinch tradition. Chillicothe and Cincinnati, further to the west, are also rich in Federal

structures; in the 1810s and 1820s these areas were populated by a mix of emigrants from

Kentucky, Virginia, and New England.

15. For example, in the southwestern county of Medina, Connecticut natives Ed and

Matthew Chandler built Federal style houses during the 1840s.