west front

Mount Pleasant west frontispiece

The history of the west side frontispiece of Mount Pleasant in the Tuscan Order is similar to that of the east side Doric frontispiece. The original bases and plinths were lost before the beginning of the twentieth century though in this case no photographs before c. 1900 of the west side exist. The Tuscan Order is not used elsewhere at Mount Pleasant and there are few surviving instances of its use in mid-eighteenth century buildings in Philadelphia. The use of the Tuscan Order in British settings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was traditionally confined to frontispieces that opened to a garden setting. That practice is confirmed at Mount Pleasant where the west side is the less formal of the two entrances and faces a terraced slope with a view towards the Schuylkill River. Even today, with the landscape much changed since the eighteenth century, there is still a dramatic difference in the sense of place between the two sides. Standing at the formal east entrance with its vista including the city in the distance, you feel more exposed to approaching visitors and the cares and concerns of the day. The west side still feels more private today, the main house and pavilions block out the city view and the river vista takes over, creating a place where the family might have gained a sense of privacy and seclusion.

Another rare survival of the use of the Tuscan Order appears at Woodford, c. 1758, located about a mile north of Mount Pleasant. Woodford’s second story was added in the 1770’s.

Woodford

Woodford

Three large wood plugs on the shafts of all the exterior columns cover the heads of the large spikes used to attach the columns to wood blocks inserted in the rubble stone walls as they were being laid up by the masons.

west column

Mount Pleasant, west frontispiece, north column.

astragal

Mount Pleasant, west frontispiece, north column.

The astragal set at the base of column shaft appears to be older than the plinth supporting it. It is difficult to judge the age of the large nails used to attach it to the column due to their rusted condition. The astragal appears to have been originally produced for a different application than the base of this column though its original use is unclear.

column end grain

West side column end grain

A two inch plug in the bottom of the column is located at approximately the center of the turning, offset slightly from the center of the tree. It does not seem sturdy enough to be intended to hold the tree during turning but may have served some function in securing the tree during its transformation into a column for the frontispiece. The Carpenters Company Rule Book includes the task of “attendance on the boring” when making a solid column. Is this the bored hole? And why did it need to be plugged?

column end grain

West frontispiece column

west

Mount Pleasant, west frontispiece, north column

The ashlar – squared or dressed – Wissahickon schist only extends a slight distance behind the wood paneling. All other masonry work that was covered with wood or stucco was rubble stone – rough, unhewn stone that is set in mortar and not laid in regular courses.

Abraham Swan in The British Architect illustrates and describes the proper Tuscan Order.

Swan Tuscan

Abraham Swan, “The British Architect”, London, 1745. The Tuscan Order.

west

Mount Pleasant, west side.

 

 

east frontispiece

Mount Pleasant East Frontispiece

“Where columns are turned out of the solid, charge according to the trouble of procuring the stuff, sawing them off, hewing, and attendance on the boring, turning and fixing them up.”

Articles of the Carpenters Company of Philadelphia: And Their Rules for Measuring and Valuing House-Carpenters Work, Philadelphia, 1786

Interior columns were glued up. The Carpenters Company Rule Book states “Glewing (sic) up columns of plank to any of the orders” @ 2 shillings, 9 pence per foot.

Abraham Swan describes and illustrates this process in The British Architect .

Swan column

Abraham Swan, “The British Architect”, London, 1745, pl. 16

Glue joints visible on the columns in the hall of the Pennsylvania State House after paint had been removed from the woodwork confirm this type of construction of interior columns.

State House

Pennsylvania State House, center hall.

But exterior columns, including the four massive columns in the two frontispieces at Mount Pleasant, needed to be solid as the joints of glued-up planks would not survive being subjected to weather. Trees needed to be felled, hewn close to the final shape, turned, brought to the site, and installed.

As seen in the State house columns, bases, and sometimes capitals, were most often made as separate elements from the shaft. The bases of the columns at Mount Pleasant were lost more than a hundred years ago, likely the result of rot. They are already missing in this stereoview of the east front made in the late nineteenth century.

stereoview

Mount Pleasant, stereoview c. 1885

The bases were poorly restored in the early twentieth century.

bases

Mount Pleasant east frontispiece columns and restored bases and plinths.

In addition to the restored bases lacking the correct Doric Order, the original plinths were most likely stone as seen in these surviving exterior columns in Philadelphia.

The modern bases were removed to examine the extent of restoration and the condition of the columns and wood samples were taken from all four columns for microscopic analysis to identify the wood species of the shafts.

east column base

Mount Pleasant east frontispiece, north column with restored base removed.

This is a view looking up at the end grain of the bottom of the shaft of the column. The tightly spaced annual rings that are perfectly concentric denote a tree from an old growth forest that grew perfectly straight. Trees like this don’t exist anymore in the Delaware River Valley but were still available to carpenters and joiners one hundred years after British colonization.

end grain

Mount Pleasant east frontispiece north column. A rabbet was planed down on edge of the column shaft to fit over the rustication framing boards.

At least at the bottom of the shaft there was no hollowing of the tree. We don’t know if there was wood removed higher up. Since a log shrinks evenly towards the center, the columns are still perfectly round but slightly smaller in diameter then when they were installed.

column end grain

Mount Pleasant east frontispiece north column.

Counting the annual rings tells us these Red Pine trees were growing by the middle of the sixteenth century, possibly in Pennsylvania, but more likely in New Jersey. While an unimaginable use of material today, the ability to successfully spec and source “stuff” including the four perfect trees procured for the columns, was one of the motivations in hiring a leading member of the highly organized and influential Carpenters Company. Another was that that carpenter would have access to the best journeymen available in the city. On May 3, 1764, Thomas Nevell credited one of his journeymen, James Guy, 26 pounds for building the “Front frontish Piece Door”.

front frontispiece and window

Account Book of Thomas Nevell, pg 63.

The original design of the column bases is easily determined. The Doric Order screen framing the stair just beyond the the frontispiece door, contains two pilasters nearly identical in size to the frontispiece columns.

Doric pilaster

Mount Pleasant first story Doric pilaster.

 

East Front

Mount Pleasant east front

This May I will be teaching for the first time at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking for the first time. The school is 12 miles south of Indianapolis and is the “Largest Woodworking School in North America”. The great number of classes offered, the size of the shops and facilities, and Marc and his staff’s work over the years in creating a successful and admired woodworking school is nothing short of astonishing to me and I took him up on the offer to participate to experience it firsthand. A week long class running from May 9 to the 13th is skewed towards architectural carving though all skills being taught have applications for all types of carving. Here is the link: Architectural Carving

Key points from the brochure are:

  • Beauty, skill, tradition
  • Achieving control
  • Working with the wood and against the grain
  • Find the fun in fighting the material
  • Holding the work
  • Back-cutting and under-cutting
  • The appearance of a finished surface
  • Sharpening tools for optimum results
  • Skill is the outcome of practice

A weekend class is scheduled for May 14 – 15. From the brochure: “This class will introduce students to the world of historic woodcarving, allowing them to acquire a wide-ranging understanding of historic objects through slide presentations and observation of modern reproductions and casts of original work. It will combine carving instruction that is broad in scope based on Chris’ extensive career of working with historic objects, with woodcarving exercises that reinforce the discussion.” Here is the link: Carving the Invisible.

Key points are:

  • Pursue your interests, sharpen your skills
  • Skill stimulates creativity
  • Woodcarving with a single gouge or a hundred
  • Where do I start? When am I finished?
  • Carving in perspective
  • A feeling for the material
  • Tool marks and texture
  • Slicing versus abrading

In my carving career there was a long learning curve. I would have benefited from the type of immersive study I hope to provide during these classes. My ulterior motive is I get to think of and do nothing but woodcarving for a solid week.

rail

clock cartouche

bench

 

 

A comment to this site note asked that I reference the locations of the possible pairs of tea tables I illustrated here. I do that here and include links and books that illustrate them.Composit

On the left: Sold January, 2015, Keno Auctions, New York seen here.

On the right: Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seen here.

Composit

On the left: Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art seen here.

On the right: Sold at Christie’s, New York, January, 2008 seen here.

Composit

On the left: Private collection. Sold at Christie’s, New York, January 25, 1986 and Christie’s January 1995.

On the left: Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seen here.

Composit

On the left: Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art seen here.

On the right: Collection of the Winterthur Museum seen here.

A chest-on-chest in the Americana sale at Christie’s last week, seen here, has a single shell-carved drawer in the top tier that is a bit of a twist on the common practice of having the grasses on the sides of the shell carved separately and applied to the face of the drawer.

full On this drawer, both the shell and the grasses are carved into the drawer front, the grasses first outlined with a v-tool and gouges, then modeled and detailed in low-relief. The technique used in carving the grasses, carving and modeling a design into the ground, is often referred to as “incised”. Having all the carving on a drawer carved into it is rare in Philadelphia work but does occur. A much more common why of working was to combine incised and low-relief carving having the ground is lowered. Many carved objects show this technique to great effect and it took carving and design skill to successfully integrate both modes of carving in producing a coherent and clear result.

RISD

Philadelphia marble slab c. 1755

tea table

Philadelphia tea table c. 1760

While I believe the chest-on-chest may have been made outside the city of Philadelphia as the auction catalogue alludes to, the shell-drawer has a wonderfully subtle passage of low-relief carving below the shell that that with great effect integrates the deep relief of the shell and the incised carving.

lowerIt is also an example of the how the slightest relief cut into a ground can suggest depth. I made several images to try to convey this.

lowA whisper of a cut, 1/32” or less, from the edge of the drawer at the quarter-round at the bottom edge, produces the tip of the lower element. As the carving moves towards the shell, the ground is further lowered to about the depth of the deepest cuts of the incised carving. Although very little wood is removed, there is considerable movement and even overlapping leaves are suggested. A brilliant design resolution and absolute control of carving gouges.

center

side

The 250th anniversary of the completion of the construction of Mount Pleasant in 2015 turned out not to be auspicious. Previously open for tours the entire year, these days Mount Pleasant closes in January and reopens for tours of the interiors April 1st. This year that will not happen. According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art website Mount Pleasant will be closed for the foreseeable future with no planned date for a reopening. A systems failure in December will need to be assessed and a plan for repair determined. This spring, it will still be worthwhile to visit the site if you are in the area. There is much to think about and discover walking the site, too often we move into the house without contemplating the exteriors of the buildings and their placement in the landscape. Thomas Nevell left nothing to chance and the structures and their relationships to each other are well supplied with subtle hierarchies. Historic houses nearby will be open for tours, Lemon Hill, Laurel Hill, Woodford so you can make a day of it.

Because of the closing I will begin uploading my images that document the exteriors and interiors of Mount Pleasant made 2009-2010 when Mount Pleasant was largely unfurnished. In a nod the current weather conditions, a few images made during the last “storm of the century”.

snow at east

snow west

snow scene

entrance

And better days.

east

aged

The two previous posts illustrated images of the restored elements of Potts family high chest. Below are two images of original carving on the lower rail, legs, corner columns, and the shell drawer (the applied grasses on the drawer are Jesse Bair restorations).

lower rail

leg and column

Soon after the the high chest was purchased by the Schorsch’s in January 1999 I received an urgent call from Irvin Schorsch, Jr. Before the auction we had measured the height of the chest and the height of the room where the high chest would be placed if they were successful bidding. We knew the tolerance was close but believed it would fit. What I didn’t consider at the time was once the high chest was put together, extra height was needed to raise the cartouche with its bottom tenon above the plinth then lower it into the mortise for installation. There was no room to do that after the movers had set up the high chest at the Schorsch’s and now the mover were gone! A potential disaster heading my way.  I put a bag of tools together and headed out to the Schorsch’s wondering if I might have to cut a hole in the ceiling and re-plaster, all while standing on a ladder above the Potts high chest. Luckily that wasn’t necessary. I was able to re-work the metal and wood brackets on the back of the cartouche while also tilting the cartouche at more of angle out over the front of the chest. Jesse Bair had correctly given the cartouche a slight angle during his restoration but the angle you see in the photo below is my doing and is perhaps outside the range of angles seen on historic objects. I wonder if the new owner will notice?

Side view of cartouche angle

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