Isaac C Lewis Cottage
The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage is a 2 1/2-story wood-frame house set on a large corner lot at 255 Thimble Islands Road in the Stony Creek section of Branford, Connecticut, along the waters of Long Island Sound. Built in 1882, it is eclectically detailed with elements drawn from Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Eastlake, and Stick style sources. The house faces the road, rather than the ocean, and is oriented on a northeast-southwest axis, with the principal elevation facing northeast. It is of cross-gabled form, with four intersecting gable-roofed wings of differing sizes and a 3 1/2-story mansard-roofed tower between the front and northwest side wings. The house's large lot is surrounded by a low gray-granite ashlar wall and is planted with lawn, shade trees, and flowering shrubbery.
The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage's exterior is principally covered with clapboards, along with a number of other materials that provide variety and texture. Board-and-batten siding appears in the rear wing's ocean-facing gable, at the top of the front-facing gable, and immediately under the eaves; fish-scale shingles finish the rest of the front gable. A pair of panels with an applied fan or sunburst ornament separates the first and second stories on the front-facing wing. The clapboards stop against plain corner boards, with additional flat pieces running horizontally to mark out the stories and diagonally to suggest small corner braces. Curved brackets decorated with reeding on the underside appear along the coved cornices of the attic-story gables. Curved braces are used to support the attic stories where they overhang the cutaway corners of the stories below. Other exterior detailing includes bands of scalloped ornament below areas of board-and-batten siding and window surrounds consisting of flat boards with reeding at the intersections. Windows have their original two-over-two (or, in the case of narrow windows, one-over-one) wooden sash.
Each gable peak is decorated with an upright and a cross brace, both of which are chamfered and have parallel-groove decorations at their midpoints; each upright terminates in a simple pendant and continues above the roof to form a sort of pinnacle. The area within the bracings, each of which is slightly different, is finished with various sawn and drilled ornaments, including scalloping, fans, latticework, and panels with circular and X-shaped designs.
The tower is the focus of special decorative detail. There is a pent roof on curved braces above the second-story windows on the northeast elevation. The third story's corners are beveled and covered with flat panels outlined by sawtooth molding; applied fans fill in triangular spaces at the upper corners. The beveling in effect creates an octagonal plan of unequal sides for the convex mansard roof. The tower's third-story cornice features a frieze of large-scale sawtooth detailing, the base for the mansard roof is decorated with applied pyramidal bosses, and the cornice of the roof's curb has a band of applied circles. There are small dormers with steeply pitched gables set on each of the major sides of the lower slope of the roof; each is detailed with cross-bracing in the gable, sawn side scrolls, and bargeboard decorated with a row of small knobs and rope-turn molding. The tower's second-story windows on the northeast elevation are sheltered by a pent roof carried on a series of large curved braces.
The porches of the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage provide a dense display of decorative detail. One-story porches run along both sides of the house and across the front of the tower, and each of the side gables is extended out as part of a two-story porch. The porch posts consist of a square pedestal, short turned column with one ring at the base and two rings below the capital, and a square-section necking. Large curved braces extend from the capitals upward to the porch's frieze of circular cutouts. The molded porch railing has square balusters above a band of latticework. The second-story porches on the sides have square uprights, large curved braces, and a somewhat simpler railing of square balusters. The gables above the side porches are filled in with a complex system of vertical, horizontal, curved, and diagonal stick braces; like all the house's square section pieces, these are chamfered at the corners. Latticework and fan-carved ornaments fill in the angles between the braces, and simple Gothic-arched openings are formed by panels between paired uprights. The latter detail is repeated on the first story below.
The roofs provide a wide overhang at both the gables and the eaves, where the rafter ends are sawn in the shape of a circle. Except for the slate-roofed tower, the roofs currently are covered with asphalt shingles. Several small triangular dormers, each with a trefoil-shaped window, provide light for the attic within. Wooden gutters run along the eaves of all the pitched roofs, including those of the porches. Two tall brick chimneys with flaring corbelled tops rise above the roof line, one at the center of the house and another at the end of the rear wing.
The interior of the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage follows the basic plan of the four wings, with each of the principal rooms corresponding to a wing. The front parlor lies within the northeast wing; a wide opening leads to the back parlor in the southeast wing, across from which is the dining room in the northwest wing. A hallway runs from the front entrance and main stairway of the house, located within the tower, to the kitchen at the rear, where there is a back stairway leading to the cellar and the rooms on the upper floors. Fireplaces are found in the back parlor and in the second-floor bedroom over the back parlor.
Throughout the house are hardwood floors, plaster walls and ceilings, and four-paneled doors. The doorway and window moldings have chamfered edges, a narrow center part with reeding, circular bosses partway up from the bottom, and side pieces that extend above the top rail in a grooved concave capital terminated with three small pyramidal carvings. The front stairway newel is similarly composed, but with a three-step conical finial capped by a small orb. Brass doorknobs, escutcheons, and hinges feature oriental motifs with cranes, bamboo plants, chrysanthemums, and pagodas. The two parlors have brass chandeliers with white glass globes in the center of the ceiling.
The hallway, parlors, and the second-floor rooms above them are decorated with wall stencilling (some of which has been repainted in the hallway) and painted ceilings. The ceiling paintings include vines along the periphery in each of the parlors, with additional apple-blossom ornaments radiating toward the center in the front-parlor ceiling. The dining room's ceiling is the most intensively decorated: there is a border of flowers and fruit outlined between branches, with still-lifes at the four major corners depicting fresh-water fish, a group of squirrels with nuts, pheasants, and a shore dinner of lobsters, clams, and oysters.
The two fireplaces in the back parlor and the chamber above it have elaborate mantels. The mantel in the back parlor is made of dark-stained wood and has a cornice and mirrored back above its shelf. Glazed tiles outline the fireplace opening. In addition to dentils along the cornices, the mantel's decorative details include carved footscrolls on the sides, elaborately turned spindles below the upper cornice, and elliptical sunburst ornaments in the necks of the curving fluted pilasters that flank the opening. Three similar sunbursts are grouped together in a tablet centered over the opening, supported by a course of small modillions. In the bedroom above the back parlor, the faux-marble mantel features a surface incised with parallel grooves and stylized floral designs, a central glazed tile with a chrysanthemum design, and paired square engaged columns with incised line and circle decorations.
The house is furnished with several generations of furniture, lamps, and other decorative items, most of which were brought to the cottage from other homes owned by the family. Most pieces appear to date from the last quarter of the 19th century.
The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage has undergone very few changes, and a watercolor painted c.1910 by Charles Loomis shows the house with nearly an identical historic appearance. The only exception is the absence today of the weathervane and the cast-iron cresting that formerly ran along the curb of the tower's roof and the ridge of the gable roofs. The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage was shifted on its lot in 1917; its original location was about a hundred feet to the west.
The property includes one outbuilding known as the "tool shed," a small clapboarded barn with a simple cupola and weathervane on its gable roof. Decorative details include circular windows in the gables, flat window trim in the shape of pediments and consoles, and a simple jigsawn valence along the rakes and eaves. The tool shed, which appears behind the house in the c.1910 watercolor and has since been moved closer to Thimble Islands Road, has been adapted for use as a summer cottage with the addition of sliding doors and a modern deck on its southwest, ocean-facing elevation. Because it retains much of its original appearance and is an historic part of the cottage property, it is counted as a contributing building.
The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage in Stony Creek, Branford, Connecticut, is architecturally significant as an outstanding example of the Victorian seaside cottage, notable for its eclectic allusions to various styles, elaborate architectural woodwork, and rare interior ceiling decoration. The house epitomizes the Victorian period's taste for dense ornamentation; its brackets, bargeboard, shingles, and other sawn, turned, and shaped forms present a virtual catalog of what was possible with the steam-powered mechanized millwork technology of the late 19th century. The house's significance is heightened by its exceptional state of preservation: with minor exceptions, virtually all of its historic exterior and interior fabric remains in its original state, unchanged by deterioration, alteration, or renovation.
The industrial aspect of the house's architecture is especially fitting, since its first owner, Isaac C. Lewis, was himself a major manufacturer whose success was derived from silver and silver-plate products that had undergone the transformation from handcrafted objects owned by the few to manufactured goods available to a wide market of middle-class consumers. Lewis was a leader among Meriden industrialists; he was one of the founders of the Meriden Britannia Company and served several years as mayor of that city.
The relocation of the cottage in 1917 from one side of its lot to another maintained the house's orientation; it did not materially affect either its architectural qualities nor its basic relationship to the street and to Long Island Sound.
The stylistic allusions embodied in the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage reflect the then-current fashions in house building and serve to relate the cottage to what was considered serious architecture. The French Second Empire style is embodied in its mansard-roofed tower, while its gable bracing, trefoil decoration, steeply pitched roofs, and tall proportions allude to the Gothic Revival mode. Eastlake inspiration, primarily an influence on Victorian furniture, is evident in the use of grooved and chamfered square section pieces and applied bosses. Although consistency and correctness may have been goals when the various styles were first introduced, by the 1880s, when the Lewis Cottage was built, the styles themselves were secondary to what they offered in the way of interesting, picturesque details that would add to the overall effect. The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage reflects a comfortable eclecticism that understood styles more as a source of details than a demand for the reproduction of particular historical types. Finally, in its gable bracing and in its second-story porches that incorporate various brackets, posts, and diagonal braces as "support," the Lewis Cottage can be seen to embody that peculiarly Victorian appearance that Vincent Scully has termed the "Stick Style."
The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage is also notable for demonstrating the freedom of form and plan made possible by balloon framing. Unlike a post-and-beam framed dwelling, in which the rooms are fit into a shell based on the rectangular prism, the exterior of a balloon-framed house such as the Lewis Cottage can be adapted to whatever interior uses are needed. Thus, each of the main first-floor rooms of the Lewis Cottage — front parlor, back parlor, kitchen, and dining room — has its own gable-roofed wing, while the need for an entrance hall and front stairs is met by adding a tower. The resulting complexity of form itself was a virtue to the Victorian eye, creating as it did a picturesque asymmetry. Balloon or stick framing also allowed the use of cutaway corners, found on three of the house's four projections. Such corners provided visual richness both on the exterior, where they combine with overhanging attic stories, and inside, where they provide relief from the usual four-cornered rooms.
The Isaac C. Lewis Cottage's chief stylistic claim is the density and variety of its architectural ornament. In a relatively modest-sized house (smaller than Lewis's Meriden home by far), the architect has managed to include no fewer than six kinds of exterior covering material: clapboards, two patterns of wood shingles, flat and carved panels, and board-and-batten siding. The several porches add still more in the form of latticework in their skirts and peak decorations, and chamfering, carved reeding, and applied ornament are so plentiful as to almost defy enumeration. Just as Nature abhors a vacuum, so Victorian taste demanded some kind of ornamental treatment for every surface and edge. By treating each gabled wing in the same general manner but with differing details, the architect provided further interest while maintaining an overall unity in approach.
Although the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage includes numerous examples of "correct" architectural forms drawn from particular styles — for example, the Gothic Revival trefoil found in the attic dormers and porch cutouts — much use is also made of contemporary folk motifs such as the sawtooth banding on the tower cornice and panels or the various "scalloped" decorations in the gable peaks. Other features incorporate high-style or formal motifs in decidedly informal ways. For example, the back parlor mantel uses circular and elliptical sunbursts in the necking of its pilasters and as corner blocks to its fireplace surround, as one might expect in such a Renaissance Revival piece. The central tablet, however, combines an unprecedented grouping of three identical sunbursts, supported for good measure by a row of modillions that appear nowhere else. Although today the mantel, indeed, the entire Isaac C. Lewis Cottage, could be regarded as proof of Victorian excess and untrammeled eclecticism, the astonishing freedom conferred by such an aesthetic (and by the means to fulfill it at relatively modest cost) must also be acknowledged.
It is not known who the suppliers were for the various components of the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage. Certainly this type of millwork would have been available in any small Connecticut city, each of which had one or more steam-powered woodworking enterprises turning out just the kind of sawn, turned, and shaped materials evident in the cottage. Meriden, for example, had the shop of A. Merriam and Company, which advertised "Scroll and Fancy Sawing, Planing, Turning, &c., Executed with Neatness and Dispatch." The interior woodwork and parquet floor probably also were available in Meriden, and the mantels and tiles are similar to those advertised in the various builder's catalogs of the period. The light fixtures and interior hardware may have been Connecticut-made as well: brass factories in Waterbury and Bristol were leaders in the lighting industry, and a large portion of the period's builder's hardware, even the stylish oriental-motif knobs and hinges found in the Lewis Cottage, was produced in the factories of nearby New Britain.
An exception to this characterization of the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage as a product of the industrial age must be made in the case of the numerous painted ceilings on the interior. Obviously done by hand by one or more artists, the beautiful apple blossoms and ivy vines in the parlors exemplify a building treatment that cannot be mechanized. The fruit, flowers, and various meals portrayed in the dining room are especially notable. Although they can be generally categorized as in the realist tradition of theorems, folk still-lifes, and genre prints, these paintings represent unique works of art admirably suited to their dining room location.
Henry M. Jones
The architect of the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage was Henry Martin Jones (1828-1908) of Meriden. Jones had designed houses for many of that city's industrial elite, including a large Chateauesque mansion on Broad Street for Isaac C. Lewis. Regardless of overall style, Jones's Meriden houses invariably included a rich display of Gothic bracing, bargeboard, brackets, towers, and iron cresting similar to what he produced in a somewhat more informal, even playful, manner for Isaac C. Lewis's summer cottage. Jones represents the continuation of the carpenter-architect tradition in Connecticut, leavened with an awareness of architecture as it was then being practiced in more cosmopolitan areas. Born in Saybrook, he graduated from Essex Academy and then apprenticed himself to Sidney Gladwin of Essex, for whom he worked several years as a house carpenter. Following that, he studied architecture with what his obituary referred to simply as "a private tutor." There can be little doubt that Jones's mentor in formal architecture was Henry Austin of New Haven. Not only were there few if any others in the state at that time with a suitable background to teach young men architecture, but also, Jones's work bears a distinct resemblance to the Stick style houses firmly attributed to Austin in Stony Creek, New Haven, Hamden, and Waterbury, Connecticut.
Isaac C. Lewis
Isaac Chauncey Lewis (1812-1893) was one of Connecticut's leading industrialists. A native of Meriden, he learned the business of making tableware and other products from Britannia (a pewter-like alloy of copper, tin, and antimony) as a 15-year-old apprentice in the shop of Hiram Yale. After working for a while with a brother, he set up his own Britannia factory in 1841. In 1852 he joined with several other tableware makers to form the Meriden Britannia Company, of which he became president. The Meriden Britannia Company transformed small-shop production into a large factory-scale enterprise, employing hundreds of workers and using mechanized methods (such as power presses) to stamp out tableware and other products. Just as Britannia had been the cheap silver substitute of the small-shop era, so silver-plate became the mass-market key to success in the industrial age. The company's business prospered throughout the late 19th century, lending the name "Silver City" to Meriden. Although the company produced presentation pieces and other high-end items from sterling silver, plated goods formed the backbone of the industry. In the 1890s the Meriden Britannia Company became one of the principal components of a huge conglomerate under the name International Silver.
In addition to his duties as president and superintendent of the Britannia company, Isaac C. Lewis was active as a political leader and as a philanthropist. He was elected to four terms as state representative from Meriden between 1848 and 1866 and three terms as mayor, beginning in 1870. He also served as president of a local bank and was a major benefactor of St. Paul's Universalist Church, the Meriden City Mission, and various temperance societies. When he died in 1893, his estate was valued at more than $2 million.
Having a large summer cottage was common among men of Isaac C. Lewis's social standing. Because of Connecticut's small size and numerous railroad connections, the Long Island shore was easily accessible to interior cities such as Meriden. Lewis could comfortably spend a few days away from his responsibilities, return to Meriden for business, and then come back to his family at Stony Creek. Indeed, in this period, Stony Creek and other places along the shore experienced rapid development as seaside retreats for the well-to-do. Visible from the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage is another notable Stick style house that was the summer home of William Clark, a manufacturer who, like Lewis, had made a fortune by mechanizing the production of a common item, carriage bolts. Farther east at Fenwick, similar cottages (all now greatly altered or replaced around 1900 with larger, Shingle style houses) were built by businessmen from Hartford and other central Connecticut towns.
Understanding Lewis's social position is important to appreciating the cottage. He was a typical leading Connecticut manufacturer of the late-19th century: a wealthy, locally influential man whose business activities decisively affected a small segment of the national economy, in his case, the manufacture of silver and silver-plate. Analogous leaders were found throughout the state in industries such as brass goods, clocks, hats, corsets, sewing machines, machine-tools, and the host of other products for which Connecticut played a major role in mechanizing production. Like Lewis, the men who led these industries were wealthy but modestly educated people who were likely to want a place where they could find relaxation and clean air. They had the means to erect comfortable cottages, but no need for ostentation. Their summer social ambitions were undoubtedly limited to sharing a shore dinner in a tastefully appointed dining room with another family from Connecticut's industrial elite. Unlike the nationally prominent families who built their "cottages" at Newport and other resorts, Connecticut's social leaders had no need to accommodate armies of servants or provide space for balls and dinners with dozens of guests. Similarly, the architecture of summer cottages such as Isaac C. Lewis's neither intended an artistic statement nor required fabulous expenditure of funds. It was enough for the house to have the rich density of machine-produced detailing that a man such as Lewis would consider appropriate to his position in society. A house like the Isaac C. Lewis Cottage shows that, at least in the first generation, the manufacturing elite shared much of the popular taste that provided them with their prosperity. In a way, the cottage is an architectural analog to the expensive, densely ornamented yet machine-made pieces of presentation silver produced by Isaac C. Lewis's Meriden factory.
Jones, Henry M. Obituaries. Meriden Daily Journal, September 7, 1908; Meriden Morning Record, September 7, 1908; Meriden Weekly Republican, September 10, 1908.
"Lewis, Isaac Chauncey." Commemorative Biographical Record of New Haven County. Chicago: J.H. Beers, 1902.
Lewis, Isaac C. Obituaries. Meriden Daily Record, December 7, 1893; Meriden Weekly Republican, December 7, 1893.
New Haven Register, September 29, 1882; December 5, 1882.
Rockey, J. L. (ed.). History of New Haven County, Connecticut. New York: W.W. Preston, 1892.
Scully, Vincent F. The Shingle Style and the Stick Style. New Haven: Yale University Press, rev. ed., 1971.
The Silver City: Meriden, Connecticut. Meriden: E. A. Hortin & Co., 1893.
† Bruce Clouette & Hoang Tinh, Historic Resource Consulatants and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Isaac C. Lewis Cottage, Branford, CT, nomination document, 1997, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.