Franklin Johnson House
The Franklin Johnson House (153 South Main Street) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Franklin Johnson House is a two-story Italianate style building constructed in 1866 of brick covered with a light coat of cement, which is scored to resemble ashlar. The house faces east on the main street, about one-third of a mile south of Wallingford's downtown central intersection in a residential neighborhood comprised of historic houses of similar size and spacing.
The Franklin Johnson House is sited toward the front of a flat parcel of 2/3 acre with shade trees located on the sides and toward the rear. An original masonry outhouse and ca.1900 frame barn are in the backyard.
A heavy cast-iron fence standing on a low wall of rock-faced brownstone blocks runs across the front of the house at the lot line. Its balusters resemble lyres in shape. A bluestone walk leads up to the low hip-roofed wooden front porch. Chief features of the seven-foot-deep full-width porch are its cast-iron railing of arched balusters that encompass vertical and diamond motifs and the distinctive wooden columns connected by the railing. The tapered fluted columns, which are supported on high hexagonal pink granite pedestals, rise from tall turned bases to plain banded capitals and individual entablatures, and to brackets under the overhanging porch roof. The four columns at the front of the porch are complemented by two engaged half-columns at the returns. The foundation of the porch on the south side displays in masonry the construction date "A.D. 1866."
The mass of the house is essentially a 34' x 32' cube, plus front porch and rear addition. The brick walls of the building are covered with a thin coat of cement, as differentiated from stucco which is a thicker mixture comprised of several components. In the three-bay front elevation the central doorway is deeply recessed without wooden casing on the face of the masonry. The flanking windows have 6-over-6 sash, also inset without decorative wooden casings on the face of the masonry. Window surrounds within the masonry openings are flat. The window sills and lintels and their impost consoles are pink granite.
At the second floor the arched central window is glazed with colored glass in a pattern of small rectangular panes which form a border around the arched upper glazing. The cornice of this window is curvilinear. Flanking windows are rectangular, the same as those at the first floor. At the attic level a wooden molding serves as a string course, establishing a frieze in which small horizontal three-pane windows are located. The windows are bracketed by single gadrooned wooden consoles in a cyma reverse curve terminating in a small drop finial, similar to those supporting the porch roof. Soffit of the broad roof overhang is flush boarding.
On the south side elevation the first window at both first and second floors is the same as those on the front. A two-story five-sided bay is to the rear. Its first story is the same masonry as the main block, but its first-floor cornice and second floor are wood painted a dark brown. Sash are 4-over-4. The bay's flat roof with molded edge is at a level just below the molded string course that runs around the house to form a frieze band below the main roof. The north elevation of the Franklin Johnson House has three windows at each floor, arranged in a 1-2 rhythm. The small 26' x 10' rear addition is narrower than the main block but of the same construction, finish, and window treatment, suggesting that it was built soon after 1866. The presence of the original rear wall, uncovered by selective demolition on the interior, establishes that the rear section is indeed an addition. The addition is seen in an 1881 Aerial View.
The low hipped roof is almost flat. The north chimney, one of two originally rising from the roof, continues to be visible. The former cupola is seen in an 1881 Aerial View.
Turning to the interior, the front door opens to a central hall with rooms on either side. The stairway in the central hall has been replaced. In the north (right) front room, the marble fireplace mantel with an iron grate and the elaborate plaster ceiling medallion remain in place. Window reveals are 11" deep. Door and window casings are plain with band moldings. The south front room has a second marble mantel and boldly molded ceiling cornices. The south rear room features the bay in which panels under the windows are part of the composition. A modern kitchen occupies the rear of the house.
Finishes on the second floor are similar to those on the first. Several four-panel doors with original hardware and ceramic knobs are in place, as well as bold cornice moldings. The interior of the two-story bay on this floor is the same as at the first floor. The arched central window, at the front of the hall, is glazed in the upper sash with arched frosted glass, suggesting that it may not be original because the technology for manufacturing frosted glass was not yet developed when the house was built in 1866.
In the attic two small garret rooms on the north continue to display rough plaster walls and batten doors. In the center of the attic a steep stair ascends to the level of the former cupola, while the south part of the third floor is open attic space.
The cellar floor in part is brick and in part is cobblestone.
The outhouse in the backyard is a smaller version of the main house in both design and materials. It is a cube built of brick with a cement wash scribed to resemble ashlar, has a low pyramidal roof with broad overhang, and formerly had a cupola. Aside from the cupola, the outhouse is well-preserved on both exterior and interior.
A frame gable-roofed barn dating from ca.1900 in the southwest corner of the lot is built of weathered vertical bead-board siding. The original barn on the property was at the northwest rear corner of the yard.
The Franklin Johnson House, built in 1866, is a well-preserved example of an Italianate-style building designed by an unknown architect after the manner which Henry Austin (1804-1891) made famous with his James Dwight Dana House (1849) on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut. The Franklin Johnson House, a simple cube in mass with widely overhanging eaves, is distinguished by exotic trim of plant-like columns and by its masonry construction, made to resemble ashlar by scribing, both of which clearly take inspiration from the precedent set by Austin.
Franklin Johnson built his house in 1866, the year date inscribed in the front porch foundation. He lived there for 20 years, until his death on February 2, 1886. The Wallingford Land Records show that he was active in real estate transactions before and during these years. The indices list him as a grantor at least 13 times between 1866 and 1884, and as a grantee for more than 40 entries from 1834 to 1873. Location of the parcels involved in the transactions often is given as being in the central part of the town.
In the 1868 atlas the F. Johnson parcel is an irregular shape abutting P. Whittlesley to the south. A new street at the rear lot line of the Whittlesley and Franklin properties took the name Whittlesley Street and the short street identified by the atlas with the name W. Bartholomew became Franklin Street. Thus it appears that the two adjoining property owners were active in the development of their neighborhood and gave their names to two of the streets. In later Sanborn maps the Johnson parcel has been conventionalized in shape as a regular rectangle.
After Franklin Johnson's death, the house continued as a residence until it was converted to commercial purposes ca.1980. Interior alterations made at that time included installation of the present front stairway and rear demising partitions. The current owner, the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust, is rehabilitating the building for use as the home of the American Silver Museum.
In mid-19th century Connecticut, a version of the Italianate house consisting of a cube under low-pitched roof and broad roof overhang, usually embellished with classical trim, was widely popular. The style, initially based on the vernacular farmhouses of the Italian countryside, was developed by English architects such as John Nash, brought to the United States by John Notman of Philadelphia, and popularized by Andrew Jackson Downing as part of the Picturesque movement. In the interpretation of the style as seen in the Franklin Johnson House, the basic boxy mass is quite plain, depending for its architectural statement on the wide roof overhang and character-defining trim features.
Henry Austin, architect, of New Haven (1804-1891) was well-known in Connecticut and the Northeast. He apprenticed in the office of Alexander Jackson Davis, an associate of Downing, and his partner, Ithiel Town. Austin gave his identifying interpretation to the Italianate style by designing exotic trim as seen at the James Dwight Dana House. In Wallingford, he drew plans for such a house, known as "a rose-bedecked mansion" (Withey), for Moses Yale Beach. It is now demolished except for its elaborate front porch columns. The anonymous designer of the Johnson House followed in Austin's footsteps as portrayed by the James Dwight Dana House in New Haven and the Moses Yale Beach House in Wallingford.
The Franklin Johnson House is a simple cube in mass, with the standard "low-pitched roof with widely overhanging eaves having decorative brackets beneath" (McAlester, p.212), central cupola, and three-bay facade, but it is exceptional for its finishes and trim. The cast-iron front fence and front-porch railing are elaborate introductions to the facade. Their patterns are complex and classical, in one case a lyre. The high pink granite polygonal pedestals for the porch columns are an unusual color for the Italianate style, which often employed sandstone. The granite possibly came from the nearby Stony Creek quarries in Branford, Connecticut, which are noted for stone of this color. The same stone is used for the lintels and sills of windows throughout the house and outhouse. The brick walls are made to resemble stone ashlar, thereby increasing the elegance of the building's appearance in the manner made common by Nash in his London city planning.
The bulbous base of the porch columns is exotic and seldom seen. The exaggerated taper of the fluted shaft sets it apart from most, as does the plain band used as a capital under the egg-and-dart molding below the shallow individual entablature. The roof bracket above combines multiple curves with a drop pendant in an elaborate design used both for the porch roof and the main roof.
The configuration of the bay on the south elevation is more typical for the period, but the combination of building materials, masonry for the first floor and wood above, is not. The bay is well-preserved; the wooden components appear to be original. In a complex detail, the bay's roof, flat, with projecting molded edge, is held below the frieze band which surrounds the house, avoiding the break in its continuity which would have occurred if the bay had been carried up to the height of the main roof.
Interior details of marble mantels, elegant plaster ceiling medallion, and bold cornice moldings carry on the spirit of complex embellishment established on the exterior. The windows and window surrounds are original and in good condition. The 11-inch depth of the reveals dramatically signals the thickness of the masonry walls.
A final unusual component of the resource is the Italianate multi-person outhouse, which faithfully follows the architecture of the main house, and is equally well-preserved on both exterior and interior. The pointed cupolas of both the house and outhouse are clearly visible in an 1881 View.
Information is lacking as to the identity of the architect of the Franklin Johnson House. While it is conceivable that the Franklin Johnson House was designed by Henry Austin, it seems unlikely due to the absence of any local information or tradition to that effect, and to the absence of Austin drawings for the house in the two repositories for Austin materials. Austin drawings held by the New Haven Colony Historical Society are primarily for the New Haven City Hall. Ten boxes (2-1/2 shelf feet) in the archives of University Library, Yale University, contain Austin drawings, specifications, correspondence, etc., but are considered to represent only a fraction of Austin's work. No reference to the Franklin Johnson House is found in the finding aids of either repository.
Atlas of New Haven County, Connecticut. New York: F.W. Beers, 1868, Plate 48.
Henry Austin Papers, MS 1034. Manuscripts & Archives, University Library (at Sterling Library), Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Henry Austin Folders, Library of New Haven Colony Historical Society, New Haven, Connecticut.
Brown, Elizabeth Mills. New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976, p.138.
Downing, Alexander Jackson. Country Houses. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1856.
Hale, Clarence E. Tales of Old Wallingford. Chester, Connecticut: Pequot Press, 1971.
McAlester, Virginia & Lee. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 1984.
View of Wallingford, Connecticut. O.H. Bailey & Co., Boston, 1881.
Wallingford. Maps by Sanborn Map Company, New York, N.Y., 1911, Plate 10; 1919, Plate 12.
Wallingford Assessor's field card.
Wallingford Land Records, Grantors' Index, 14 entries, vol, 63, page 82-vol. 73, p.33; grantees index, 43 entries, vol. 38, p.62-vol.60, p.452.
Wallingford Probate Records, vol. 28A, p.180; vol. 28B, p.69.
Whiffen, Marcus. American Architecture Since 1780. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1969.
Withey, Henry F., and Withey, Elsie Rathbun. Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased}. Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc., 1970 (reprint of 1956), p.26.
† David Ransom, Consultant and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Franklin Johnson House, Wallingford, CT, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.