Theodore Burr House
The Theodore Burr House (8 Fort Hill Park) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Theodore Burr House (Oxford Memorial Library) in Oxford, New York is set between the banks of the Chenango River and historic Fort Hill Square. Fort Hill Square is a small green surrounded by a variety of village structures in both nineteenth-century and modern architectural modes. Spacious lawns and a few mature trees complete the landscape.
The Theodore Burr House is a box-like two-story building with recessed one-and-one-half story side wings. Its form and general design derive from the Federal/Greek Revival transitional period. Added to this is decorative detailing of a later period, but harmonious with the original design.
The house is of wood frame construction on a fieldstone foundation. It is sheathed in clapboard except for the front of the main block which has flush siding under the porch. The main block is topped by a hipped roof with a low cupola. The south wing has a gable roof, while the north wing has a low-pitched shed roof. Fenestration is regular with simple double-hung windows throughout.
The main block is five bays across the front, including a central recessed doorway with glazed and panelled double doors. It is four bays deep with an additional bay's depth occupied by a two-story verandah which extends the full front width of the house. This verandah is supported by four simple Ionic columns. On both the first and second floors, a low porch railing with cast-iron balusters runs between the columns. A similar balustrade defines the front and sides of the roof above.
The front windows are long, reaching almost to the porch floor. On the second floor the architrave moldings are simple, like those elsewhere on the house. In contrast, the first floor front windows are topped by flared segmental arch cornices. On the sides of the main block are matching two-sided oriel windows at the first-floor level.
Although the two-story additions at either side of the main house are similar in shape, they are detailed differently. Both are three bays wide with a door and two windows on the first floor and two smaller windows above. Each has a first-story porch whose roof is supported by posts of delicate wood tracery, but the patterns differ on the two porches. The north wing is otherwise devoid of decoration. In contrast, the south wing has a pitched gable roof embellished with a balustrade and two gable dormers. The outer corner is marked by a broad pilaster. The side and rear windows of this wing have six-over-six sash in contrast to the two-over-two and one-over-one sash elsewhere in the house.
The interior of the house is characterized by a symmetrical room configuration and simple woodwork. On the first floor, a center hall divides four rooms. A spiral staircase is placed at the rear of the hall. Each side wing contains a single room on each floor; access is through the rear rooms of the main block. Although the house is no longer a residence, the floor plan remains unchanged except for the removal of sliding doors which originally separated the south rooms. Some original detailing exists: arched doorways, pine floors, and fireplaces (no longer in use). The parlor fireplace has a mantel with a carved sunburst motif.
The only major alterations to the original structure are the wing additions. A small frame ell at the rear of the south wing was added and removed during the nineteenth century. Some features such as the cast-iron balusters, oriel windows and arched window cornices appear to be of later date than the original construction but their provenance is undocumented. Extensive alterations in the 1970s included new roofs and paint, insulation, wiring, wallboard, and carpets. Although some original fabric, such as the lath and plaster, has been lost, this has not detracted from the visual integrity of the building.
The Theodore Burr House, built between 1810 and 1812, derives its primary significance from its association with Theodore Burr, a pioneer American bridge designer and builder of the early nineteenth century. The building is also architecturally significant as an example of the Federal and Greek Revival styles, subsequently enhanced with Victorian detail.
Theodore Burr (1771-1822) was one of the founding settlers of Oxford, arriving there in 1793. As a youth, Burr was educated in the millwright and construction trades through an apprenticeship under his father John Burr, of Torrington, Connecticut. In 1794, Burr constructed Oxford's first grist mill and dam on the Chenango River. Because customers came from both sides of the river, it was logical that his next project should be a bridge. In 1800, Burr built his first bridge, a simple stringer crossing the Chenango just above his dam.
From this time on, Burr's fame as a bridge builder spread throughout New York and south to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1804, he erected a four-span wooden bridge at Waterford which was to stand until destroyed by fire in 1909. This was not only significant as the first major bridge across the Hudson River, but was the first known use of the truss system which was to establish Burr's place in history. The Burr truss combines arch and flat truss forms in a complex interweaving design produced bridges of stunning structural beauty and of a size and strength previously unimagined. During his lifetime, Burr was directly responsible for the construction of nearly twenty bridges and served as consultant to countless other projects. Among his most notable achievements were the dual roadway bridge at Trenton, New Jersey (1804-06), the mile-long Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge (1812-14), and the McCall's Ferry Bridge (1814), in which a single span of 360 feet was used to cross the 100-foot deep main channel. Burr finally patented his truss design in 1817, and it continued in use throughout the northeast and Midwest for the rest of the century.
In some measure, Burr's success may be attributed to the comprehensive way in which he conducted business. Meticulously drawn documents outlined materials, modes of construction, dimensions and features as well as dates of payments to be made on the work as it progressed from stage to stage. For his later projects, Burr built a large saw mill at Binghamton, New York and hired his own rafters to transport the wood to building sites in Pennsylvania. As another economy measure, he engaged his own iron masters to make hardware, spikes, and nails.
The house which Burr built in Oxford reflects the financial rewards of his reputation as a master bridge builder. In 1809, he purchased a lot just below his grist mill on Fort Hill Square. Oxford was an important business center, located at the intersection of the major east-west (Catskill-Bath Turnpike) and north-south (Utica-Binghamton Road and Chenango River) routes through the area. Fort Hill Square was an active commercial and residential area at this time, with the prestigious Oxford Academy (1794) dominating its southern end. Despite the frequent and extended travels demanded by his profession, Burr spent fully two years building the house for his growing family. It is a mixture of the Federal and Greek Revival styles and, without the Victorian touches added by a subsequent owner, is an expression of understated elegance. In keeping with his fascination for the arch, Burr framed each interior doorway with an arch.
Burr had spent only two years in the Oxford house when business commitments required he move to Pennsylvania where he remained until his death in 1822. Between 1811 and 1822, Burr built five bridges across the Susquehanna River for the Pennsylvania legislature. These bridges are especially significant for the effect they had on the advancement of transportation and commerce and the ensuing settlement of the west.
In spite of Burr's painstaking attention to detail, he was not, in the end, a good financial manager. In his last years, Burr was plagued by monetary problems impossible to resolve. His reputation was further degraded by the vicissitudes of nature. The strength of the trussed arch, however perfectly calculated for distance and burden, was often undermined by the force of water in flood and ice. The use of wood in the construction of bridges was subject to degeneration from natural forces. It was Burr's misfortune that he did not have at his disposal materials worthy of his genius for design.
Theodore Burr died penniless while superintending the construction of a bridge in Middletown, Pennsylvania. The circumstances of his death are obscure and his burial place is unknown. Still, Burr's designs were used in profusion for the next half-century and although his fame has been eclipsed by more recent bridge building feats, contemporary steel arched bridges owe much to his pioneer work.
The house in Oxford remained a private residence until 1843 when it was sold to St. Joseph's Church for use as a rectory. In 1900, the house was bought by the Corbin family who gave it to the village for a free public library. It serves in this capacity today.
The Theodore Burr House is the only remaining structure associated with Burr's life and work. His Harrisburg home is gone, and his burial place is unknown. Of the many important bridges he constructed, none are still standing. Countless Burr truss bridges were built during the nineteenth century, and many are still standing, particularly in Ohio. In New York, Perrine's Bridge over the Wallkill is one of the oldest covered bridges in the state and the only true example of the Burr arch type.
Allen, Richard Sanders. "Biographical Sketch of Theodore Burr." Unpublished ms. in Research File, Division for Historic Preservation, Office of Parks and Recreation. Albany, New York.
Allen, Richard Sanders. Covered Bridges of the Northeast. Brattleboro, Vermont: Stephen Greene, c.1957.
Cummings, Hubertis M. "Theodore Burr and his Bridges Across the Susquehanna." Pennsylvania History. Vol. XXIII, No. 4 (October, 1956).
Galpin, Henry. Annals of Oxford. Oxford, New York, 1906.
Simms, Jeptha R. The Frontiersmen of New York. Albany, New York: G.C. Riggs, 1882-3.
Smith, James H. History of Chenango and Madison Counties. Syracuse, 1880.