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Henry Hobson Richardson and the Erastus Corning House in Northeast Harbor, Maine

Working Paper, Doug Sinclair © 2009

     Among the projects undertaken by the office of Henry Hobson Richardson was a house for Erastus Corning of Albany, New York. The only evidence of it among the papers that are extant from Richardson’s office is a sketch of part of a stone wall with a chimney and window for what is called an unidentified house in Albany. Henry Russell Hitchcock found other material that has since been lost or destroyed. Whether a plan, elevation or sketch isn’t indicated, but he says that it was a “well composed asymmetrical mass more compact than most of the later houses.”
      When Erastus Corning’s personal papers were donated to the Albany Institute of History of Art, correspondence both illuminated and confused the nature of Corning’s commission with Richardson’s office. What is clear, thanks to this archive, is that Richardson had designed a house for Corning at Sargent’s Point, Northeast Harbor, Maine, by November 1883. This is the first and only known reference to such a house. The Albany project is mentioned, but it is the Northeast Harbor house that is documented in the letters. It was built in 1886-1887, but not to Richardson’s design. The architects of record were Fuller & Wheeler of Albany.

The first letter to mention the Richardson/Corning association is dated 3 August 1882:

Aug 3rd 1882

Erastus Corning, Esq.

Dear Sir,

I have deferred answering your letter of July 31st, for a day, to learn more definitely the capabilities of the Mt. Desert builders. But first let me say that although Mr. Richardson has seriously and carefully considered a scheme for your proposed house in Albany, no real drawing has ever been made for it. He several times drew for me on a scrap of paper the general disposition he had conceived for the house but we have nothing that may be shown. Should you resolve to push the matter I dare say he would be pleased to make special observation relative to it during his trip in Europe. Upon inquiring of those architects who have built most in Mt. Desert, I learn that you would probably do much better to have your house built upon the spot by one of the builders who are there. So many good houses have now been built in Mt. Desert from architects plans that certain of the local carpenters are entirely capable of understanding and properly rendering drawings. I can give you more exact information regarding the builders (their names and the names of people for whom they have built) if you desire.

Yours very truly H. H. Richardson per R. D. A.

From this it is clear that a house in Albany and Northeast Harbor were being considered, although the first recorded Corning deed for land in the latter place was in January 1883.

October 19th 1882

Hon. Erastus Corning

Dear Sir

Your letter I have just received, with the enclosed print. I will see Jos. H. Curtis as soon as possible, and shall take great pleasure in pushing work on your house with all speed. I am just about leaving for New York or would write you in person. I shall be in Albany tomorrow week (Friday Oct. 27th) and shall not leave until I have seen you and arranged matters with you.

Yours very truly

H. H. Richardson per H.
[Herbert] L. [Langford] W. [Warren]

     There is only mention of one house in this letter. We have no way of knowing how far along the house in Northeast Harbor was in the design process to help determine which location. The reference to Joseph H. Curtis, however, is significant. A Boston landscape architect who summered in Northeast Harbor, Curtis approved one of the bills presented to Corning for landscape work at the Northeast Harbor property in 1886 after Fuller & Wheeler had become involved in the project.
     In November 1883 two letters from Richardson’s office to Corning refer to confusion about missing drawings, but drawings of what isn’t specified. Written personally by Richardson, he closes by saying “Meanwhile I am pushing the work on the plan of the first floor as fast as possible.” These letters could have referred to other Albany projects involving Richardson and Corning such as City Hall, but the wording points more likely to the house project. It had been over a year since Herbert L. Warren said the office would be working "with all speed" on the house, but the following letter may reveal why.

February 27th 1884

Hon. Erastus Corning

Dear Sir

I enclose a letter I have received from a contractor at Bar Harbor to whom I gave your plans to look over as he had been highly recommended to me by Messrs. Montgomery Sears, Arthur Rotch, Dr. Derby and others. As you see he proposes to build the house by day’s labor and think it can be done according to the plans & specifications which I first submitted to you for $28000. This seems to me an astonishingly low figure, and as the man has been so highly spoken of by those he has worked for, who are men in whose judgment I should have great confidence, I have no hesitation in advising you to let him build your house as he proposes. Meanwhile I am going on with the reduced plans of your house and shall spare no pains to make them meet your wants. Whether you determine to build the house as originally planned or as reduced, I think you will do well to employ Mr. Barron.

Yours very truly,

H. H. Richardson

P. S. Please recollect that the $28000 is for the house as at first proposed and drawn with all its details.

     Here we have Richardson himself indicating he had signed-off on two plans for what was undoubtedly the Northeast Harbor house. George Barron’s letter requesting Corning’s patronage is also among the Corning papers. The February 1884 letter is the last known reference to Richardson’s involvement with Corning’s house. No further mention has been found of a house being built in Albany, but Fuller & Wheeler did design several small cottages for Corning in 1884. These were likely on Corning’s rural property just south of Albany. The Cornings continued to live in an older house on State Street in downtown Albany through this period.
     What happened between February 1884 and June 1886, the date of the first invoice found for building the Northeast Harbor house, is unknown. Few plausible reasons for the switch of architects can be imagined, since the plans were advanced enough to have contractors bid on them. The most obvious is that, in the end, Corning may not have liked either of Richardson’s plans.
     Fuller & Wheeler were an established architectural firm in the Albany area and had already worked for Corning, so they were not a surprising choice. Without any images of Richardson’s plans for the Northeast Harbor house, it is impossible to compare them with Fuller & Wheeler’s design. The latter is comparable in various ways to other work from Richardson’s office, but the fact that Fuller included the project in a book of his own designs makes it inconceivable that any significant portion of the house was co-opted from Richardson. The drawing of the stone wall with chimney and window was presumably for the proposed house at Albany, although the massing relates somewhat to one of the walls of the house as built in Northeast Harbor. Without further documentation, this new information on a Richardson commission in Maine will remain frustratingly vague.

all text and photographs © 1998-2009 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted

Invoices and receipts found in the Corning papers provide a detailed look at the construction of the house. The primary work took place in the Summer and Fall of 1886, and invoices for finish-work in the interior were made through the following Winter. Asa Hodgkins, an established builder of other summer houses on Mt. Desert Island, was hired by Corning rather than George Barron. Joseph Curtis was evidently the landscape architect, although Beatrice Farrand was later involved. Photographs of the house probably dating roughly to 1900 show either a hands-off approach to the landscape or carefully planted pine trees that had matured to look as though they had grown there naturally. The house site and roadways to it required removal of trees and blasting rock with dynamite. A gate or gates were made of cedar. A photograph shows a large gate, presumably at the entrance at South Shore Road, with the words “STONE ACRES” arranged in a rustic style. One of the invoices lists “2 loads” of moss being hauled to the property. Ridgeway & Russ did the plumbing work and William Pretyman was the interior decorator. Both firms were based in Albany, Pretyman being involved with the Episcopal Cathedral at Albany. He was also the Supervisor of Color at the Chicago World Exhibition. Various local workmen appear on invoices for labor at the site.       (1)