Historic Structures

Mrs. Zalmon Wakeman House, Southport Connecticut

Date added: April 14, 2011 Categories: Connecticut House Second Empire

The Southport "Chronicle" reported on March 1, 18T1 that "W. W. Wakeman, Esqu., is about to erect, on the Hill, 'a very handsome residence.' Although we have not seen the plans, we know Mr. Wakeman well enough to be able to say that this will be one of the most attractive houses in this town." On August 23, 18T1 the "Chronicle" noted: "W. W. Wakeman is erecting a stately mansion which crowns one of the most eligible sites on the hill (Rose Hill)." William W. Wakeman was the son of either Zalmon B. Wakeman or Captain William Wakeman. He built this house for Mrs. Zalmon Wakeman (who died in 1873) and her daughters Mary and Prances.

Mary and Frances Wakeman were the original residents of the house, living here from 1871 until 1913. Their father, Zalmon Bradley Wakeman (1803-1865) and mother, Sarah Ann Fowler (1806- 1873) married on March 3, I829. Wakeman was a sea captain and owned his own fleet of ships.

As originally designed, the structure is two stories with a full attic and partially exposed basement and nearly square in plan, measuring forty-four feet six inches (southeast front facade) by forty-nine feet ten inches with a pantry wing at the rear which is eleven feet deep. The house's weight rests upon a foundation of irregularly coursed cut stone; the cellar is seven feet below the first floor timbers. First-floor joists are three by eleven, set sixteen inches from center and bridged two-tier to each length. Joist members and bridging for the flooring of the second level are identical to the first floor; they are set eighteen inches from center. Attic framing is constructed in the same manner as on the lower levels, members are two by ten and set eight inches from center. Rafters supporting the Mansard roof are two by seven and set two feet apart at center. The three-foot nine-inch wall fabric consists of wooden clapboarding on the exterior, a layer of rough sheathing, stud framing, a layer of lath and plaster, furring, and interior walls of lath and plaster.

The elegant wooden detailing of the front (southeast) piazza brings into sharp focus an authentically American ingenuity. Mechanical technology, forced to develop on a larger, widespread scale during the Civil War, had become markedly more sophisticated by the late 1860s-70s, making possible such spectacular works of Victorian architecture in wood. The clusters of squared slender colonettes, finely detailed by the power lathe and chisel, rest on molded block bases and form flat-topped and stilted arched openings. The arch imposts of the front doorway's deeply molded architrave are finely detailed in a motif similar to the colonettes. A string of thin wooden balusters encompasses the porch area.

The complexity of the facade's ornament is arranged in a decorative scheme; the plan is also logical. Different in kind than the rectilinear designs of the Adamesque and Greek styles, or even the Italian Renaissance mode which flaunts a richer facial appearance than the earlier types, the highly individualized components of this particular Second Empire work have been laid out in a logical progression to emphasize sharp breaks, rounded curves and warm, interesting shadows. Each detail stands out as a separate entity, while also augmenting the effect of the total, unified composition.

Projecting at the front of the two-story polygonal end bay is an angular bay window which forms the extension of the front parlor. Heavily molded, the bay's narrow windows are set deep into their frames and topped by a frieze of square panels and a medieval Dutch gable, continuing upward on the wall face to culminate in a carved finial ornament. A projecting bay on the southwest (side) elevation - an extension of the sitting room - is entirely different in design than the one just described. It is semi-octagonal in shape with large stilted-arched window openings separated by slender engaged columns which support the original shaped gable roof.

All principal windows are one-over-one double-hung sash with molded surrounds and projecting sills. Most openings are topped by elaborate window heads of a plain fascia board, a fileted cornice supported by decorative corbels, and capped by a half-Mansard roof. A shingled Mansard roof covers the main block of the house.

Projecting beyond the wall, the roof overhang creates a wide eave supported by simply molded consoles. Characteristic of the Second Empire style, dormers with stilted segmental-arched and circular openings pierce the roof surface.

As has been suggested, interior arrangements closely resemble the massing of exterior sections. The interior was arranged on what is essentially a modified central-hall plan. Entering from the piazza entrance into the central hall, the drawing room is to the right, the sitting room to the left. Sliding doors separate the front sitting room from the back dining room. The central hall continues down toward the rear of the house, opening into the back hall and kitchen area or turning at a right angle at the drawing room's outside end wall. The main stairway to the second floor is built against the northwest wall of this latter section. All second-floor partitions correspond to the lay-out of the first floor.

The architects' design for interior details was as lavish and artistic as their plan for exterior surfaces. The power lathe and chisel were again used liberally, though not fanatically; sensitive execution without the faintest suggestion of gaudiness adorns all woodwork. The front drawing room is finished in elaborately carved white pine, which trims the fireplace and ceiling. Oak bookcases flanking the front sitting room's sliding door partitions, and black walnut cases in the dining room are finely carved with floral and fleur-de-lis details. The surrounds of the expansive doorway between the front and back parlors are handsomely carved to complement the bookcases' detailing. The main stairway is trimmed with turned balusters and openwork brackets on the outside of the stair, While a variety of minutely detailed motifs are employed throughout the house on the carved woodworks a unified design emerges.

Changes to the structure's original fabric have been minimal. A three-bay oriel window and a bay window were added to the west elevation in 1885. The Fairfield "Advertiser" reported on May 21st, "The Misses (Frances and Mary) Wakeman are having two bay windows built on their house." On April 16, 1903 the "Chronicle" made a vague reference to alterations on the house: "improvements are being made to the property of the Misses Mary and Frances Wakeman."