The Metcalfe House - Table of Contents .................. McKim, Mead and White - Table of Contents .................... Museum District - Table of Contents

The Metcalfe House: A Building in the 'Early Colonial' Style by McKim, Mead and White
by Francis R. Kowsky
Originally published in the November 1980, Volume 4, Number I issue of the Little Journal,
a publication by the Society of Architectural Historians/Western New York Chapter.

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

Click on illustrations for larger size -- and additional information

Figure 1
Metcalfe House, c. 1895

Figure 2
Metcalfe House, first floor plan

Figure 3
Metcalfe House, library, 1980

Figure 4
Metcalfe House, dining room, 1980

Figure 5
Tilton house, Newport, Rhode Island, dining room

Figure 6
Metcalfe House, staircase hall, 1980

Figure 7
Newcomb House, vestibule

Figure 8
Metcalfe House, staircase hall, 1980

Dr. Kowsky was the person who most strenuously opposed the demolition earlier this year of Buffalo's Metcalfe house, an early McKim, Mead, and White work. Unfortunately, the Metcalfe house was destroyed to make way for, you guessed it, a parking lot.

In his article Dr. Kowsky discusses the Metcalfe family, and describes some of the Metcalfe house's treasures, which are now in various places in New York.

Dr. Kowsky is Chairman of the Fine Arts Department at the State University College at Buffalo. He has published in numerous journals, most recently contributing an article, "The William Dorsheimer House: A Reflection of French Suburban Architecture in the Early Work of H.H. Richardson", to Art Bulletin (March 1980, pp. 134-147). His book, The Architecture of Frederick Clarke Withers and the Progress of the Gothic Revival in America after 1850, was published this year by Wesleyan University Press.

His research served as the basis for the Fall 1980 exhibition,"Buffalo Projects: H.H. Richardson," at the Burchfield Center (on the State University College at Buffalo campus). Dr. Kowsky wrote the text about Richardson's Buffalo work for the exhibition's catalog.

There are
two reconstructed rooms from the Metcalfe House in Rockwell Hall on the Buffalo State College campus.

"A brilliant center," wrote Frances Wolcott, nee Metcalfe, of the "life my mother presided over . . . in the first house in Buffalo planned and erected by McKim, Mead and White" (1). Until last February, that building, which was commissioned in 1882 by Erzelia Stetson Metcalfe and her son James, stood at 125 North Street (Figure 1).

The structure has now [in 1980] been demolished to make way for a parking lot to serve the adjacent building, the former George L. Williams residence, also designed by McKim, Mead and White which is to be remodeled into offices for Delaware North Companies, Inc.

The Metcalfes

The Metcalfe family occupied a prominent place in the nineteenth-century history of Buffalo. Metcalfe Street on the east side of town honors the memory of James Harvey Metcalfe, who came to Western New York from Bath, New York, in 1855 and soon acquired fortune and station. Outstanding among his many successful business ventures were the establishment of the First National Bank, of which he was president, and the organization of the Buffalo, New York and Philadelphia Railroad. Alert to the wider obligations of wealth, Metcalfe, as an early park commissioner, lent his considerable talents to the implementation of Frederick Law Olmsted's far-sighted plan for the city's park system (2).

In 1871, success prompted Metcalfe to purchase one of the major residences of the city, the Aaron Rumsey house on the northwest corner of North Street and Delaware Avenue. In that imposing Italianate villa (demolished in 1895 for the George L. Williams house), the Metcalfe family conducted celebrated social events. Nor were family forms of recreation wanting. "As soon as the weather was chilly," reads one account of life there, "a fire was lighted in the large, well-stocked library and burning throughout the winter the light of that fire played upon the faces of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller, busts of whom adorned the library. There Mrs. Metcalfe would read aloud to her children all the novels of Dickens and Thackeray as they came from the press . . . " The entire family, which attended the theatre regularly, especially at the Academy of Music, must have read with amusement "Roderick Hudson" (1875), the novel in which Henry James used Buffalo to exemplify American cities devoid of culture.

The Three Metcalfe Children

Reared in this wholesome atmosphere of nineteenth-century domesticity, were three bright sons and a pretty daughter. Frances, the oldest, became the wife of Lyman K. Bass, a prominent Buffalo attorney who, for reasons of health, moved his practice to Colorado in 1877. After Bass's death, she married Edward Oliver Wolcott, U.S. Senator from Colorado.

The eldest son, James, attended Phillips-Andover Academy and Yale, where he received both his B.A. and M.A. degrees; Francis, the second son, studied medicine at McGill and afterwards practiced for many years in Buffalo; and George, the youngest. followed a profitable career in real estate.

Along with a cultivated and active community life, the Metcalfes enjoyed a wide circle of friends and acquaintances outside of Buffalo. They made frequent visits to New York. a city that first Frances, and then James, came to know well. After her marriage to Lyman Bass in 1874 and their subsequent move to the West, Frances, who possessed an artistic temperament, kept in close touch with her friends and interests in the East. With almost jet-set mobility, she traveled to Buffalo, New York, Washington, and Europe.

Her true center, however, was New York, where she had been educated and where, in the 1880's, she became associated with the coterie of writers and artists around Mrs. Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, the architectural critic who wrote the first definitive study of the work of H. H. Richardson.

Included in the group were

Into this sterling company, Frances Metcalfe undoubtedly introduced her younger brother, James, when after graduation from Yale in 1879 he aspired to a career as a man of letters.

James Metcalfe's first literary undertaking was the publication of Modern Age, which appeared in 1883, "Our aim is to be cosmopolitan in every respect," declared Metcalfe in the first number of the periodical, which was issued in Buffalo and New York (5). Devoted to "selecting from the best of such light literature as is current in England and on the Continent (6), the high-toned little journal survived only until 1884. For the next two years Metcalfe wrote editorials for The Buffalo Express, and in 1886 he assumed the editorship of People's Saturday Evening Pictorial Press, a short-lived magazine of current events.

All of these inconstant pursuits were but preliminary to Metcalfe's life work, which revolved around the New York stage. Beginning in 1889 he became the drama critic for Life, a popular illustrated weekly magazine of humor, short stories, and reviews published in New York. He occupied this position for the next thirty-one years, wielding a sharp-edged pen. "He belonged to that old school of personal journalism," wrote The New York Times, "the representatives of which call names and speak their minds as individuals" (7).

On more than one occasion his strong remarks provoked law suits from outraged actors and producers. When Life folded in 1920, Metcalfe continued his stormy career as a "theatrical crusader," first with Judge magazine and then, in 1923, with The Wall Street Journal. In addition to writing reviews of plays, Metcalfe authored several books, ran as a Democratic candidate (unsuccessfully) for the New York State Assembly in 1903, and, in 1919, was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for his work on behalf of French war orphans. In 1915 he established the Metcalfe Prize at Yale for the best essay written on the theatre. Metcalfe died at his home on West 67th Street on May 26, 1927, survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Tyree, a popular actress at the turn of the century.

McKim, Mead and White

When James Metcalfe moved to New York to take up his literary career, he left behind in Buffalo an impressive dwelling on North Street that he and his mother built with money from the estate of his father, who had died in 1879.

According to the account books of McKim, Mead and White in the New York Historical Society, the Metcalfe house was commissioned in July 1882 and completed in 1884. In that time of financial recession, the cost of constructing such a substantial stone and brick house was a mere $23,464, nearly a third of which represented interior finish.

The land on which the house stood was part of the purchase the elder Metcalfe had made from Aaron Rumsey in 1871 (8). At the time the house was erected, North Street defined the northern limit of the city and was more a suburban lane than a city thoroughfare. During the 1890's. it assumed the character of a tree-lined residential street of fine homes, a tributary of Delaware Avenue. It continued to be regarded as a fashionable address until the 1920's.

Although one cannot say with certainty how Metcalfe came to engage McKim, Mead and White to design the house, one can assume that his sister Frances played a role in the decision. She was acquainted with the members of the firm, especially Stanford White, who the Real Estate and Builders' Monthly reported, was responsible for the design (9). She could have recommended them to her brother.

Whatever the origin of the commission, the choice of McKim, Mead and White showed foresight. In 1882 the firm did not yet enjoy the wide reputation it acquired in the following decade. The three partners had only formed their professional relationship in 1878, although they had known each other for some time. Earlier in the 1870's, both McKim and White had been draftsmen for "the Great Mogul," as White called their mentor H. H. Richardson.

In the summer of 1877 all three young men had made a "pilgrimage" to Salem and other seaboard New England towns in search of surviving examples of pre-Revolutionary houses, an event that may be said to mark the revival of interest in American colonial architecture (10).

By the summer of 1882, when the Metcalfe house was commissioned, the trio had already designed a number of suburban houses based upon their romantic perception of America's native architecture, a characteristic feature of which seemed to them to have been the use of shingles to cover exterior walls. When in 1895 Russell Sturgis published an extended article reviewing their accomplishments up to that time, he singled out the Metcalfe house as an example of "the less academical and more spontaneous . . . picturesque country buildings" which the firm had designed (11).

By that time, McKim, Mead and White had abandoned this line of domestic architecture and gone over to the authoritative Neo-Classicism inspired by Roman and Renaissance examples. It is this style for which they are most remembered and which is typified by the two houses for the Williams brothers at North and Delaware, the company's Delaware North Building (also formerly known as Butler Hall) at 672 Delaware and the Niagara Trading Company building (the former Charles Williams house of 1895-96) at 690 Delaware.

When McKim, Mead and White began to practice, the Queen Anne style held sway in the field of domestic architecture. Imported from England, where the name signified the revival of the homegrown architecture of the early eighteenth century when Renaissance ideas collided with lingering medieval tradition, the style gave designers broad license to choose equally from Classical and Gothic precedent and to combine disparate elements unconstrained by rule.

Although McKim, Mead and White surely appreciated the picturesqueness and freedom of Queen Anne ÷ which H.H. Richardson had introduced to America in 1874 with his Watts-Sherman house in Newport ÷ they were reluctant to adopt it wholesale. Instead, they turned to America's own unpretentious early eighteenth century heritage, drawing inspiration from the simpler native vernacular.

The Metcalfe House

When an illustration of the Metcalfe house appeared in the Real Estate and Builders' Monthly for January 1886, the accompanying description called it "somewhat conventionalized 'early colonial' " (12).

In its exterior design one can discern elements borrowed from pre-Georgian American homes. The steeply pitched gabled roof projecting beyond the walls, the shingles covering the gables and the curved bay on the east side of the building, the coved facade cornice, and the asymmetry of the arrangement of the isolated openings all harked back to that earlier period. Yet, the ample proportions, plate glass panes, deep verandah or "piazza" on the front, the mixture of stone and brick for the walls, and the provision of a separate service wing at the rear of the house (Figure 2) were expressions of nineteenth-century usage.

Poorly maintained for a long period, the exterior of the Metcalfe house, in its final stage, was a sad reflection of its former self. "It is substantial and plain almost to homeliness" remarked the Real Estate and Builders' Monthly of the outward appearance of the house, and these were admirable traits that suggested the time when colonial craftsmen thought more of "use, comfort, and solidity" than they did of ornament, the stock-in-trade of Gilded Age design.

In contrast to the flamboyance of the High Victorian Gothic and Second Empire styles of the 1870's, the design of the Metcalfe house offered plain surfaces and an autumnal combination of colors limited to the undisguised shades of red sandstone and salmon brick in the walls and terra-cotta tile shingles in the gables and roof. To nineteenth-century eyes conditioned to associating ideas with architectural style, the unpretentiousness of the exterior spoke of virtuous home life within.


The interior, which the Real Estate and Builders' Monthly labeled "the chief excellence" of the house, was designed to recall past beauty and to accommodate present requirements. Fireplaces formed the focal point of each room and "ceilings were purposely made low ÷ 9/2 feet on the first floor and 9 feet on the second ÷ on the triple score of saving heat, furnishings and care." Thus, the interior addressed the practical necessities of comfort by returning to the low ceiling heights and small room sizes that had characterized colonial houses.

One entered the Metcalfe house through a porch and vestibule beneath the stone archway at the left side of the facade, where a flight of steps gave access to the polygonal piazza (Figure 2). An oval opening in the west wall, which one can see through the entrance arch in the photograph Sturgis published in 1895 (Figure 1), lighted the porch.

The vestibule, with a small rectangular window, opened into the staircase hall where to the left stood a fireplace flanked by built-in benches ÷ an ensemble called an inglenook in Victorian parlance ÷ and beyond the staircase on the west side of the house was the parlor.

To the right of the entrance, one entered the square library, which communicated with the oblong dining room through double sliding doors.

The service wing, containing the kitchen and butler's pantry, extended the plan behind the parlor and dining room. A utility shed opened off the kitchen and a porte cochere, supported by columns and screened with lattice-work, stood out from the south side of the house near the back where there was a secondary entrance into the butler's pantry.

Although the oak and cherry woodwork of the first floor, which the Real Estate and Builders 'Monthly praised as "very tastefully carved from the designs of the architects," was in excellent condition at the time of demolition, the rooms showed evidence of having been altered,a fact that raises questions concerning the building history of the house. The library, for example, was described by George William Sheldon in his Artistic County Seats (1887) as having

. . . above the high base-board . . . open book shelves, with a molded cornice and light balustrade.... A cupboard with glass doors÷between which is a recessed niche÷opens at the left of the door leading into the dining room, and is designed as a part of the book shelves, while to the left of the doors leading into the hall is a window overlooking the lawn, one side of it showing a picture framed with beveled mirrors and woodwork, so as to give the effect of a double window. (13)

Sadly none of these features existed in 1980. The handsome corner mantelpiece and the gracious bay window with built-in seats, however, remained as Sheldon described them, and even in photographs bare of books and furnishings they evoke the former charm of this inviting room, which was so sympathetically designed for the quiet pleasure of reading (Figure 3).

The dining room, with woodwork recalling the Federal period, was more intact (Figure 4). Missing, however, were the "hand painted decoration of leaf and flower" patterns on the walls and the built-in sideboard in the center of the rear wall, features spoken of by Sheldon. The sideboard, which he described as having doors with carved panels and octagonal shelves "supported on turned and carved spindles," must have resembled the type of quaint buffet that the firm designed for dining rooms in other houses, such as the Tilton house in Newport of 1881 (Figure 5).

The most thoroughgoing alterations of the interior affected the parlor and staircase hall. The parlor, according to Sheldon's description, originally bore silk panels on the walls in a color scheme of white and gold. The later appearance of this room was quite different. for all walls and the ceiling were paneled in darkly stained oak. Furthermore, the interior wall had been removed, obliterating the passageway labeled "Back Hall" on the plan (Figure 2) and extending the width of the parlor to the dining room wall.

The area of the staircase hall had undergone a similar expansion. However. the walls and ceiling of the hall were from the first sheathed in quartered oak. They furnished the pattern followed in the remodeling of the parlor, as well as of the hall itself. The original entrance wall, sheltered behind the porch, was removed, and the room extended to the arch in the plane of the facade. This change, which added some five feet to the length of the hall, did away with the inglenook and vestibule and brought the oval porch window inside the house (Figure 6). (The bench beneath the staircase was also removed.) The door was placed where the small vestibule window had been and where it opened directly into the enlarged staircase hall. All of the woodwork added at this time conformed perfectly with the earlier hall paneling and may have included elements from the vestibule and old interior wall (14). The original front door was also probably re-used, and one is tempted to identify the small stained glass panes found in a room later added above the porte cochere with the glass that must have filled the former vestibule window. Colored glass was customary for such openings, as the view of the vestibule of the firm's Victor Newcomb house in Elberon, New Jersey, of 1880 shows (Figure 7).

It is apparent from the alterations to the parlor and hall that either the Metcalfes or a subsequent owner found the spaces as originally designed too constricting and desired more ample proportions for the downstairs rooms (15). The high quality and sympathetic character of the alterations strongly suggest that McKim, Mead and White themselves were called back to take charge of the work.

In addition to the internal changes, a number of exterior modifications were carried out between the publication of the house by Sturgis in 1895 (Figure 1) and the printing of a post card view dating from between 1896 and 1909 (16). By that time the piazza extended across the entire width of the front of the house, a large room occupied the space above the porte cochere, and the circular window (lighting a bathroom) in the second floor was replaced by a rectangular opening. All of these changes, which were still in existence at the time of demolition, are visible in the post card view and may have been ordered, together with the interior alterations, by Edwin Thomas, the man who purchased the house from the Metcalfes in 1905d7

In both its original and altered form, the staircase hall was the most arresting area of the interior. Identified with the English Queen Anne style, the hall, which was also thought to have been part of colonial domestic design, was meant to occupy a special place in the life of the house. "In our climate and with our social ways of summer-living," wrote Mrs. Van Rensselaer, "we absolutely require just what it can give us ÷ a room which in its uses shall stand midway between the piazzas on the one hand and the drawing-room and libraries on the other; perfectly comfortable to live in when the hour means idleness, easy of access from all points outside and in, largely open to breeze and view, yet with generous hearthstone where we may find a rallying-point in days of cold and rain, in short, a spacious yet cozy and informal lounging-place for times when we cannot lounge on our beloved piazzas." She particularly commended McKim, Mead and White for their special talent in designing these idling spaces, which presented the character "very plainly to the eyes of a hall and not a room . . . well-preserved in plan, in features, and in decoration" (18).

The carved and turned decoration of the hall of the Metcalfe house was the richest anywhere in the interior (Figure 8). Around the architrave uniting the hall and parlor, round, square, and diamond-shaped ornaments alternated in sunken relief. These were of a type that appeared in other McKim, Mead and White houses of the period and which possibly had a Japanese origin, as did the lattice-work pattern on the staircase. The general character of the decoration, however, was Italian Renaissance, especially in the beautiful niches flanking the mirror above the fireplace and in the turned baluster-work screening the staircase, a delicate touch that allowed light to enter the inglenook from the stairs and at the same time provided a subtle sense of openness to that otherwise inward-turning space (Figure 8). The richly carved frieze above the fireplace mirror displayed a panel of interlaced squares and circles.

By a stroke of good fortune, the superb woodwork of the principal interiors survived in excellent condition, despite the fact that for many years the building served as a boarding house. All was carefully removed before demolition and donated to institutions in New York and Buffalo, the two cities in which the Metcalfes centered their lives.

The paneled hall and parlor, together with the staircase with its large leaded glass landing window, were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they will be reconstructed in the new American wing.

The dining room and library went to Buffalo State College, where they will be reinstalled in Rockwell Hall, or another suitable location, and several large mantel pieces from the second floor bedrooms were donated to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. In consequence of these wise arrangements, significant fragments of America's architectural heritage were rescued from the wrecker's ball and will endure for future generations to admire.

A number of people deserve my thanks for aid in the preparation of this article. They include: Austin Fox, Fred Houston, Dan Reiff, Bill Shelgren, Donald Theurer, and Richard Guy Wilson. - Francis R. Kowsky

Footnotes are excluded.

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