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Hancock House, an icon of colonial architecture

The Ticonderoga Historical Society for the last forty years has made the Hancock House, located at the Moses Circle, Ticonderoga, NY its home.  Over those years one of the many recurring questions about the Society and the House ~  why here in Ticonderoga and how did the Society become its steward.  Depending on the particular occasion the answer may have been stated with a brief overview, or in more detail if given as a formal presentation – say on the history of the building.   In just a week’s time the Society will be celebrating the Hancock House’s  90th anniversary of its dedication here in Ticonderoga.  So, to answer this question for those not familiar with its origins; or,  as a “refresher” to others, we offer:

Our Hancock House is an enduring icon of historic preservation.  With its construction beginning in 1925  it has been a reminder of  its Georgian architectural heritage in  America since the original Boston Manor was begun in 1736, making it prototypical in historical preservation.

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The House

From an architectural standpoint, the Hancock House is the most splendid of the mansions of Colonial New England.  Until the building of the Boston Manor,  the finest example of this sort of residence were the old planation houses in the south, where the owners were men of wealth and did not have to scrimp on their homes and their style of architecture was well adapted to southern colonial lifestyle.  Unlike the south, the colonial architecture of the north reflected the severe taste resulting from the need for economy and an outgrowth of Puritan poverty and simplicity.  The Hancock House was the exception to the rule and was probably the most architecturally advanced house of its time in the colonies.

Thomas Hancock, the original builder and owner,  had obviously given every aspect of his house’s construction considerable thought.  At the time he was planning the his Manor House Boston  was the largest city in America; however, the Beacon Street area was undeveloped, it was in fact considered to be “way out in the country.”  He must have had the intuition that this area would develop and chose a location with a beautiful view of the town, the harbor and surrounding countryside.

Construction began in 1736 and the house was first occupied in 1741. The floor plan was typical of a mid-century floorplans with the staircase hall bisecting the building front to back for the first two floors.  The central block of the house was a rectangle 56 feet wide and 38 feet deep.  (Later flanking wings were constructed.)  The walls were of squared granite ashlar from Medford.  The Medford granite was chosen for it’s quality of creating an illusion of changing color tones with different atmospheric conditions and weather, sometimes green, rose, or a deep warm gray.  The granite was enhanced with details of Connecticut sandstone (brownstone) the very same sandstone that many years later formed the famous brownstone fronts of the houses in our eastern cities.

It was however the interior details that gave the house a pronounced elegance.  Many of the parts were imported from England, the caps of the four pilasters, glass for the windows, wallpaper, Dutch tiles and many of the furnishings.  The Colonial stairway with double twisted balusters of different patterns on each step was the first of its kind and first seen in the Hancock Manor.

(“In the great entry were displayed landscapes, prints and portraits.  the work of American artists as well as foreigners was represented.  Paintings by Badger, Smibert and Copely, Bostonians and near neighbors of the Hancocks, hung on the walls.” )

The House was located on one of several leveled hills of Boston’s heights (Beacon) on  a five-acre plot.  It is belived that Thomas Hancock consulted with John James, a well-known architect, who published books on the theory and practice of gardening.  One of the ealiest flower garden references of 1736 concerns Thomas’ plans for flower gardens in a letter to a London nurseryman.  He created an orchard filled with choice fruit trees, terraced gardens and through his import/export business ordered peacocks, squirrels, birds, fruits and flowers.  And wrote –“Neither do I intend to spare any cost or pains in making my gardens beautiful.”  (Gardens during this era were referred to as “Gardens of Pleasure.”)

Colonial Craftsmen

The Hancock House’s status as a national architectural icon can also be attributed to, and stands as a great monument to the “Colonial Housewrights.”   The attention to detail is responsible for the house being dubbed “The Wonder House.” The house’s exterior demonstrated architectural features such as a double  pitched gambrel roof with carved modillions at the cornice, scroll pediment, ornate engaged columns and ornamental door head with an elaborate balcony.  The sandstone was cut at Middletown, Connecticut, a small town on the Connecticut river.  Word spread about the stone work for the wonder house, and drew a lot of attention because works of such an ornate fashion had never been seen in this region.  After the construction of the Hancock Manor interest in the Middletown sandstone escalated and regional master carpenters translated the stonework of the Hancock Manor into wood.  It serves as an example of how colonial craftsmen took old world styles and adapted them to local living conditions and surroundings, creating a style of their own.

Publicity Associated with Famed Owner

The Hancock Manor was more than just a building, it was a home.  It has secured it’s place in historic preservation with it’s association to it’s residents.   The completed house was as distinguished as its owner.  It was ideal for “The exercise of hospitality and the enjoyment of home life.”  It’s building and extravagance, being the center of social gaieties in Boston.  Thomas Hancock was a member of a group of men who were in the mainstream of commercial success of the busy Boston Seaport.  As merchants, these men were sophisticated and wealthy, and their business with Europe, as well as the other colonies, made them aware of new ideas and fashions.  This new and rising class of Americans introduced new ideas on lifestyles.  While it was Thomas Hancock’s vision of a new architectural ideology that created the house, it was his nephew John’s residence that the house received notoriety.  Thomas’s financial success allowed him to promote his nephew politically.  Following Thomas’ death in 1764 the property was inherited by his nephew John Hancock, who became the richest man in New England, president of the Continental Congress, first signer of the Declaration of Independence and first governor of Massachusetts.

Demolition Controversy

John died in 1793, in 1795 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased the pasture just to the east and by 1863 the estate had fallen into hard times with taxes on the remaining property due.  Plans were being made to extend Hancock Street south to Cambridge Street to Beacon, directly through the site of the Hancock House.  One of the first great battles of the historic preservation movement was over the demolition of the Manor House on Beacon Street  in 1863.  Public attention was divided between the Civil War and battles in the State Legislature.  The legislature refused to buy the Manor and restore it for use as the Governor’s Mansion.  On June 26, 1863 at 4 PM the interior details and stone were auctioned.  When demolition seemed inescapable, Arthur Gilman, one of the most important architects in Boston suggested that measured drawings be made of the one hundred and twenty six year old mansion.

While the battle to save the Manor from destruction was lost, the resulting measured drawings by Sturgis, made in the face of controversy, launched this country’s historical preservation movement.

Sturgis’s Measured Drawings

Sturgis’s measured drawings and their utilaztion in his architectural design and work have all combined to draw continual attention to the house’s design.

The measured drawings that Sturgis made of the Hancock Manor are the first known set of measured drawings to have been made of an American House.  There were seven known drawings made just prior to the house’s demolition by John Hubbard Sturgis.  It is possible that these drawings may have been part of a larger series.  These drawings consisted of plans for all four elevations and the full ground and chamber floor plans, all scaled 1/4″ to a foot.  There is a final drawing of the house’s interior, which features the details of the staircase and hall window.

Sturgis had been trained in England and was a pupil of one of  England’s finest draughtsman, James K. Colling, who had published a book on measured drawings.  Interest in England’s historic architecture steadily grew and later in 1876 William Morris founded the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings in England.  Sturgis returned to Boston in 1861 and brought with him theory, design and specific elements of building from England, as well as his interest in historic preservation.  His measured drawings can be said to have influenced the course of design for new construction in the first quarter-century after the demolition of the mansion.   By 1888, the year of Sturgis’s death the movement of influence of the Hancock Manor accelerated and by the end of the 19th century it had become an institution, copied over and over again as a model for both houses and public buildings.

Architectural measured drawings are the primary documentary tools of the Historic American Building Survey, established in 1933.  It has been suggested that measured drawings should be called measuring drawings, because they are created after the fact of the edifice.  A measuring drawing is drawn to scale from an existing structure and requires a complex set of calculations and attention to detail.  The demolition controversy and the historical importance of the structure provided the impetus for creating the measured drawings of the Hancock House here in Ticonderoga.  It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that a new conscience arose for the importance of Colonial structure.  This change in consciousness was indicated in the number of architects who traveled up and down the east coast sketching Colonial buildings as well as the number of books published on Colonial architecture.

The Hancock Manor was first copied a year or two after its erection in the Colonial House at Newport, Rhode Island.  In 1893, using the measured drawings of Sturgis, Peabody’s Massachusetts State Building at the World’s Colombian Expostion in Chicago was constructed, and became the archetype of Colonial Revival design in the late ninetieth century.  Peabody stated his affinity for colonial design in an article for American Architecture and Building News, “There is no revival so little of an affection on our soil, as that of the beautiful work of Colonial days.  It’s quiet dignity and quainteness, its coziness and elegance, always attract us.  It is our legitimate field of our imagination and we have much of it to study right in our own neighborhood. ”  He chose the Hancock Manor as a mdoel because “the valuable quality in the design of the original Manor was the air of aristocratic distinction and reserve and dignity that it bore without losing a homelike and comfortable appearance.”  The Hancock Manor moved from its role, as a model for houses to a symbolic structure considered also appropriate for public buildings.

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1863 Auction Poster


Public Auction and Distribution of Artifacts

The public auction of the Hancock House detailing also served to promote the “Hancock House” legacy.  Bits and pieces of the stonework and interior details were purchased at the Auction in 1863 and scattered across the country.

Sturgis bought the staircase and it remained in storage until 1866.  He may have also purchased the twelve stone steps and stored them at the same place, a stone mason’s shop in Boston.  The steps became apart of “Pine Bank” in Jamaica Plain in 1869.  The staircase was badly cut up and reversed in run in order to fit in an existing space for a great house at Manchester-by-the-Sea.  Balusters from the stairs and roof and two carved capitals are in the Essex Institute in Salem, a modillion from the cornice is at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the front door is housed at the Bostonian Society, the balcony at the John Hancock Insurance Company as well as many other elements.  These elements are legacies to the most important stone house in New England.  The artifacts remain long after the destruction of the house, reminding us of the importance of historic preservation.