McKelvy House

In addition to his public architecture, H.H. Richardson pioneered the design of domestic architecture. Several large homes that he built, such as the Watts Sherman House (1874-76, Newport, Rhode Island), combined the grandeur of European castles with native American rusticity. This mode of architecture was adopted in the 1880s by McKim, Meade and White, which became the most prominent architectural firm of the generation immediately after Richardson. Charles McKim had worked briefly as a draftsman with Richardson’s firm; Stanford White was associated with Richardson for six years as chief assistant and interior designer on several major projects, including the Watts Sherman House.

In the hand of McKim, Meade and White, the style (later known as “Stick and Shingle” because of its prominent use of rustic half timbers and shingles) was the most popular architectural mode for the country homes of late-19th century industrial leaders. McKelvy House, originally the John Eyerman residence, was built by McKim, Meade and White in 1888 on High Street overlooking the Delaware River. It was given to Lafayette by the heirs of Trustee Francis G. McKelvy in 1960, and is one of the college’s finest pieces of architecture.

McKelvy House is home to the prestigious College Scholars Society, a group of students nominated by the faculty to participate in a common social and intellectual experience. The students live at McKelvy House and, with the aid of a faculty advisor, organize weekly discussions on topics of common interest.

McKelvy House exemplifies Stick and Shingle architecture. Its overwhelming scale is belied by its asymmetrical design and by its varied use of materials–dark and light granite, shingles, and slate. The granite is deliberately uneven to give the house an earthy and homemade feeling, like a Yankee stone wall. The shingle skin also provides an organic texture and looks back to America’s earliest architecture, which was often covered with shingles because of the plentiful wood supply in the Colonies. In fact, the whole building–including its materials, seemingly unbalanced design and prominence of its chimneys–makes deliberate reference to its humble predecessors in Colonial America.

The design of McKelvy House is meant to seem casual. The clarity of the L-shaped plan with a central entrance at the junction of the “L” is hidden by a cross-gable to one side and a tower to the other. The cross-gable is reminiscent of similar additions to Colonial architecture but on a much enlarged scale, while the tower recalls the corner turrets of English and French castles, admired by White in European travels. American and European ruralism, as well as democratic and autocratic ideals, is present. The carefully contrived variety of windows–arched, rectangular and dormer types, vertical and horizontal configurations, single and multiple units–is a study in design inventiveness.

The east side of McKelvy House, facing the Delaware River and originally overlooking extensive formal gardens, is no less interesting. There the rectilinear design of the building is relieved by the projecting round library on one end and the circular pavilion of the porch on the other. Both of these shapes, of course, remind us of the entrance tower. The extensive porch that dominates this facade has its own history. It begins with the porches in Southern Colonial architecture, which Richardson experienced as a child in Louisiana.

Richardson, as well as McKim, Meade and White, subsequently incorporated much grander porches in seaside and country houses and elegantly renamed them verandas or piazzas. Symbolically as well as practically, these verandas provide a sheltered environment from which to view the landscape; they tell of a dual desire to participate in nature and to order it. They are a source for the American fascination with porches and, more recently, sun-decks on our suburban houses, an interest not found to this degree in Northern European architecture.

The L-shaped plan of McKelvy House was also used extensively by Richardson and by McKim, Meade and White in their country mansions. It probably derived from the detached summer kitchens common in Southern architecture. Houses were separated into two areas–the service wing, containing kitchen, pantry and servants’ quarters, and the served section, which included entrance hall, sitting (living) room, drawing room and library. This very practical division was later incorporated in the “Prairie” houses by our greatest American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The interior spaces of McKelvy on its main floor feature large rooms fanning off the spacious main hall. Although each room has its own social function, the spaces are fluid and easily penetrated through large doorways. This spacial interconnectedness was less formal than the dark sequestered rooms of prevailing Victorian homes, and partly reflects Stanford White’s interest in the spatial fluidity of Japanese architecture. The interior is filled with fine carved woodwork, especially in the entrance hall. Although this ornament now seems lavish, it is actually restrained by the standards of its day. A dominant feature of the house is its large fireplaces, five on the main floor and six altogether. These fireplaces aggrandize another early American ideal–the family gathered around the hearth for comfort and protection.

McKelvy House and other fine examples of the Stick and Shingle style embody the aspirations of the industrial magnates at the turn of the century. They desired grand dwellings that reflected their status. At the same time they wanted to seem less formal than the preceding generation. In nature they sought refuge from the industrial environment they had built, and at home they attempted to recreate some of the simple values of America’s Colonial past.

From another point of view, McKelvy looks to the future. Essential aspects of the Stick and Shingle style–organic materials, open horizontal design, spatial fluidity, centrality of the hearth–were incorporated in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. In turn, Wright’s ideas, if not his designs, proliferated in the ranch houses that have dominated suburban building in America. The upper class’s dream of civilized nature became the middle class’s dream at mid-century. More recently, specific references to Stick and Shingle have appeared in the Post Modern architecture of Robert A. M. Stern, Robert Venturi, Charles Moore and others. Because of its fine design and historical connectedness, as well as its service to the College Scholars Society, McKelvy House deserves more attention from the college community than it currently receives.

From “Lafayette College Architecture: In Context” by Robert Saltonstall Mattison. Easton, PA: Friends of Skillman Library, 1991.