Turn of the
20th Century Photo
Robbins Hunter, Jr.
Built the house
Moved to New York
Dr. Sylvester Spelman
General Practioner for
Granville and environs
and second owner
of the Avery Downer House
Ionic Order from
Temple of Illisus
||The Story of this Historic House
The Avery Downer House/Robbins Hunter Museum is an historic house museum furnished
with 18th and 19th century decorative arts acquired by the original owners as well as
collectors tied to the house over its long history. It was completed in 1842, with additions in 1875, 1930,
and finally during Robbins Hunter's occupancy from 1956-1979. The house has 27
rooms, sixteen of which are open to the public.
A private residence until 1903, the house was owned successively by the Avery, Spelman, and
Downer families. From 1903 to 1930, the house served as the home of Denison University's Phi
Gamma Delta Fraternity, and from 1930 until 1956 it was home to the Kappa Sigma Fraternity.
From 1956 until 1979, Robbins Hunter, Jr. made his home here. He had long harbored a dream
of preserving the Avery Downer House as a museum, and during his 23 years of ownership, he
painstakingly collected antiques worthy of furnishing the interior. Opened as a museum in August
of 1981 under the provisions of his will, the building has undergone extensive restoration and
rehabilitation; revealing the beauty of this important Grecian landmark.
Robbins Hunter, Jr.
Hunter was born in Newark, Ohio, a once-thriving commercial center east of Columbus. The
Hunter family had settled in Newark long before the Civil War, engaging in the practice of law an
business. His father and grandfather were jurists, and his mother, Daisy Burner, was a noted
hostess and gourmet cook.
"Bobby" Hunter, as he was known to his friends, began to study and collect antiques in his early
teens. Upon his graduation from high school in 1922, his love for antiques had become so great
that he decided his hobby should become his profession. As one of Ohio's early antiquarians, he
collected and traded over a wide area, coming into contact with noted scholar I.T. Frary and
Henry Ford for whom he located many antiques for the Greenfield Village Collection.
Hunter's interest in the Avery Downer House dates back to his early years, absorbing stories
from his father who was a Denison University student and a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.
These fraternity gentlemen met on the third floor of the very old Warner Hotel directly across from
Avery Downer House. As an alumnus, his father would have contributed toward the $6,000 cost
of purchasing the house for the fraternity in 1903. In those days, fraternity obligations were taken
seriously. Although not a university man, Robbins Hunter, Jr. made a name for himself as a noted
historian and antiquarian. During his career he was the prime influence in arranging the moves of
the Davidson, Buckingham and King houses to 6th Street in Newark and also in securing the
Webb House on Granville Street. Robbins loved his Licking County and its historic houses.
Displayed in the museum are 18th and 19th century American and English furniture including
an 1809 New York Sheraton sofa, paintings, musical instruments, clocks, silver, china, and
bronze & crystal chandeliers. Many outstanding examples of Ohio craftsmanship can be found
in the collection.
The only monument in the United States to Victoria Woodhull is located on the west wall of
the museum. Woodhull, born in Homer, Ohio, was the first woman to own a newspaper,
the first woman to own a stock brokerage, and the first woman to address Congress. She
was the first woman to run for President of the United States against Ulysses S. Grant in
the election of 1872, with an African American running mate, Frederick Douglass.
In 1838, Alfred Avery, an original settler to Granville, Ohio and a successful
businessman with widespread financial interests, began construction on this
house for his family. For his architectural design he chose the classical Greek
Revival or Grecian style which he had grown to love in the architecture of St.
Luke's Episcopal Church by Minard Lafever just down the street. He chose the
same builder, Benjamin Morgan, to construct his own house. The Avery home
was an impressive tour de force facing Broadway with the temple front and three
formal parlors facing the street along with a living area and bed chambers.
During the period from 1873 to 1875, the Downer family raised the roof on the back
extension to allow the construction of a second floor behind the temple. They also
added two gables -east and west- to the roof line giving it a decidedly vernacular Gothic
The architect of the house, Minard Lafever of New York, published a series of pattern
books on architecture and good construction in the 1830's which were being utilized at
St. Luke's. Lafever's book, The Modern Builder's Guide, published in 1833 was a great
source for the Avery house as well. In addition, it is becoming clear with modern
measured drawings that the pattern books of Asher Benjamin, another early American
architect and builder in New England, were equally utilized on the interior of the house.
The builder Benjamin Morgan was a master builder with some training and education
in architecture. Following Lafever's "Design for a Country Villa" on the opening pages
of his pattern book, Morgan assembled a masterpiece of Grecian invention and rule.
The seamless integration of Ionic temple, Doric wings, and Corinthian frontispiece is
brilliant and so well proportioned, that this house takes pride of place in not a few
publications of world architecture and classical design. Morgan had organized an
impressive group of craftsmen, many of whom most likely had completed St. Luke's,
and finished the Alfred Avery House by 1842.
Avery's "temple" was constructed using timbers as thick as 14 inches square; some
being as long as 42 feet. The portico two-story columns were carved out of solid black
walnut and carefully fluted by hand and horse-drawn planes. Also carved out of wood
were hidden gutters which were integral to the Doric and Ionic entablatures. Morgan
used each corner column for a downspout, hollowing 4 inches inside from top to bottom.
The interior is embellished with extensive plaster ceiling medallions and wood moldings
from the Grecian pattern books. The Foyer contains walnut woodwork with dogwood blossom
carvings. Throughout the house, from the solid walnut columns to the carefully crafted
interior woodwork and plaster details, the Avery Downer House stands as a monument
to early nineteenth century craftsmanship and intellect. It can only be truly appreciated
by visiting and patiently examining its many impressive attributes.
The Grecian Movement
The Grecian Movement, at its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, was a continuation
of the classical language which had accumulated many variations or "dialects" over the
long centuries since the rise of Periclean Athens. The road that Grecian architecture
traveled to arrive in the United States and Granville is one which helps us understand
the nature and importance of our inherited classical civilization.
When ancient Greek architecture was measured, delineated and published for the
first time in the middle of the 18th century, it opened a new chapter in classical
architecture. James 'Athenian' Stuart and Nicholas Revett, members of the
Dilettanti Society in England, set out on an adventure in 1751 to precisely record
for posterity those antiquities. The first volume of their Antiquities of Athens was
published in 1762 and the results were almost immediate. A new era of
magnificent Grecian structures throughout Europe and America was begun. Its
nineteenth-century permeation of America made it our first truly national
architecture. Examples include the US Capitol by Benjamin Latrobe, the
Tennessee State Capitol by William Strickland, plantations in Natchez,
Mississippi and courthouses and stately homes from Maine to Oregon.
Easily recognizable, these buildings are classicallyproportioned, frequently
temple-like in form, and contain detailing based directly on their ancient Greek
predecessors. In this tradition we find the Avery Downer House.
Benjamin Morgan built the Avery Downer House primarily from the Grecian pattern
books of New York architect Minard Lafever (1798-1854). Lafever published several books
including The Modern Builder's Guide (1833) and The Beauties of Modern
Architecture (1835) detailing the antiquities of Greece and including his own
designs for country houses. The temple form for the Avery Downer House is from
the elevation on plate 75 in The Modern Builder's Guide. The temple portico is
drawn from the Temple of Illisus found on plates 46-47. The side porticoes are
based on the Doric Temple of Hephaestos in Athens. The entry portico is from
the Tower of the Winds in Athens, and the exterior pilasters, interior scrolls, and
plaster ceiling rosettes are also found in Lafever's pattern books. In addition to
the details, the general proportions, quality of woodwork, and the solidity of framing
and foundation make the Alfred Avery House one of the best examples of how
an educated craftsman could build a refined home based on pattern books and
Rooted in a classical Palladian milieu established in the early American Republic,
and emulating the "Beauties" of ancient Athens, the Avery Downer House
expresses the essence of American classical architecture.