Editor’s Note: This article is the second of three articles on the Avery-Downer House and its architecture by William Heyer, Architect
What is so special about the front entry at the Avery-Downer House? And oh, how it is special. Let’s jump into this one! First, we must ask: what is the purpose of entrance? What does that purpose signify?
The front entrance primarily allows an engagement with the world: with friends, relatives, neighbors, police, enemy troops, etc. There is a story about the front entry at Belle Meade plantation outside of Nashville. During the Civil War, the owner, General William Giles Harding, was captured by the Union army and sent to prison in Michigan while Mrs. Elizabeth Harding maintained this stately Grecian mansion. At one point during General Harding’s distant captivity, a Union troop approached the house. Mrs. Harding stepped out of her front entry onto the covered, columned portico with shotgun in hand. She warned the troops not to move an inch closer and then fired a warning shot. She gained the respect she needed from the troops and managed to keep the moral reputation of her family intact, eventually allowing only a field hospital to be set up in the house. The front entry is where we engage civilization beyond our family in peace and war.
Since ancient times, the entrance to houses, temples, mausoleums, and civic buildings have symbolized an engagement with the world, the cosmos, the other side of death, the body politic. “Crossing over” has intense meaning for us. It is a transformation in one way or another, a progression into the future, a conversion, a symbol of freedom or welcome, and a way forward to things previously unknown and unseen. The great pylons of ancient Egypt were the gateway to the netherworld and the eternal memory of the pharaoh. The propylaea of Hellenistic Greece were gateways to the precinct of the gods, a symbolic threshold to the divine world. Tombs, government buildings, houses all carried on this symbolism in ways that reflected the timeless beliefs of humanity and its ultimate goals. That is why house entries are so powerful, and so decorated. We welcome the visitor with a symbol of who we are as a family and invite others over a threshold to a world that is not their own.
During the first half of the 19th century, a new emphasis on the front entry was at work. The Grecian movement, through the talent of young architects like James Dakin and James Gallier, produced amazing frontispieces for churches and houses throughout the country. They utilized the classical language through the newly discovered architectural traditions of ancient Greece. James Dakin’s drawings for frontispieces appeared in builder’s guides by Minard Lafever and were disseminated widely revealing a mastery of the classical language that was at once both ancient and new, recognizable for its precedent and exciting for its unique compositions. The frontispiece of the Avery-Downer house is clearly modeled on one of the designs by Dakin but is a unique interpretation of the classical frontispiece.
In 1842 when Alfred Avery was planning and designing his home on East Broadway, he certainly had in mind a timeless and yet personal sense of entry. The frontispiece surrounding the main north door is a masterpiece of Grecian design. It might seem redundant, interestingly, that a temple house should have an especially decorated doorway when it has the power of the Ionic temple speaking so clearly to the public. In reality, the two are quite opposite each other because the Ionic temple projects in an active way to engage the public while the frontispiece seems to fold inwards in a passive and receptive way. They both balance each other with their distinct purposes. One is strong and active, the other is gentle and receptive. This is a brilliant showcase of the refined classical tradition in American architecture.
Morgan and Lafever used the Corinthian order as found at the Tower of the Winds in Athens to celebrate this gentle, welcoming frontispiece. The ancient water clock at the center of Athens was documented by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett in their 1762 landmark publication The Antiquities of Athens, but it was not widely utilized for new designs in the Greek Revival Movement, at least not like the Parthenon or Temple of Athena Nike or Temple on the Illisus. Its unique placement here makes the entry to the Avery-Downer house even more beautiful. The gentle acanthus capitals and shaft fluting, the feminine antae (the side piers that flank the columns), and running palmettes in the frieze, and the soft acanthus tendrils in the transom above the door all welcome the visitor to a wonderful Eden to be enjoyed inside. The garden motif is certainly intentional and likely had personal as well as religious connotations for Avery and his family.
The Grecian Movement is seen today by some architectural critics as the worst kind of architecture—copying ancient monuments blindly to signify a past that is no longer relevant to our world. The enduring beauty of the frontispiece of this house is but one small example of why these critics are so out of touch today with the timelessness and beauty of the human spirit.