“An architectural comparison between antebellum buildings with Masonic ties.”
– Written for R&R by guest contributor and historic preservationist, Mr. Shawn Beckwith.
Recently I had the opportunity to perform a field assessment of a property in Sudbury, Vermont. This building, as I started to closely look at various components on my brief half day inspection, had several striking similarities to the Bratton’s Brick House at Historic Brattonsville. The two structures are approximately a thousand miles apart. Historic Brattonsville is a site restoration in York Co., S.C., yet it was hard not to link the architectural – construction details of these two east coast buildings.
The Sudbury Vermont building (Vail House), a brick Federal style, was built in 1826 and the Bratton’s Brick House a very similar brick Federal structure was constructed in 1843 as a store and social hall. I couldn’t shake the clearly defined components linking the two buildings. So, what are they?
Both buildings have:
- Masonry penciling to define the brickwork.
- Highly stylized facades of the classical order.
- Decorative fireplace mantels with unique symbolism.
- Constructed on colonial roads.
- Second floor rooms partitioned with doors that open to create great assembly halls.
Now, these observations are the ”off the cuff” similarities of their architectural elements. The VT building, Vail House was a gathering place in which the local residents rioted, due to its affiliation with the Masonic order. Likewise, the Bratton’s brick house was also rioted by the local African – America free militia, in part, due to its affiliation with keeping law and order. This was also in part due to it’s leadership being affiliated with the Masonic rite. As everyone who knows me, is quite aware, I am the “kid in a candy store” when dealing with historic properties. Though not having a scholarly preservation degree, I do have a keen eye of just reporting the observations without having any preconceived notions. This often has me chasing down unmarked rabbit holes and a thesis that leaks like a sieve but generally my enthusiasm creates an interesting dialogue between numerous parties.
ARCHITECTURAL SIGNIFICANCE: In his book Buildings of Vermont, architectural historian Glenn Andres describes Vail House (originally the Ketcham House) as having “some of the finest Federal detailing found in Vermont.” The elegant, brick main house has an intricately carved frontispiece that includes fluted Corinthian-style columns flanking the doors with an unusual taper to cornice and base, a leaded fanlight with an eagle at its center topping the door, and a Palladian window above the
door. Over the fanlight is a marble arch with a keystone inscribed with a Masonic insignia, a reflection of the original owner’s membership in the fraternal organization. The interior contains a curved staircase in the entrance hall that shows the influence of renowned Vermont master builder Thomas R. Dake, who designed numerous buildings, primarily in nearby Castleton. Other notable interior features include finely detailed mantel pieces and wainscots incorporating Masonic symbols, in the North Salon, and a ballroom/Masonic Hall or meeting room on the second floor. The property is listed on the State Register of Historic Places.
The original brick house (the present two-story ell) was built c. 1790 by Revolutionary War veteran Aaron Jackson on the Ticonderoga Branch of the Crown Point Military Road connecting Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, to Fort Ticonderoga, New York. Major Barnard Ketcham, who married Jackson’s daughter Polly in 1815, built the Federal-style brick addition in 1826 when he assumed ownership of the farm. Ketcham, a Sudbury native, was a Vermont militia veteran of the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh and an active Mason, hence the Masonic symbols integrated into the architectural detail. According to Herbert Congdon in his book Old Vermont Houses (1946), Ketcham
designed the two north bedrooms (ballroom) on the second floor with a folding partition so that they could be used for meetings of the Washington Lodge from 1826 until his death in 1851, despite occasionally violent anti-Masonic sentiment in a young Republic suspicious of its secrecy. The Ketcham’s daughter Angeline married a member of the Vail family and the couple resided in the house, passing it down through generations. Angie Vail Walsh, the last family member to live in the house, moved out in 1967 and passed away in 1994.
Read about the historic Brick House at Historic Brattonsville by linking to: Bratton’s Brick House on RootsandRecall.com
The Vail House:
The Brick House:
As previously mentioned something about being a kids and candy…, to an architectural historian these architectural elements with an association to a particular group is no doubt rhythmic. To me it is just another way of pointing to a rabbit hole for someone to write another chapter about the the Bratton’s Brick House and the Masonic connection these two structures clearly share. Some of the casing and rosettes designs are also similar to that in the Bratton’s Homestead’s brick social hall attached to the Homestead House. Could it have been an expression of Dr. John Bratton’s leanings; possibly the brick social hall was also an earlier Masonic meeting space and the Brick House was to be its replacement? We know for sure later, the next Bratton generation, under James Rufus Bratton, M.D., became a much decorated Mason and post Civil War leader in York County.
So, the question remains, what can be done to clarify and better understand the potential for there being a Masonic link between the architectural design and elements of these 19th century houses? We would love to also know if the same type antebellum building plan was used elsewhere.
Shawn Beckwith – Preservation Manager North Region Historic New England
(Mr. Beckwith was for years the Chief Preservationist at Historic Brattonsville. Working closely with S.C. preservation architect, Mr. Martin Meek, he was the guiding voice in researching the Brick House and its restoration. His eye and voice for preservation and calm analysis of historic facts is widely applauded.)
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From the Porch – Blog @ RootsandRecall.com – 1.19.17