One way or another, we all leave an imprint on the land. In an exercise of historical and archeological investigation, Paul Bogaard has researched the homes of the Seaman family in Minudie. But first, a little background: Amos Peck “King” Seaman was born in Wood Creek near Sackville, New Brunswick, on January 14, 1788, the tenth of eleven children of Zena and Nathan Seaman from Swansea, Massachusetts. His grandfather was a sea captain, which is how Amos began an illustrious and lucrative career in the shipping industry. In 1806, older brother Job joined Amos (aged 18) to found the shipping and trading business A. Seaman & Company. Amos applied for his first land grant in Minudie in 1813 and married Jane Metcalf from Maccan in 1814. He built his first house in Minudie in 1818. In 1823, Amos became a tenant of the DesBarres estate and in 1834 purchased the entire estate from the DesBarres family, including grindstone quarries, a shad fishery and 3,000 acres of marshland known as Elysian Fields. It was his great success in the grindstone industry that earned Amos his nickname the “Grindstone King” (hence the name Amos “King” Seaman). Amos built his mansion in 1837. To indicate the magnitude of his wealth and fame, his house was frequently filled with guests from all corners of the world, including Sir Charles Tupper and Joseph Howe, and he was presented at court in 1846. Between 1856 and 1861, four of Amos and Jane’s sons died (Amos Thomas, James, William and Job). Amos Thomas and Job are two sons who built homes in Minudie, discussed here in great detail by Paul Bogaard. The “King” died in 1864 and his house no longer stands. But the remnants of both sons’ homes remain to this day. You can read all about them in this issue thanks to the interest and diligence of Paul Bogaard.
Seaman Houses of Minudie
A Question of Style
by Paul Bogaard
What are we to make of the historic house shown in the photo above? It is still standing, across the Bay in Minudie, Nova Scotia, and there is some controversy right now about whether to save it or tear it down. I wish the local folks well with that difficult decision and glad it is not mine to make. But that was why I was asked to drive around the Bay and have a closer look.1
What I found was quite interesting but in terms of the house’s architectural style, quite puzzling. I want to share some thoughts about these questions of “style”, particularly for houses of this period, and illustrate why they can be difficult to “read”.
The house I was invited to inspect and shown here in Figures 1 and 2 was built for Amos Thomas Seaman, the oldest son of Amos Peck “King” Seaman. King Seaman’s own house is now gone but enough is known about it to make possible some interesting comparisons. More than that, a third house built by another of King Seaman’s sons, is also still standing just down the Barronsfield Road and it provides some additional comparisons.
Anyone interested in the earlier houses in our region usually draws comparisons between examples scattered all about. But here we have three houses, all built by the Seaman family and all within a few miles of each other: one in the 1830s, one in the 1840s and the third in the 1850s. Such a neat package I could not resist and what I want to do here is use these three examples to tease out some features we can all learn to recognize about houses from these decades, as found in our area.2
Architectural history has long focused on grand institutional buildings and mansions of the wealthy. For houses that look like the ones we actually live in, attention has often been given to a whole series of styles usually considered Victorian – roughly covering the period of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) – and that’s at least in part because they are both handsome and easily distinguished (like cars as they appeared each year when I was growing up: they were flashy, and you could nail the very year each was brought out). Once pointed out, we can in a similar way see the differences between Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne Revival, and so on. But the houses built in the decades during which the British resettled our area are often more challenging to distinguish. These earlier styles did not appear (and then largely disappear) in the lock-step way that became typical throughout Victoria’s long reign.
One reason for this shift from slower to quicker changes in style lies hidden within walls and behind cladding. Once steam-driven sawmills using circular saws began turning out large amounts of standard dimensioned lumber, house builders quickly found they could nail together the structure of houses in almost any configuration. Wildly different angles and shapes, projections and towers and with lots of factory-shaped ornaments made possible the whole sequence of Victorian styles. Fashions came in and out of favour. By comparison, in previous decades, houses were primarily hand-hewn and hand-joined. Aided by sawmills with only straight-bladed “reciprocal” saws, house skeletons were invariably heavy timbers joined together without nails. Timbers had to meet at right angles and the result was buildings that were inevitably rectangular boxes. There were, as we shall see, changes in style. But these came more slowly, the differences less dramatic, and there were longer periods of overlap. The Seamans, I’m happy to say, left us some examples that can help us to discern some of the differences. The 1830s through the 1850s are pretty well the final decades of timber frame houses in our area. There are examples to be found on into the 1860s but by then circular saws were doing their work and the results were an amalgam of timber framing and the more flexible use of sawn studs.
So, after these preliminaries, let us take a closer look at that first photo shown in Figure 1. It shows the house built in 1843 by King Seaman’s oldest son, Amos T. Seaman. As I drove up the Barronsfield Road to the big curve at Minudie it seemed to be a large and imposing house. It sits on the top of a rise and much of the stone foundation reaches above ground on the downhill side. So, my expectation was that it would be quite grand. But it is not (I will return to this point). It stands there with a wide two-story front made to look even larger by a hipped roof and two tall chimneys. These are all architectural “tricks” learned over many decades and we can see them even better in his father’s house from the previous decade.
Figure 3 shows Amos “King” Seaman’s house built in the 1830s after he had already created his grindstone empire. He called it his “Grindstone Castle”. Notice that it too has a broad two-storied front atop a stone foundation reaching above the ground level with a hipped roof and tall chimneys. These are all features we would expect of a substantial “Georgian” manor.
Although clad in wood, undoubtedly nailed onto a joined timber frame, we can immediately see how similar this is to the stone houses built by William Crane in Sackville and Edward Chandler in Dorchester (see Figures 4 and 5 below). Less foundation shows in either of these; they each display five bays (count the windows across) and each features a substantial entrance centered in the front. They are each a bit larger than Seaman’s (especially Chandler’s “Rocklyn”) and were also built in the 1830s.
Allow me to reach a bit further afield. The Prescott House (Figure 6) now part of the Nova Scotia Museum system, was built 20 years earlier when Prescott retired from Halifax. It is entirely of brick, but the similarities stand out clearly. The Museum’s website declares that Prescott built one of the finest examples of a “Georgian” house in Nova Scotia. Not surprisingly, the name for this style arose during the reign of the Georges, decades earlier. However, it took some time for these neoclassical features to make it across the Atlantic and filter down to the houses of the elite in our area. And one can well imagine their owners fully intended that their family homes would distinguish them as elite, if not quite English aristocracy, and that would include the image King Seaman created of himself.
One final example of this long-lasting style comes from Saint John called the Loyalist House (see Figure 7). It dates from the same time as the Prescott house except that it is all of wood. It is one of the few (perhaps the only one) of the grander homes that were lost to Saint John in a terrible fire of the 1870s. With “loyalist” credentials, it was surely an echo of what the “well-to-do” were building in the United States. Recently divorced from England and King George, Americans were determined not to use his name, so grand houses from New England thereafter were dubbed “Federalist.” Whether this example should be called Federalist or Georgian (they were Loyalists, after all) you can readily see that the key architectural features are all pretty much the same despite the name change. All these examples stretch five bays wide with a grand central entrance (likely with a handsome staircase in the central hallway), sturdy foundation below, hipped roof above and tall chimneys on each side.
Amos “King” Seaman knew what he aspired to; such examples were all around and he and his builders knew exactly what they were doing. By all reports, with flagstone hallway, high ceilings and large parlours he achieved his effect. But somehow, the next generation must have been less determined to impress. That’s hard for us to know, of course, and Amos T’s house carries over some of these same features. But its dimensions are actually a bit smaller and across the front it is only three bays wide. More striking, Amos T. decided not to have his “front” entrance centered in the longest side. That is choice not often seen in Georgian/Federalist style houses but appears in the next emergent style: Greek Revival.3
At this point, let’s step ahead to Amos T.’s younger brother, Job A. Seaman. In the 1850s, Job A. built a house for himself (Figures 8 and 9) closer to the size of his brother’s than that of his father’s and chose to leave the Georgian style behind completely. It is three bays across the long side (no longer symmetrical) and instead of a hipped roof, he built one with a ridge the full length of the house creating two gable ends. This “revival” feature on such houses is meant to be reminiscent of Greek temples and in this house we can see corner boards that have expanded into “pilasters” (meant to echo Greek columns, often with a capital) and a prominent triangular shape to the face of the gable meant to echo a temple “pediment.”
But where was the main entrance to Job’s house? It is not to be found where one might expect behind the bushes or oil tank in Figure 8. As we will see in later examples, Greek Revival houses often featured a main entrance centered on the long side of the house with lights (small windows) all around the door. But it also became popular to shift the entrance around to the gable end, becoming a feature of the “temple’s” facade. However, given the way timber framing works, the entrance is usually not placed directly in the center of a gable end in a house. It is always found over to one side or the other. And that goes along with the choice of where the entry hall will be found, inside, and the main staircase to the second floor.
That is what Job A. chose to do but he placed it on the other gable end (the vegetation would have been much different or even absent then) and in Figure 9 showing the long side, it is obscured by a porch added later (notice the large stone steps up onto that porch). Later on, this entrance was closed up (as I have seen in other photos) but it is still marked by entrance-size casings and the main staircase still begins just inside that original front door.
We can clarify these Greek Revival features on other examples of houses in our area. Sackville alone still has several. One is the Trust’s museum built by Christopher Boultenhouse in the early 1840s (Figure 10). It presents a grand front, five bays across, with a central entrance incorporating lights all around. There is a wide board featured underneath the front eave called a “frieze” board (another temple feature) and pilasters at each corner. Around the gable end the frieze board continues and the cornice mouldings also continue emphasizing the pediment at that end.
By comparison, the Doncaster house (Figure 11) built perhaps 20 years later, still features a prominent frieze board and corner pilaters (with capitals at the top) but stops with “return eaves” instead of completing the pediment. It shows three bays along the long side but the main entrance (hidden by a more modern porch) was shifted around to the gable end. The shutters are another modern addition but otherwise the choices exhibited here are very similar to Job A. Seaman’s.
There are other more subtle features found on these Greek Revival houses. The casings around windows are more prominent than in most Georgian/ Federalist houses and, if we could see inside, there are heavier (often plainer) styles of moulding used around doors and fireplaces, distinctive to Greek Revival. But from the outside we can see that chimneys are more frequently moved away from the exterior walls on each side to interior positions lined up with the dividing walls between front and back rooms. That means that fireplaces migrate to the interior walls of rooms, usually back-to-back between front and back rooms (extending to chambers upstairs).
Finally, we can return to Amos T. Seaman’s house introduced at the outset and hopefully recognize more clues in what we see there (see again Figures 1 and 2). Initially, I had said that I found this house intriguing but puzzling and that was precisely because it does not fit comfortably within one of these neoclassical styles. In its overall shape and imposing size, it is very much like his father’s house, if a bit smaller. But the doorway is not center-front; it has been moved around to the side. That may have been motivated by the way the ground slopes or to ensure that Amos T. had his main entrance facing dad’s Grindstone Castle. It was not possible, strictly speaking, to place the entrance on the temple façade because, with a hipped roof, there are no gable ends. Nevertheless, woodwork and small windows around this side entrance all seem like Greek Revival (if rather plain ones) and the house sports frieze boards, corner pilasters and heavier window casings.
The entry hall and staircase are not central features with major rooms to either side, as in his father’s house. They are just inside the relocated entrance and the main parlours are now both on the other side (facing the road and river). The interior woodwork is all quite substantial but actually quite plain. It would be interesting to know whether Amos T. had chosen such a plain pattern for casings and fireplace surrounds because it fitted with a more Greek Revival style or whether it was because they were relying at this point upon the newly installed steam-powered sawmill. It is said that King Seaman installed the first steam mill anywhere in Nova Scotia (or in the Maritimes?). However, the sawmill would not yet have used circular sawblades nor have moulding blades for turning out more decorative woodwork. His father’s house would have sported hand-planed woodwork (or he could have had it imported) and it would have been much more decorative than what we find in Amos T’s house. In any case, what we find today is a curious mixture of choices, some reaching back to his father’s house from the 1830s and some anticipating his younger brother’s choices in the 1850s—a mix of Georgian and Greek Revival styles.
In conclusion, I should be careful to acknowledge, as I was warned by Bill Seaman4, that many of these comparisons may have been less intentional and more coincidental. How intentional we will never know, but it is certainly more than coincidence that the house built in the 1840s, sits right in between (temporally and geographically) family homes from the 30s and 50s, each quite consistently within its chosen style. Amos T’s house is also “in between” stylistically. Georgian in overall shape but finished with a main entrance and woodwork that are already Greek Revival. I find that irresistibly neat: an instructive (if not intentional) Seaman package.
1.I am indebted to Judith Read and others with deep roots in Minudie for providing access to the Amos T. Seaman house. Naomi Kirkbride and Joyce Makela provided information from the Minudie Heritage Association. Bill Seaman also introduced me to the house from his side of the family. None of them are responsible for this flight of my own fancy. Photos used have all been photoshopped by the author and are either from the author or courtesy of Minudie Heritage, the Tantramar Heritage Trust, Nova Scotia Museums or the New Brunswick Historical Society.
2.The sources I have relied upon include: Kalman’s History of Canadian Architecture, an excellent general source; Ennals & Holdsworth’s Homeplace which draws attention to vernacular architecture and Allan Penny’s Houses of Nova Scotia, a useful guide to house styles in our area. Heritage websites like Canada’s Historic Places are invaluable, as are detailed studies produced by Parks Canada. But for me, much credit goes to the interaction with my friends and colleagues for whom local history is also a passion. If Ben Philips and I have now examined well over two dozen timber frame houses in our area, perhaps it should be called an obsession.
3.In the classical world, the Greeks came before the Romans and influenced their architecture. But in later centuries, Europeans rediscovered Rome and all its wonderful classical buildings first and then later made their way to Greece and its temples. So, “neoclassical” in art and architecture originally grew out of Roman/Italian examples, and only later revived Greek examples. I should add a note of warning that I am simplifying these style changes, somewhat, and a reading of what Allen Penny has to say about “Architectural Style” and why he warns it might be better to use the term “Neo-Classical” (where I am following those who use “Georgian”) will provide a measure of the complications I would prefer to avoid. For example, this leads Penny to use the slightly broader term “Classical Revival” for what others depict as “Greek Revival”. Although these Seaman houses are also heavily influenced by owner/builder “verna- cular” choices, I still think we can retrieve something interesting about the way they are choosing to mix features across these three decades.
4.Bill Seaman is the great grandson of Job A. Seaman and grew up in his house. He is the great, great, grandson of Amos “King” Seaman
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