A house called “Louisiana”

The Lyman C. Josephs House, also known as Louisiana, is a historic home at 438 Walcott Avenue in Middletown, Rhode Island, now broken into apartments. Architect Clarence Luce designed the house, which was built in 1882 and is a well-preserved early example of the Shingle Style. The house received architectural notice not long after its construction, but is more noted for its relatively modest size and lack of ostentation than the summer houses of nearby Newport. It was built for the Lyman Colt Josephs family of Baltimore, Maryland.

The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Here’s an excerpt from the exhaustive – and I do mean exhaustive – description contained in that application. (I particularly like the line “Luce was no pastry artist.”)

So simple and earth-bound is this house, so appropriate and yet primitive its shape and roofline, that one wonders if Clarence Luce of Boston had in mind the famous old Fairbanks house in nearby Dedham – also growing out of the ground, since 1636 – when he designed the Josephs house. The Fairbanks house was one of the landmarks being visited in his day, and it is possible that from it and others being given attention by wandering and sketching architects then are derived some of the Colonial Revival details – mantels, etc. – seen in the train of more famous architects – such as McKim, Mead White – who had been investigating American XVIII Century dwellings and basing some of their new confections upon them.

Luce was no pastry artist, at least in the Josephs house. Here, he produced a most liveable dwelling, typical of all that was becoming wanted in the 1880’s: open spaces for living and entertaining flowing into each other; views; ventilation; and indoor-outdoor living with both light and shade; airy bedrooms; un-cramped service accommodations. Interior adornment is held in check: there is just enough to be considered handsome, and it is very well-executed, but not so much as to constitute fussy pretension. There are no bulging elaborations, no heavy carvings or convolutions. Doors are plain (seven shallow horizontal panels) and are within plain architraves; so are windows, though some of the latter have leaded glass and stained-glass transoms of William Morris-like design. This is as far as the house goes toward elaboration. If one wishes to see the Shingle Style boiled down to its simplest, basic components, here is a fine example, handled with quiet, un-selfconcious expertise.

[…] Were it in the centre of glittering Newport, in Tuxedo Park, or in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill, it might have had much more deserved notice; but actually “notice” seems not to have been anything desired by the owner or the architect. Privacy, comfort, air, a view and modest but attractive decor seem to have been the desiderata, and, all have been achieved – without fanfare in a choice but “aside” location on a hill above the ocean in Middletown. The location is no longer “aside,” as the neighbourhood is now much built-up, but the Josephs house retains its grass acreage and its view across water.

The Josephs, a family from Baltimore, were apparently people of affluence and cultivation but not affected by the ostentation prevalent in Newport, and they occupied their house regularly every summer until their deaths in the early 1940’s.

Our cousin Peter Colt Josephs published a monograph on the house for the Newport Historical Society in 2012. I have a copy, full of great information and photographs. When I get my scanner up and running again, I’ll do another installment on Louisiana.

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