The Architects of Roosevelt Hall

For years I wondered who might be the architect of the mansion Richard Lawrence De Zeng built in 1839-40, and there were many names in the running, but only recently have I found an answer that satisfies me. The story begins, a little surprisingly for me, with Callicrates (a.k.a. Καλλικράτης or Kallikratēs), a Greek architect active around 435 B.C. He worked on several structures, including the Parthenon and the temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, and a temple on the Ilissos River at Athens, where his name was carved in stone.

Callicrates’ temple on the Ilissos from The Antiquities of Athens

In the eighteenth century, two Englishmen — James Stuart (1733-1788) and Nicholas Revett (1720-1804) — traveled to Greece to document its architectural treasures. Their drawings, first published in The Antiquities of Athens (1762), became a source book on Greek architecture and inspired the Greek Revival style in western architecture.

A detail of an Ionic column from The Antiquities of Athens

In America, the influence of Stuart and Revett’s work was strongly felt. Thomas Jefferson was a champion of Greek Revival, an architectural style that stemmed from the democracy of ancient Greece. Another champion of the Greek Revival style, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) was the first professional architect working in the U.S., and a friend of Jefferson.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe by Filippo Costaggini

Latrobe is important to this story because he was a great-grandfather of Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt, who in 1899 bought the De Zeng mansion and renamed it Roosevelt Hall. Roosevelt  claimed that his home was designed by Latrobe, but Latrobe is definitely a non-starter as he died in 1820 and Richard De Zeng did not lay the cornerstone for this mansion until May of 1839.

Asher Benjamin by Chester Harding

For the next link, we return to Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens, and its influence on Asher Benjamin (1773-1845) of Boston. An architect, Benjamin wrote and published seven pattern books, his first in 1797. His books were a source of architectural history, style and geometry for builders at a time when there were very few architects. (There was no American school for architecture until after the Civil War.) Pattern books were widely popular and could be found in the libraries of builders, even in lumber yards, anywhere they might be used to fashion something for a customer, be it an entire house or a door frame. In particular, Benjamin’s 1830 pattern book, The Architect, or, Practical House Carpenter, helped redirect American taste to the Greek Revival model, and provided complete house plans with interior details.

An Ionic column shown in Benjamin’s The Architect, or, Practical House Carpenter

An early result of Asher Benjamin’s influence is Bulloch Hall in Roswell, Georgia, built in 1839, the same year as Roosevelt Hall, and shown below. Note the Greek temple style.

Bulloch Hall

Willis Ball, a builder from Connecticut, used Asher Benjamin’s pattern book for the home’s design. (In a coincidental link, this was the childhood home of Theodore Roosevelt’s mother.)

The books and drawings of James Stuart, Nicholas Revett and Asher Benjamin were all in the library of architect Ithiel Town (1784-1844) of New York City and New Haven, Connecticut. Town had studied with Benjamin, and owned 11,000 books and prints, then the largest architectural collection in the world. Town’s Russell house, built in 1828 with David Hoadley in Middletown, Connecticut, is a Greek Revival classic, still standing today.

Samuel Russell House

Again, you can see the temple design. In 1829, Town formed one of the first architectural firms in the U.S., partnering with Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892). Together they designed homes and buildings in a variety of styles, including Greek Revival. Town has been suggested as the architect of Roosevelt Hall, especially since Davis is known to have designed Reuel Smith’s Cobweb Cottage in Skaneateles, a house that is today on the National Historic Register. But the De Zeng mansion is not listed among Town’s works, and at the time it was built he was focusing on public commissions, including state capitols in Connecticut and Indiana.

We can also rule out Alexander Jackson Davis, as he was not a fan of the Greek Revival style. After leaving his partnership with Town, Davis joined with landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, and they did their best to move Americans away from Greek Revival. Said Downing in 1846 , “The Greek temple disease has passed its crisis. The people have survived it.”

But before we leave the firm of Town & David, we have to mention James Harrison Dakin (1806-1852), an architect who worked in their practice, and who contributed drawings, based on the drawings of Stuart and Revett, to pattern books written and published by architect Minard Lafever (1798-1854). Lafever’s most popular books included The Modern Builder’s Guide (1833) and The Beauties of Modern Architecture (1835). Below is a drawing for “a country residence” from The Modern Builder’s Guide:

Lafever’s books did much to advance the Greek Revival style, and designs from his books are believed to have been used for the Rose Hill Mansion in Geneva, N.Y., seen below. The Rose Hill Mansion was begun in 1838, and brings us very close to home indeed.

Rose Hill Mansion, Geneva, N.Y.

Note the Greek temple style, the Ionic columns, with the simple scroll design at the top of each column. Rose Hill was built for William Kerley Strong, a wool broker from New York City, who in 1838 moved to the Rose Hill farm overlooking Seneca Lake. Work was completed in the autumn of 1839, just in time for a visit from Martin Van Buren.

Among Strong’s business associates in Geneva was William Steuben De Zeng, a brother of Richard De Zeng. In addition to his brother in Geneva, Richard De Zeng also had business there. Was he told of Strong’s mansion? Did he see it under construction? Did he ask about the architect, and was he directed to a copy of The Modern Builder’s Guide?

De Zeng Mansion, Skaneateles, N.Y.

Certainly there are similarities between Rose Hill and the De Zeng mansion, and a few differences. The basic design of the two homes is the same; the pitch of the roof and the treatment of the wings varies; Rose Hill has a cupola and the De Zeng mansion does not. We do know that in May of 1839, as Rose Hill Mansion was nearing completion in Geneva, Richard De Zeng bought property in Skaneateles and began building his own mansion. De Zeng knew how to build things; he had managed the construction of a flour mill and the Varick Canal in Oswego, where he lived before moving to Skaneateles.

To build his mansion in Skaneateles, De Zeng hired a contractor named George Casey from Auburn, who in turn hired a stone mason named Frederick Douglass. Descendants of Richard De Zeng, who visited Skaneateles in 1967 and 1972, maintained that De Zeng designed the home as well.

We may never know for certain. But personally, I could not criticize someone who credited the design of the De Zeng mansion to a Greek architect named Callicrates and all those architects who kept his ideas alive, all the way down to Minard Lafever, with finishing touches by Richard De Zeng.

* * *

The DeZeng mansion cost more than $18,000 to build, with another $11,000 spent on its interior furnishings. The furniture was made by prisoners at Auburn Prison, working for Parsons, Hewson & Co., composed of Spencer Parsons of Skaneateles, and Daniel Hewson and Jesse Segoine of Auburn. Parsons had secured a contract for the labor of 150 to 200 prisoners at the rate of 30 cents per prisoner per day.

We know the De Zeng home was completed by August of 1840, because on the 18th, De Zeng’s daughter, Emeline, married Captain James Hughes Stokes, of the U.S. Army, at St. James’ Episcopal Church, followed by “a brilliant ball at the De Zeng house.”

* * *

Some times in the course of research, one sees again that it’s a small world. In the middle of this essay I touched upon the Samuel Russell House in Middletown, Connecticut, a Greek Revival home designed by the firm of Town & Davis.

The construction of that house, circa 1837, was supervised by Samuel Russell’s brother, Edward Augustus Russell, while Samuel was tending to the family’s export business in China. After Samuel returned and settled in, Edward Augustus built his own Greek Revival house next-door; it was completed in 1842 and featured just two pillars, a more modest expression of the style.

The following year, the eldest daughter of Edward Augustus, Mary Osborne Russell, married the Rev. Edward De Zeng of Skaneateles, the son of Richard De Zeng who built the De Zeng mansion. I have no idea how they met, but I’m working on it. The Rev. Edward and Mary were on the move for many years, as he presided over churches in Phelps, Mexico, Pulaski, Hamilton and Brooklyn, New York, and in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. They had one son, Richard Lawrence De Zeng, born June 20, 1848, and doubtlessly named for his grandfather, who died just three days before his grandson’s birth.

Years later, in 1874, Edward Augustus Russell died and his house became the property of his estate; his widow and two maiden daughters, and any other family member apparently, could live there for the rest of their lives. By 1875, Richard De Zeng, now about 27 years old, had come to Middletown and moved into the Edward Augustus Russell house, next-door to the Samuel Russell House, where he lived until his death in 1932.

* * *

My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society and to Dennis Owen, a former owner of Roosevelt Hall, for the encouragement to research the origins of Roosevelt Hall’s architects.


6 thoughts on “The Architects of Roosevelt Hall

  1. Pingback: Roosevelt Hall « Skaneateles

  2. Late one Christmas eve in the mid 1960s, I delivered a large Greek Revival style doll house to this home from the Toy Peddler in the village.

    • I am one of the Owen girls that lived in Roosevelt Hall and enjoyed the dollhouse for many years. I remember seeing it at the Toy Peddler and putting it on my Christmas list! My younger sisters and I were thrilled to see it on Christmas morning.

      Fast forward many years….

      My youngest sister Teresa shipped the dollhouse to her home in Florida where her daughter Eleanor has been the latest relative to have her dolls play at Roosevelt Hall!

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