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Elmonte is an Italianate villa designed by architect Norris Garshom Starkweather and built circa 1858 for a member of the Dorsey family as the centerpiece of an agricultural estate. The Dorseys were descendants of Colonel Edward Dorsey, who received an early Maryland land grant around 1690. They owned many of the finest farms and plantations in Howard County and distinguished themselves in politics, law, military service, agriculture, and business. Elmonte was built for Sally Eliza Dorsey on a portion of the 900-acre Mount Hebron estate of her father, Judge Thomas Beale Dorsey Jr., which was divided among his three children after his death in 1852. Her brother William also hired Starkweather to build an Italianate villa, known as “Wilton,” across the road. Sally Dorsey’s estate included a working farm, which remained in operation until fairly recently. The Elmonte house now sits on 3.11 acres surrounded by a subdivision.
The development of Italianate and Gothic Revival villas and cottages during the mid-nineteenth century was part of a larger picturesque aesthetic that began in England. The movement was made popular in the United States by individuals such as Andrew Jackson Downing, whose path-breaking The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) dominated the pattern book market while setting standards for good taste and livability in the housing design of the era. Downing’s book was the first to target the potential homeowner rather than the house carpenter, and it appealed to a broad consumer market that reflected the rise of the middle class. Through such publications, Downing and others elevated the humble cottage—which in England had been synonymous with poverty—to a housing form suitable across social spectrums. This was accomplished in part by linking cottage architecture to its bucolic landscape settings.
Elmonte is constructed of random ashlar granite, a building material indigenous to the area. As with Downing’s version of a villa in the “classical manner” Elmonte is dignified and well-proportioned, and yet fairly chaste in its detailing. With its center gabled, three-bay-wide main block, it appears symmetrically balanced from the front elevation. But this symmetry falls apart when viewed from other perspectives. The parlor extends from the west facade, the center hall extends to the rear, and there is a service wing set back to the east side. The drive was laid out so that upon approach the service wing is not immediately visible, which is also in keeping with Downing’s philosophy. Likewise, the veranda extends the length of the front facade and returns to either side to further obscure the side projections. Elmonte’s character-defining exterior details include segmentally arched drip-mold window hoods, paired and tripartite window arrangements, an overhanging hipped roof supported by large brackets, a center gable peak, a cupola pierced by round-arched windows, and ornamental brick chimneys.
The asymmetrical interior plan includes a center hall that runs the depth of the house, widening to the rear to accommodate a stairway. To the west side of the center hall are adjoining library and parlor rooms separated by pocket doors. To the east is the dining room with a perpendicular hall running between it and the service area. The open-well, open-string stairway cantilevers along the east wall with a quarter turn at the base and winds its way to the third floor. Designed to accommodate servant labor, the extensive service area includes a secondary stairway, laundry (now bath and closet), pantry, and kitchen with fireplace. The second floor follows the same plan as the first, with the exception of the area over the service wing, which is divided into smaller bedchambers, likely for servant use. More bedchambers are found in the finished third floor. Elmonte retains its original interior details including complex plaster cornices, wide architraves and baseboards, marble mantels, and gas-lit chandeliers.
Historian John Crowley states that “Andrew Jackson Downing made the cottage an American byword for comfort, and he made comfort the crucial consideration in the design of houses.” According to Downing, the villa differed from the cottage in the complexity of its form and the luxury of its decor and spatial arrangements, including amenities such as verandas and balconies and specialized interior spaces like intimate nooks and cozy spaces. The villa also took advantage of its environmental setting to become “that home in the country which is something beyond a cottage or a farm-house rises but to the dignity of a villa or mansion.” The villa was a sought after residential form for genteel farmers like the Dorseys, who were anxious to set themselves above the ordinary by showcasing their refined taste. In naming her estate “Elmonte” or “wooded mount,” Sally Dorsey acknowledged her awareness of the latest trends in landscape and architectural design.
Starkweather was a prominent Baltimore architect best known for his ecclesiastic structures and villa-style residences. He began his career in Philadelphia, where he worked briefly with Joseph C. Hoxie before moving to Baltimore in 1856, where the First Presbyterian Church became one of his most enduring designs. Starkweather undertook numerous villa designs in Baltimore and Howard counties, including one noted example for the church’s minister, John Backus. Starkweather continued his ecclesiastic work in Howard County, including St. John’s Church (paid for by the Dorsey family) and the chapel at the Patapsco Female Institute, both in Ellicott City, the county seat. By 1860, Starkweather was also working in Washington, D.C., where his commissions included four Italianate, semi-detached “cottage villas” known as “Cooke’s Row,” the remodeling of St. John’s Church, and the Academy Building for the Convent of the Visitation, all in the Georgetown neighborhood. By 1881 he established a practice in New York City with Charles E. Gibbs; their best-known design is the eclectic Potter Building in Manhattan, a handsome, eleven-story skyscraper built of terra-cotta, red brick, and brownstone.
Andreve, George J. “Elmonte” (Twiford), Howard County, Maryland. National Register Nomination Form, 1976. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
Downing, A.J. The Architecture of Country Houses. 1850. Reprint, with an introduction by J. Stewart Johnson, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969.
Moss, Roger, and Sandra Tatman. “Starkweather, Norris Garshom (1818-1885).” In Biography from the American Architects and Buildingsdatabase. Accessed May 10, 2016. http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/25631.
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