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Miller House

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1797. 161 Tower Hill Rd.

This important house is best seen when the leaves from nearby trees do not press in on it. It follows the two-and-one-half-story, five-bay, central-chimney formula; but sometimes the formula results in a house of particular character and charm. Why here? The obvious answer is the unexpected bird with outstretched wings flying out of the pediment, like the cuckoo from its clock, flanked by pretty chestnut blossoms on the supporting pediment blocks. Less obvious are the effects of the distribution of openings over the elevation, together with the high quality of both the design and execution of the entrance. Closely paired on either side, the first-floor windows seem low and pulled well away from the door. The small-paned texture of their twelve-over-twelve sash is a bit at odds with the blunt breadth and abruptness of the window caps. Those above hug the eaves with exceptional intensity, not just because they butt it (as is standard for most such elevations through the early nineteenth century), but because the fact of their butting is transformed into the sensation of the very act of butting by the stretch of the interval between downstairs and upstairs windows, the arrowlike thrust of the door in its height and narrowness, and even the explosive flaring of the window caps downstairs. The windows leave a generous field to the entrance centerpiece. Its slotlike proportions—those of a grandfather clock or of a coffin—accentuate its axiality with the surprise of an exclamation mark.

The designer of the handsome door frame (presumably other than the master builder of the house) was sufficiently immersed in the classical canons to handle its elements with an assured fluency which extends to the subtle modeling of all elements. These qualities contribute to the lyric and intimate overtones of this portal. They encourage examination up close. There we can better experience the exceptional precision in the rendering of the formulaic chestnut blossom motif, or the resiliency of the “Gothic” arching in the semicircular overdoor light, or the meticulous beveling of the inset door paneling and the animated play of verticals against horizontals between the four panels above and the four below. All these clues suggest the refining sensibilities of the skilled cabinetmaker. So does the bucolic, illustrative sentiment of the bird and the flowers, although the bird may have been added later. Legend has it that a carver-craftsman related by marriage to the locally prominent Tower family made the bird. In any event, it is in the spirit of carved figures which break in finial-like climax through the broken-pedimented cappings of highboys and (yes) grandfather clocks. Perhaps the entire entrance was his.

The present siting of the house back from the road in swath cut on axis from the woods accentuates the axial verticality of the door. Some sort of axial withdrawal from the road seems always to have been intended, although its original handling doubtless exposed the house more completely. So the image projected by this house, though rural in character, possesses much sophistication. One senses it (rightly or not) as the idyll of a country gentleman who may have had a farmer on his property, rather than the homestead of a working farmer, however wealthy.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Miller House", [Cumberland, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-CU22.

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