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Thomas Thurber–Rachel Harris Rathbun House

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1867, Michael Volk. c. 1915, porch addition. 289 Prospect St.

Of brick with brownstone trim and a low, flaring roof, this may initially appear as a typical Italianate house. But none in the state—not Richard Upjohn's Edward King House ( NE145) or Thomas Tefft's Charles Bradley House ( PR183.2), however outstanding—presents as subtle an example of Italianate design as this tighter composition. With reason perhaps; it was a German emigré who designed it, fresh from the fountainhead of the Italianate style. For it was especially German fascination with the dream of a Mediterranean arcadia that led architects from other countries to appreciate the picturesqueness of medieval villas in the Italian countryside as they had been remodeled piecemeal toward Renaissance ideals. The wandering eye associated with the picturesque sensibility delighted in the mix of towers and porches, of round-arched and rectangular openings of diverse sizes, and of suavity of detail set against severe essentiality, as the total experience of the building emerged from cumulative comprehension of its fragmented ensemble. Here the projection of the freestanding arched mini-porch which fronts the square bay window for the parlor strikes the leitmotif for the design. Its combined prominence and relative uselessness give it symbolic intensity, as though its sole function were that of proclaiming the conceptual kernel from which the design emerged.

Consider the two porches: the symbolic porch against the real entrance porch. The sober elegance of the treatment conceals adroit variations within the theme. Both have wide arches toward the front with narrow arches either side. The gabled roof of the symbolic porch with its entablature of enlarged dentils is, in turn, set off against the flat cap over the entrance with its entablature of small modillions. Doric columns for the entrance porch play visually across space with a Corinthian column centered in the symbolic porch, but the latter is framed by severe right-angled piers. The severe forms frame the highly ornamented one, as a cushioned box intensifies our focus on a jewel. The contrast also alludes to evolution: from primitive stages civilization elaborates.

Upstairs, the triple arching, slightly projecting in its own field, is framed in primitive but elegant pilasters, the outside edges of which barely skim the adjacent quoining. Against the horizontality of this triple arching, the cartouche-like panel punctuated by the oval window over the entrance porch is vertical and exclamatory. So the melodious shift of parts occurs across the elevation and back and forth in depth.

Little is known of the client, who, in any event, owned the house for barely two years. It then became the property of the daughter of Edward Harris, Woonsocket's leading industrialist during the middle of the nineteenth century. Her husband, Oscar J. Rathbun, a banker, succeeded his father-in-law as president of the Harris Woolen Company and, in the 1880s, served as lieutenant governor of Rhode Island. Also significant is the semicircular appendage to the northwest added by a later generation. Although obscured by foliage, this is another fine example of the pergola mode, more monumentally conceived than the Proulx House ( WO26).

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Thomas Thurber–Rachel Harris Rathbun House", [Woonsocket, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 233-234.

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