Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project

 

 
Morrison House and Walters Hall

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Institution Name: Regis College
Original/Historic Place Name: Demmon-Morrison Mansion and Coach House
Location on Campus: 235 Wellesley St.
Date(s) of Construction:
1888-1889original construction
1914addition of brick veneer onto original clapboard Mead, Samuel
Designer: Samuel Mead
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Beaux-Arts classicism, Other (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, culture, history
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Materials:
Foundation: red brick
Walls: red brick with granite embellishments
Roof: grey slate, hipped roof
 
Function:
ca. 1889-1927private residence (of the Demmon-Morrison Family)
ca. 1927academic department building (sciences, commerce, art, and music)
ca. 1927library
ca. 2004-present (2006)other (children's center - Walters Hall)
ca. 2004-present (2006)president's house (Morrison House)
 

Narrative:
The Demmon House was originally built in 1888-1889 as a clapboard structure on a natural rock foundation in the Neo-Georgian style. The house was brick veneered with granite embellishments by Daniel Demmon's daughter, Fannie Morrison, in 1914. The building then achieved a distinct Classical flavor with a stricter interpretation of Georgian formality and symmetry. Similarly, after 1914 the original coach house, built to accommodate horses, carriages, and motor cars, became a formal building boasting the same brick and granite expression of Neo-Georgian embellishment. In 1927 the Sisters of Saint Joseph purchased the entire 167+ acre Demmon-Morrison Estate to establish Regis College. In September of that year the mansion house provided an administrative center, library, residence hall, chapel, and dining room for fifty-five students who became the pioneer class of Regis College. With interior upgrading and the addition of a two-story wing to the left of the structure, the coach house became the science center of the college.

The Demmon-Morrison house retains a sense of its original character and provides a prime example of the style of dwelling which gave Weston claim to the title, "Lenox of the East." Its story reveals many aspects of an affluent lifestyle in the late nineteenth century. The major ingredients were a sizeable fortune, a fashionably situated urban residence, and an expansive countryseat in a town readily accessible to the city. These elements were blended uniquely during the lifetime of Daniel Lake Demmon and exemplified in his country residence in Weston, where he lived grandly but unostentatiously in the style of a merchant prince. The exterior changes brought about by his daughter Fannie continue the story, giving evidence of a changing concept of country elegance in the first decades of the twentieth century.

When the Demmons decided in 1888-1889 to invest in a country residence and to locate it in Weston, they were moving in the mainstream of upper class American thought. Whereas in a previous era certain "watering places" and hotel resorts were highly fashionable and de rigueur for the newly rich, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century this practice had given way to private ownership of summer villas. In issues dating from the 1890s, magazines like House Beautiful were reporting that to own the smallest cottage in the country was preferable to renting the most elegant suite in a resort hotel. Sunday newspaper specials on "great country houses" complete with line drawings, suggestions, and recommendations fed an interest in styles and locations. Later, Demmon's house would be cited in the Boston Sunday Globe of June, 1902 as "one of the finest of the many large estates in Weston."

The house represented classic containment combined with a wonderful openness and freedom in terrace, portico, porte-cochere, and extended sun room. Sheathed in clapboard, it was set on a broad terrace rising from a man-made foundation of natural rock, surmounted by a lacy balustrade. Several broad steps led to the terrace, from which rose an imposing pair of free-standing, wooden, ionic columns two stories high. The entablature of these columns supported a classical pediment featuring a fanlight window as a focal accent. The outward contour of the Demmon House bore a striking resemblance to the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House (1759, 1793) in its rectangular two-story elevation, but the Demmon House more truly evoked the period in which it was built. Examining the H.A.C. Taylor House (1885-86) in Newport by McKim, Mead & White, one is also struck by a similarity of style that had no basis in structural similitude as in the Longfellow House. Instead, the likeness was more of a spiritual evocation, an airy lightness and outward stretching that defied containment within the rectangular block of the colonial tradition. This quality is best illustrated in these two houses by the balustrading of roof and porches in the same delicate tensile pattern, as well as the terrace treatment that symbolized both expansiveness and unity, reaching out like the roots of a tree to master the soil which nourished it and at the same time served as a barrier to all intrusion. The effect was at once flamboyant and restrained: flamboyant in decorative detail, restrained by the exactitude of architectural expression of the Georgian style.

The interior of the Demmon house was also closer in spirit and plan to the H.A.C. Taylor House than to the Longfellow House, and this difference typified the contrast between the colonial and neo-colonial style. The closed, contained feeling of colonial space divisions gave way to a spaciousness that began in the entry hall and continued in the wide stairwell, broad doorways, and oversized rooms. The impact of the H.A.C. Taylor House on the reinterpretation of classical/colonial domestic architecture was pivotal. The earlier plan had emphasized the Palladian system of the axial central hall, with two rooms on each side and a service wing located on a cross axis. The Demmon House plan is similar in the layout of the central block, but the cross axis is emphasized by the extension of the sun parlor and porte-cochere on either side. This sense of dependencies to the main block was further accentuated in the more formal refurbishing of the exterior that took place in 1914.

The brick veneering which Fannie Demmon Morrison commissioned in 1914 was entrusted to Samuel Mead, a Weston architect who had been associated with the firms of Ware and Van Brunt, Cabot and Chandler, and finally Cabot, Everett and Mead. Brick veneering older houses was not a trend in Weston at this time. It was an independent departure for the Morrisons to make this decision, since even the larger houses in Weston built in the first decades of the twentieth century survive, if at all, in wooden frame form. The new home was a striking contrast to the pillared frame structure. The terrace was enclosed by a brick and granite balustrade with formal urns and jardinieres as decorative effects. Simple French doors were granite enclosed, flanked by Corinthian pilasters carrying a semi-circular broken pediment housing a classical garlanded urn. The center bay, extended three feet from the old structure to afford a protected entry, led within to the original entrance door. A simply bracketed roof cornice, surmounted by a formal escutcheon with side urns for decorative effect, outlined the center bay. The window treatment of the main block of the building remained unchanged except for material, granite triangular pediments on the first floor and flat arches with keystone crowns on the second floor. Unlike the clapboard structure, these pediments appear not as appendages or decoration, but as integral elements of the structure of the building. Three dormers, whose triangular pediments echoed those of the first floor, jutted from the hipped roof now slated and simply turned at the peak. A granite string course outlined the second story, and the bracketed cornice continued the roof treatment throughout.

A fundamental change was evident to the right of the structure where the terrace porch gave way to an expanded sunroom outlined in three sections with granite pilasters topped with urns. To the left, the porte-cochere also assumed a brick and granite formality. The second house provides a stricter interpretation of Georgian formality and symmetry. Today, except for the removal of the entrance porte-cochere in the pragmatic fifties to allow for free traffic on the driveway, the building remains as an outstanding example of the neo-Georgian style of American domestic architecture at the turn of the century.

The significance of the 1914 Coach House rests in its identity with the Mansion, its position in the landscape, its role in the early history of the College, and its enduring significance to the present day. Its brick and granite splendor was unique for its purpose as a utilitarian adjunct--housing carriages and motor cars--to the daily life of the residents and was another sign of the refined taste of Mrs. Morrison.
 

References:

Campus Master Plan. 1944. Regis College, Weston, MA.

Fox, Pamela W. Farm Town to Suburb: The History and Architecture of Weston, Massachusetts 1830-1980. Weston, MA: Love Lane Press, 2002.

Meade, Catherine M. The Demmon-Morison House. Report. [Weston, MA: Regis College], 1981.

 

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