Solomon Fowler Linsley

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Solomon Fowler Linsley (as found in the ‘old house book’ (revised) at North Haven Historical Society Archives) See also Buildings of Solomon Linsley

Linsley_SolomonFowlerA significant number of buildings in North Haven are documented works by Solomon Fowler Linsley. Linsley was trained as a carpenter and builder and advertised as such throughout his career which centered on North Haven from about 1865 to 1901. His practice was large and prestigious and encompassed the most important public and residential structures erected in North Haven during this period. His designs display authority, imagination and the development of a unique personal style at the peak of his career. He was, therefore, not only a builder but also the town’s leading architect in the late 19th century. In fact, Linsley seems to have acted as unofficial town architect. Although his great-grandson, Linsley Chapman, recalls that Solomon F. actually held a title in the town government connected with his role as builder or architect, the exact title and nature of this position have not yet been established.

Given Linsley’s critical role in late 19th century North Haven architecture, it is surprising how little is known about his actual working method. Linsley_invoiceblankIt is unclear, for example, whether he ran his own large carpentry shop for the production of his decorative details or relied upon a group of knowledgeable subcontractors to execute his work. His versatility in using several different architectural styles also raises questions about the contents of his personal library and the nature of his professional contacts.

Solomon F. Linsley was born on May 26, 1830, to Marcus and Clarissa Fowler Linsley in Northford, Connecticut. Marcus was a direct descendant of John Linsley who, with his brother Francis, came to America from England in 1643 as one of the original settlers of Branford. During his youth Solomon F. followed his father, a farmer, through a series of migrations which led him to Meriden; Goshen; Southwick, Massachusetts; Windsor, North Haven; Middletown; Bristol, and finally Belvedere, Wisconsin. Linsley attended common school in Northford, and later at Williston Seminary in Northhampton, Massachusetts. Following his education, Linsley took up farming, at the same time entering into an apprenticeship with joiners Lyon and Billard of Meriden. Reportedly, prior to the Civil War, he began practicing carpentry and building in Middletown, New Haven, New Britain, and other Connecticut towns. During this period, he also worked in Wisconsin. No specific works of this period have thus far been attributed to him.

On August 26, 1861, Linsley enlisted as a private, advancing to corporal, in Company G, 6th Connecticut, V.I. He was discharged for illness after a short period of service but subsequently re-enlisted and soon achieved the rank of second lieutenant. He was captured at Kingston, North Carolina in 1865. While in the service he built numerous log houses, presumably barracks, in Portsmouth, Virginia.

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Soldiers’ Barracks built by Solomon Linsley

When the War was over, Linsley returned to North Haven to practice carpentry and building. In 1884 he completed his home at 185 Maple Avenue where he lived until his death on Marc 31, 1901. Apart from his local prominence as a building/architect Linsley was an active and responsible North Haven citizen. He participated in the affairs of the First Church and School Committee, taught Sunday School for 35 years, and was a major contributor to the North Haven Centennial of 1886.

Linsley’s works in North Haven can be viewed in terms of early, mature, and late periods. This corresponds to both the development of his own abilities as a designer, and the evolution of late 19th century architectural styles in North Haven s a whole.

The majority of buildings attributable to Linsley between 1865 and circa 1880 are of simple, solid, rectangular composition with uncomplicated plans, not unrelated to the Italianate house type already common in pre-Civil War North Haven. However, some of these display a desire to vary the type, resulting in a far lighter and more intricate treatment of exterior detail than the earlier Italianate homes in North Haven. The significant exception, probably also one of the most extravagant commissions of Linsley’s early career, was for the large villa on a prominent town center site at Broadway and Elm Street for wealthy brick manufacturer Frank L. Stiles, begun in 1870. The present [1990] cobblestone and Ionic column porch replaces an original stick-style version (illustrated in North Haven in the 19th Century, p. 92). The whole including an ogee-roof tower in the southwest corner exemplifies Victorian picturesque massing. The house bears a generic resemblance to the Hudson River School designs of Calver Vaux and Frederick Withers in Vaux’s Villas and Cottages (1857, 1864).

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Sketch from Villas and Cottages

This was the type of popular, country-house oriented pattern book in the tradition of A.J. Downing with which Linsley undoubtedly had a, at least passing familiarity. Visually commanding, the Stiles house is a gem of the suburban villas and townhouses along Broadway, North Haven’s 19th-century “quality row”.

 

Linsley’s designs of an approximate period between 1880 and 1890 represent a more complete assimilation of influences and the maturation of a distinct late Victorian style. The majority of his smaller houses of this period display an economically prudent, abbreviated picturesque plan and massing, and an identifiable vocabulary of decorative carpentry, such as the hearts-and-flowers bargeboards of the A. Hyde house at 18 Broadway. Related to the Hyde house, but larger is Linsley’s own house on Maple Avenue. As with the Stiles house, the siting of Linsley’s house is masterly. It terminates the view south on Maple Avenue, contributing a sense of good 19th century suburban planning to this ancient North Haven street. The 1880’s also saw the erection of Linsley’s most important public buildings in the town, including the stick-style/High Victorian Gothic Center School and his only major essay in brick, Memorial Hall (i.e. Town Hall) in a Queen Anne Style.

From the 1890’s until his death in 1901, Linsley’s practice boomed. Commissions for large and architecturally ambitious houses increased. Perhaps encourage by newly popular architectural periodicals such as the American Architect, as well as by contemporary work in New Haven and other larger cities, Linsley’s work of this period is characteristically more confident and exuberant. It encompasses a new variety of decorative effects drawn from Queen Anne, Eastlake, Richardsonian, and Arts & Crafts Movement styles. At the same time, Linsley remained attuned to practical, local building needs and correspondingly developed a smaller Queen Anne house type of simple plan and decorative treatment of the exterior covering porch, and roof details. This is exemplified by the W.P. Leete house on Broadway and by the Tomlinson house on Bishop Street. One of Linsley’s favorite exterior features during this period, incorporated in new designs and added to update earlier buildings, indicates his continuing love for decorative carpentry: the Eastlake-style porch with turned posts and intricate scroll saw-cut strapwork in a pediment over the entrance bay.

While lacking the creative imagination and large-scale vision of more prominent architects who developed the spectrum of 19th century architectural styles on the national and regional levels, Linsley’s considerable achievement lay in his ability to assimilate these styles and adapt them to local scenery, economy and building needs, and the existing character of North Haven’s architectural context.

Linsley_ToolChest_photo_BobPotosnak
Solomon Linsley’s Tool Chest is on display at the North Haven Historical Society, 27 Broadway. The chest is elaborately hand-carved and inlaid, complete with an assortment of late 19th-century carpenter’s tools. The chest was donated by Mrs. R. Linsely Shephard of Old Saybrook sometime in the 1990’s.

 

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