I am going to tell you about a very special house. It is an exquisite example of c.1870s Mansard Victorian and the former home of William Ellison Brigham. But first you might be asking, “William, what is a Mansard Victorian?” Well, it just so happens that back in 2004 I was finally in the market for my own home and I purchased a Mansard of my very own in the Brewery District of Jamaica Plain.
I was of course very fond of the historic architecture and curious as to the purpose and origin of the style. Wikipedia’s description is as such; A mansard or mansard roof (also called a French roof) is a four-sided gambrel-style hip roof characterized by two slopes on each of its sides with the lower slope, punctured by dormer windows, at a steeper angle than the upper. The roof creates an additional floor of habitable space, such as a garret. The upper slope of the roof may not be visible from street level when viewed from close proximity to the building.
The roof design was first popularized by François Mansart (1598–1666), an accomplished architect of the French Baroque period. It became especially fashionable during the Second French Empire (1852–1870) of Napoléon III. I remembered reading that this style of home had something to do with a loophole to avoid taxes but again Wikipedia set me straight.
One frequently seen explanation for the popularity of the mansard style is that it served to shelter its owners against taxes as well as rain. One such example of this claim, from the 1914 book, How to Make a Country Place, reads, “Monsieur Mansard is said to have circumvented that senseless window tax of France by adapting the windowed roof that bears his name.” This is improbable in many respects: Mansart was a profligate spender of his clients’ money, and while a French window tax did exist, it was enacted in 1798, 132 years after Mansart’s death, and did not exempt mansard windows.
Later examples suggest that either French or American buildings were taxed by their height (or number of storeys) to the base of the roof, or that mansards were used to bypass zoning restrictions.This last explanation is the nearest to the truth: a Parisian law had been in place since 1783, restricting the heights of buildings to 20 meters (65 feet). The height was only measured up to the cornice line, making any living space contained in a mansard roof exempt. A 1902 revision of the law permitted three or even four stories to be contained in such a roof.
The Mansard has become my favorite antique style of architecture and I was very surprised and excited when my good friends Bob & Julie told me they wanted to downsize. Their home at 5 Brewer St. in Jamaica Plain is extraordinary. The exterior has been restored as accurately as possible to replicate the original architecture. The interior however might be described as Contemporary Artisan.
Why reinvent the wheel? Here’s the marketing text I wrote for the highlight sheets and such. Tease me all you want about the Realtorspeak, just come see the house and you’ll agree I’m sure.
Throw the French doors open and enjoy the outdoors while preparing dinner in an incredibly well appointed kitchen. There is no shortage of cabinets and storage and only the best appliances. Chat with the chef and enjoy a glass of wine whilst seated at the enormous center island.
To one side the kitchen flows into a family room with beamed cathedral ceiling that opens to a rear deck overlooking the yard and carriage house. The other side opens to the dining and living room as well as a cozy reading room.
Dine elegantly in front of the Victorian “Windsor Arch” marble fireplace under tall ceilings accented with hand crafted plaster crown molding and a graceful bow window. Adjourn to the formal living room with full length period windows and a mirror image marble fireplace. One gets a real sense of time in the foyer where the owners have lovingly restored the chateau entry doors and the antique stair leading to the upper levels.
While the detail remains, the dark and stuffy Victorian interior has been transformed into a bright, inviting space. The top floors consist of four well-spaced bedrooms intermingled with baths, the laundry and two cozy studies. While the home is large it’s not overwhelming. There is room for the inhabitants to each find their own private spot to curl up with a book and enjoy some quiet time.
Not a single detail was overlooked during renovations. Unlike most homes of this caliber the architect employed many environmentally friendly features such as recycled denim and cellulose insulation, a four zone state-of-the-art HVAC system that functions up to 98% efficiency and high-end Marvin windows and doors.
The bathrooms are luxurious, yet unassuming and outfitted with only the best fixtures and hardware such as Hansgrohe, Toto, Jado, Duravit, Franke and Kohler. A color consultant chose pleasant Benjamin Moore low VOC paints and there are custom window treatments throughout the home. The neatly ordered CAT6 telecommunications run to almost every room in the house and provide the ultimate flexibility for technophiles.
Brewer Street is a very charming and quaint side street lined with beautiful homes and sheltered on either side by historic Eliot and Burroughs Streets. This location is a short walk from Jamaica Plain’s bustling Centre and the beloved Jamaica Pond. Just around the corner you’ll find the ever charming Footlight Club which has been presenting community theater every year since 1877.
Attend fascinating lectures at First Church or take in a class on the creative side at the Eliot School. All this and you can still walk to the subway or jump on the #39 bus which runs right past the Longwood Medical area, Museum of Fine Arts, Northeastern and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Impressive, right? Now for the history. My favorite historian, Mark Bulger over at the Remember Jamaica Plain blog turned me onto this little tidbit:
Boston Daily Globe April 21, 1907
An Equine Methuselah
According to all obtainable statistics, Jeff Brigham is one of the oldest horses in the world. He lives in the Jamaica Plain district, at No. 5 Brewer st, as a member of the family of Mrs W.E. Brigham. Thirty-seven or 38 years is no great age in a man, but it is twice the average of a horse. The animal that lives to the end of 18 years is considered to have reached a ripe old age and is usually turned out to pasture, sold at auction, or chloroformed, according to the compassion of his owner. Jeff’s owners would as soon think of administering chloroform to one of themselves as putting an end to the good old horse’s life.
Jeff has grown old with the family that owns him. He has outlived his master, and now faithfully serves his mistress, whom he conveys wherever she goes, always moving at a comfortable trot with very little indication of age in his movements. He has never been sick a day in his life, but of late years he has required to services of a dentist, not for any lack of teeth, but owing to an over supply. He has had to have his teeth filed down two or three times to prevent their interfering with the mastication of his food. Eating has always been a very important consideration with Jeff. Three meals a day, as regularly as the clock strikes, have been his never-failing portion. He is comfortably housed in a warm, new stable, built especially for him. He is accustomed to gentle treatment and a certain degree of deference to the dignity of his age. The boys George and Will, who used to romp on his back when he was a sprightly horse of 10 or 12, have grown to stalwart manhood under his supervision, and they treat him with the respect which is his due. An automobile is Jeff’s particular horror. Born before the time of bicycles, he managed to become reconciled to them in his youth, but these new devices, with their honking and puffing and locomotive speed, are too much for him at his time of life. He is exceedingly fond of music, especially of the martial type, and will march to time and cavort in dance fashion if he happens not to be harnessed.