Something bugged me about my Victorian. It took a few weeks of actually living in No. 139 Maplewood Avenue for it to dawn on me.
There were obvious clues that the house was altered over the years – like the footprints of two abandoned chimney hearths in the basement, indentations of “hinge prints” in door jams, a chimney in suspiciously good condition for 125 years old, and the misguided choice of Colonial-style millwork in some rooms. For a home that could boast it housed only four different families over its 125-year history, it had undergone considerable alterations.
It didn’t fit the mold of one particular Victorian architectural movement, but several. It had Eastlake-style hinges on a few doors and a banister influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, and so on.
I scoured the internet for books and articles on Victorian architecture. I stumbled on a book by Robert W. Shopell and it caught my eye – the home on the front cover had curves and steep angles similar to mine. Could this guy be No. 139’s architect? The book, really more of a catalog reprint, contained many of his drawings – hence it’s name, 101 Turn-of-the-Century House Designs. I think it was 6 dollars on Amazon, so I bought it. If my home wasn’t in there, no big deal.
Thumbing through the book, I saw a bunch of gorgeous homes, but none looked like mine. I put it down and didn’t get back to it for another week or so. When I picked it up again, I went through it page by page and found myself staring one house in particular known as No. 1265. It was mine! It was No. 139!
Turns out, this guy, Shopell, was quite the architect of his day. His company, the Co-operative Building Plan Association, located in downtown New York City, had over 12,000 clients and revolutionized architectural design. The Art Institute of Chicago writes that his “published designs, prepared by an in-house staff of architects for nearly three decades between 1881 and 1907. At its peak the firm employed about 50 architects, who provided free consultation to the customer who purchased a Shoppell plan, priced in the range of $15 to 65. Shoppell’s business intended to challenge directly the rising popularity of expensive custom-designed plans.”
Here’s the thing. Shopell altered his designs all the time – usually by builder or home-owner request. Even though the original designs offered specific “construction details”, there’s no guarantee that the Shopell homes that remain today were built accordingly. In order to figure out that out – I needed to reconstruct the home’s changes throughout it’s history from a variety of resources such as real estate listings, obvious differences in woodwork, first hand account from neighbors, and of course, the original designs helped me piece together the puzzle. And even still, I haven’t learned everything.
We just bought and are renovating a home designed by R Shoppell in Asheville North Carolina. I grew up in Maplewood New Jersey and I’m here for the Thanksgiving holiday. Would love to stop by and check out your house, you would be welcome to do so if you come to Asheville!
Hello Eric! Thank you so much for your note. And how wonderful that you live in a Shoppell home! So his designs are in NC – how cool. I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving here in Maplewood – we were away in AZ. There are two other homes that are identical to my home here in the village. And I suspect there are more. If I took a walk around Maplewood with a book of his designs in hand, I’m certain I would find more!