From a Bristol perspective, the Codman House, located at 42 High St., may not be the best place to begin our tour of buildings built by women. The Codman sisters were from a Boston family. But, it’s a great building with a very visible gender arrangement. See the tower on the north side of the property? That was built five years later, after Catherine and Maria’s brother, Henry, moved in. Heaven forbid it should appear that he lived with his sisters. Nope, he got his own bachelor pad.
The Codman House was built in 1870 by architect George Champlin Mason, Sr., for Catherine Elizabeth and Maria Potter Codman. The Codman sisters were the daughters of real estate magnate and lawyer Henry Codman (1789-1853). Henry left his children a lot of money—millions in today’s dollars—and a house in Roxbury, MA. Catherine and Maria, who was still a child when her father died, lived there for a while. Then, in 1870, they decided to move to RI. Why they chose Bristol when so many other Bostonians had opted for Newport is unknown. But whatever the reason, they made Bristol their permanent, year-round home.
The house is a typical Mason design. Mason was a Newport architect well known for his mansard roofs, cubic shapes, and front piazzas. All of these features are readily visible here. Also visible is Mason’s penchant for asymmetrical accents on symmetrical buildings. See the octagonal bay on the north (left) side? It’s one story and sits closer to the street. Now look at the south (right) side. Two stories and more in the middle of the building, right? That’s asymmetric symmetry.
The porch and the bay windows created convenient ways for the sisters to view the surrounding landscape. I know it doesn’t look it, but the landscape was designed. It’s supposed to look like Mother Nature made it when, in fact, she didn’t. This quality is called “picturesque.” The large trees standing by themselves (these are called specimen trees) suggest that much of the original landscape survives. This is pretty cool because landscape tends to grow, making it very difficult to preserve accurately.
The Codman House still has many of its original details. The brackets on the porch and under the eaves are pretty elaborate—and if you look at the tower just above the second level, you can see where Mason continues the lines of the original block to make the two units match. But, the best part is the cast-iron cresting on the porch and roof. It’s that little thing that makes the house extra nice.
Inside was extra nice, too. The plan was symmetrical, with a center hall dividing the library and dining room on the south (right) from a double parlor on the north (left). The two parlors had white marble mantels with elaborate fire screens. The sisters’ initials were etched on the fire screens, one sister for each parlor. No need for sibling rivalry here! The parlors probably also housed the family portraits, which were painted by Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley. These are now owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Maria died in 1902 and the house was sold soon after her death. Catherine died in 1898. Poor Henry died in 1879, only four years after his tower was constructed. He is buried in Juniper Hill Cemetery. I have no explanation for why Catherine and Maria never married. Perhaps it was a lifestyle choice. Perhaps they never fell in love. Who knows. Their estate passed to their niece, Martha Catherine Codman Karolik, whom you might know as the owner of Berkeley Villa (Bellevue House) in Newport. That house was designed by Martha’s cousin, Ogden Codman, Jr. The Codmans clearly liked to stick together.
The Codman House is a product of its time. It was fashionable. It was proper. It respected. And, it was a pretty cool building.
Next up: Sarah Herreshoff