Brooklyn Structure: Mysterious Corn On The Cob Capitals

If you’ve ever wandered the side of the mid-19th century mansion in Prospect Park known as Litchfield Villa, at 95 Prospect Park West, you may have noticed an amazing sight – architecturally.

A close examination of the pillars on the porch reveals cobs and sheaves of wheat on the capital rather than the usual acanthus leaves of the traditional Corinthian order.

It turned out that the columns (and the house) were designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis, one of the architectural greats of the 19th century. Instead of adding a traditional classic capital to the porch pillars, Davis created his version of an American order. He processed corn on the cob, some of which had been torn from their shells, and bundles of wheat that curled particularly gracefully at the corners.

Photo by Susan De Vries

Davis wasn’t the first to transform a classic element with American symbolism. In 1809 Benjamin Henry Latrobe incorporated a corn cob capital into the Senate Chamber of the US Capitol. Latrobe also translated tobacco leaves into columnar ornaments in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and again in the US Capitol.

Brooklyn Architecture Corncob Pillar 95 Prospect Park West

Left: Latrobe’s corn capital in the Senate Chamber. Photo via the US Capitol Right: Smith Hall Corn and Wheat Capitals by Davis. Photo via the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives

Litchfield Villa wasn’t the only Davis building to display its harvest-themed capitals. Others were Smith Hall, now the Playmakers Theater, at the University of North Carolina, which was completed in 1852. Another example from 1852, the William S. Archer House in Virginia, did not survive the Civil War.

But Litchfield Villa’s capitals are believed to be the only surviving examples in New York City. Davis designed the villa for Edwin C. and Grace Litchfield; it was completed in 1857. The house now serves as the office for the New York Department of Parks & Recreation as well as the headquarters of the Prospect Park Alliance, which supports and maintains the park.

Brooklyn Architecture Corncob Pillar 95 Prospect Park West

Photo by Susan De Vries

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