The Mysterious Corncob Capitals of Prospect Park

Photo by Susan De Vries

by

If you’ve ever wandered around 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 astonishing sight — architecturally speaking.

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

It turns out the columns (and the house) were designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis, one of the architectural greats of the 19th century. Rather than include a traditional classical capital on the columns of the porch, Davis created his version of an American order. He incorporated corncobs, partially shucked from their husks, and sheaves of wheat, curling particularly gracefully at the corners.

Photo by Susan De Vries

Photo by Susan De Vries

Davis was not the first to transform a classical element using American symbolism. In 1809, Benjamin Henry Latrobe incorporated a corncob capital into the Senate Chamber of the U.S. Capitol. Latrobe also translated tobacco leaves into column ornamentation at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and again at the U.S. Capitol.

brooklyn architecture corncob column 95 prospect park west

Left: Latrobe’s corn capital in the Senate Chamber. Photo via the U.S. Capitol Right: The Smith Hall corn and wheat capitals by Davis. Photo via the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives

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

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

brooklyn architecture corncob column 95 prospect park west

Photo by Susan De Vries

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