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You won't believe the carvings in this home

Posted at 10:18 AM, Nov 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-20 10:18:57-05

CINCINNATI — James Schrichten had become anxious about testing fate. In the 15 years he has owned the historically registered Benn Pitman House on Columbia Parkway, Schritchten had climbed onto the 1878 home’s 90-or-so-year-old tin roof to repair leaks, scrape, power wash and repaint.

He did the job four times, but when he and his partner became parents of a little girl in 2014, the emergency medical doctor decided his roof climbing days were over and that it was time for the Pitman House to get a new lid ­– an all-copper roof that would last at least 100 years.

“I didn’t want to keep risking my life redoing the roof every five years,” Schrichten said.

“It’s very dangerous,” he said of his Spider-Man act. “I did it with a couple of friends. You have to tie yourself off with ropes. When we had Caroline, I decided I was done with that.”

Roofers from the Durable Slate Co. are climbing all over the Pitman House these days, aiming at completing the job – which includes rubberizing the widow’s walk roof, renovating its two chimneys and installing heated Yankee gutters and double-folding, standing-seam copper panels – sometime around the first of the year.

They’re not restoring it to its original state – Schrichten believes the roof was made of wooden shakes – but it should seal up one of the most original and permanent art-filled homes in Ohio for decades to come.

Pitman (1822-1910) – an Englishman who came to America to market his brother Isaac’s phonetic shorthand system but ended up founding schools for shorthand and carving, as well as founding the art carving department at the Art Academy of Cincinnati – used his Italian villa-style home as a laboratory for his students.

He created designs for wooden doors and frames, floor boards, molding, ceiling beams, fireplace surrounds and just about every wooden surface on the home’s first floor for his students to carve. There is little repetition, and the designs depict organic elements Pitman would have found on his property such as barn swallows, fruits and flowers.

Pitman rose to prominence as a carving teacher, not a professional carver, during the Aesthetic Movement of the second half of the 19th century, when the followers of anti-industrialists John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Morris brought images of nature into their homes in the form of carved furniture, paintings, linens, art pottery and other decorative furnishings.

All of Pitman’s students’ artwork – some of which was done by his English daughter, Agnes, and his second wife, Adelaide (1859-93), who was the twin sister of famed painter Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938) – survives in Schrichten’s home, minus a few painted fireplace panels and several pieces of carved furniture, such as Pitman’s massive mahogany bed, that is displayed in the Cincinnati Wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The exterior of the two-story house, Schrichten said, originally was a sandstone-colored stucco with green trim. Today, it is a light gray with white and dusty rose trim. Intricately carved sandstone features on the façade include a crest with the initials “BP” in the center and a cornerstone hidden under an east-side deck that reads “July 5 ’84.”

The real wow factor, however, is inside.

Guests climb steep steps, pass the 1969 National Register of Historic Places plaque and the “BP” crest and on the side of the house facing Columbia Parkway, and enter the house through an enclosed porch. 

Immediately inside, they are blown away by all the hand carving on various woods that Schrichten said include walnut, cherry, mahogany and oak. The foyer’s fireplace catches the eye first. Across the top of its tin insert in Victorian script is carved the motto “Content – it is a crown which seldom kings enjoy.”

The dark, heavily carved fireplace’s over-mantel, which Schrichten found in the basement, rises to the ceiling. It features four pockets that once contained two silver medallions and two paintings, possibly done by Adelaide Pitman and/or Elizabeth Nourse. Schrichten filled the cubby holes with mirrors and displays pairs of identical mid-century pottery on their shelves.

From the middle of the original oak-floored foyer, visitors get the choice of entering three rooms that feature more unique carvings. To the left, the westernmost and sunniest room is a shrine to Pitman’s only son, whom he named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The door to the room is believed to have been inspired by the Alhambra, a 15th-century castle in Granada, Spain. It features deeply carved barn swallows and one of two carved elements in the house unrelated to the Aesthetic movement: a Cyrillic motto Schrichten was told translates to “No one can overpower Allah.”

The second diversion from the movement are two lions rampant on the lower panels of a glass paned double-door in the foyer that Schrichten said might have come from Pitman’s first house on the hillside below Columbia Parkway.

The inside of Emerson’s room, which Schrichten uses as his office, features two more word carvings. The door features sunflowers and a sunrise, and its center panel reads: “God hath blessed you with a son to be your comforter.” Across the room are carved these words from the poet Emerson: “Poetry is the only verity.”

To the right of the foyer is the dining room where it is believed Pitman kept the grand bedstead his young wife carved as a wedding gift in 1882 and 1883. The 160-square-foot room features the second of the house’s stained glass windows – five of the 19 Schrichten has had restored with two more to go – and French doors that lead out to the home’s east-side patio.

Through the foyer’s lions rampant door and a short, heavily carved hallway is the house’s most magical room. The 12-foot-by-23-foot room features a 27-foot-high cathedral ceiling and a Juliet balcony under the east-side’s peak. It leads to a vaulted, second-floor room believed to have been intended to house an organ for Emerson, who died at age 16, 10 years before his elderly father and seven years after losing his mother.

A row of stained glass windows, whose rough quality hints that they may have been made by art students, possibly those of Pitman, sits below where the vault begins. The wood-framed windows run the entire 23 feet of the north-facing wall.

Across from the windows is the cathedral room’s grand fireplace and its thick, heavily carved, dark wood mantel. Originally, the over-mantel’s three vertical panels contained paintings of organic images of which Schricten found in an old photograph. He commissioned Art Academy graduate Adam Lindner to interpret them and paint new ones.

“The center panel had been long-necked geese and looked really weird. They were flying really chaotically,” Schrichten said.

He said Lindner drew inspiration from the barn swallows on the door to Emerson’s room, studied swallows in the wild and even had a few mounted so he could see them up close before painting a group of dive-bombing birds to put in the center panel.

A carved door leads to a modern kitchen in the northeast corner of the house that connects to the dining room. There is a small bathroom tucked under the staircase.

The small, second-floor music room features three carved gothic arches that bring light in from the Cathedral Room as well as a large, north-facing window and antique chandelier. It’s a great reading and napping room, Schrichten said.

There is a bathroom and three bedrooms on the second floor, all with river views, but the carving, other than that in the music room, stops at a corner panel where an art student carved a small, stippled celestial scene. Even the hallway’s walls become less fancy – rough panels instead of the plaster used on the first floor.

A tight staircase at the east end of the second-floor hallway leads to a tower room, and a narrow ladder from there takes visitors up to the widow’s walk, whose low iron rail Schritchten restored this summer.

Views from the tower stretch to Columbia Tusculum to the east and the Cincinnati skyline to the west.

That view and those out his bedroom window are among the reasons Schrichten said he’ll never abandon the house he bought after completing his medical residency.

He had never heard of Pitman before seeing the house, and had no idea what upkeep it would require: He hand cleans the woodwork he can reach each winter, using water and a little Murphy Oil Soap, a toothbrush and soft towels.

“I just fell in love with this house, so it came with the territory,” Schrichten said of the annual maintenance and, of course, the roof repair.

Soon, he can cross the latter off his to-do list.

Benn Pitman and Abraham Lincoln

A book could be written about the gray-bearded Benn Pitman: his first marriage and children in England, his arrival in Cincinnati at age 51 to study art, marriage to one of his students who was 37 years his junior and the early loss of her, Emerson and an infant son named Ruskin.

One of the most fascinating stories about Pitman connects him to Abraham Lincoln, but not when the 16th president of the United States was alive. Pitman’s talents as a stenographer were so admired that the federal government hired him to lead a team that recorded the trial of Lincoln’s accused assassins. Pitman later edited it down to 400 double-column pages and published it using his own money.

To this day, that Pitman report is considered to be the most valuable record of the trial, according to the humanities and social sciences website H-Net.

More on Cincinnati Art Carving

The local bible on the subject is Jennifer L. Howe’s 2003 book “Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors,” which she edited when she was an associate curator of decorative arts at Cincinnati Art Museum.

For an art critic’s take on the Pitman bedstead, visit discoveringthestory.com/goldenage/bed/background.asp.