William Burritt Mansion

Also known as: Burritt On The Mountain
3101 Burritt Dr., SE., Huntsville, Alabama

Individualized structure full of unconventional neoclassical details and unique structural features

Photos 

Entry to the Park

Photo taken by J.R. Manning May 2017

Map 

Description 

"The William Burritt Mansion, located in Huntsville, is a highly eccentric mountaintop house. It was apparently designed by its owner, William Burritt, with some assistance by an architect, possible Edgar Love, in technical matters and other details. The house overlooks the city of Huntsville, one thousand feet below. The site, Roundtop Mountain, consists of 167 acres of cleared and wooded land, several 1850s coal mines and a late 1880 quarry which provided stone for Huntsville"s jail and city sidewalks. The site also contains several relocated 19th-century and more recent structures which are all noncontributing; none of these resources are included in this nomination.

"In 1935 construction began on the house. It was just completed when it burned on June 6, 1936. It was rebuilt with some modifications of details and materials and completed for the second time in 1938. The original beginning date of 1935 is cast into the concrete shield above the entry.

"The plan of the house resembles a maltese cross. Four angled one-story wings join a central two-story eight-sided section which is fronted by an extremely attenuated distyle portico, a free variation of a pedimented fluted doric order. All roofs, except the small pediment, are flat and concealed by stepped parapets with molded concrete caps. The outer corners of the parapets are topped with large molded concrete palmette acroteria that could be a variation on the type shown on page 107 of Bannister Fletcher's 1956 edition of A History of Architecture on the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. At the concrete pediment, the triglyphs and guttae are widely spaced on a frieze that has no defined metopes in the classical sense. The triglyphs give the appearance of being applied rather than being an integral part of the frieze. The tympanum contains in relief an elongated elliptical shield containing the incised date "1935," the date construction began on the first house.

"The exterior walls are sheathed in asbestos shingles of a light gray color with a beltcourse of fluted concrete. The wall corners are similarly trimmed with a vertical fluted concrete ell. The windows are divided-light steel casements, mostly 24 lights (16 lights on the second floor.) The frames and face-trims of the windows are molded concrete with backbands and corner-block decorations.

"The three shouldered, exterior end chimneys and two interior chimneys are made of sandstone obtained on the site, faced with fluted concrete on the roof-side for added strength. The front entry has sidelights and an elliptical fanlight, as do the two side entries at the points of the maltese cross. The concrete "keystone" has edge-molding and a raised gothic-font "B". Above the entry is a Baroque-flavored balcony with scroll brackets and a bulbous cymarecta stap-iron-and riveted balustrade. The wall behind the portico is ashlar-pattern vee-joirt "stone" cast concrete. A narrow elevated masonry and concrete terrace runs the length of the front. In recent years a visually compatible metal railing has been added to the terrace and front steps to meet current code requirements, as well as a handicapped access ramp at the southeast side.

"The entrance hall contains a spiral stair whose balustrade design is similar but not identical to the 1930s HABS photograph from the early 19th century Burritt House on Eustis Avenue in Huntsville. This house was demolished about the same time that the Mountaintop Burritt House was completed to make way for the Madison County Health Department Building at 304 Eustis Avenue. Dr. Burritt salvaged at least two Federal Period mantels from his ancestral house with the intent of installing them at his new mansion. These were finally installed around 1958 after the house became a museum, in the southwest parlor of the southeast chamber.

"At the rear of the house is a flat roofed conservatory. Its windows are 1982 replacements, and the canvas awning outside was added in 1989.

"Perhaps the most interesting technical aspect of the house is the unique insulation material, hay bales. Burritt stated that he got this idea while visiting a farmhouse in Missouri on a hot day. He walked into the shadow of a haystack and immediately felt cooler. Burritt used 2200 bales of wheat straw as insulation. 1 For the roof, the bales were first impaled with two wooden, stakes. The loose bales were wrapped with criss-crossed baling wire and troweled with "brown coat" plaster. Each bale was then placed on a leveled scaffold platform at the ceiling elevation. Each bale stake and the baling wire was then nailed to the roof joists. The joints between the bales were stuffed with loose straw that had been treated with boric acid for fire resistance, since this loose straw, rather than the tightly compressed hay bales, had been the source of the 1936 fire. After leveling the bales and stuffing the joints, the ceiling was daubed with rough brown-coat plaster and then finished with smooth white plaster.

Historical Summary

"William Burritt was born in 1869 in Huntsville. His father, Amatus Rabbins Burritt, a homeopathic physician from New York, married Mary King Robison in 1866. William Burritt also chose medicine as his profession and set up practice in Huntsville. However, in 1900, Burritt moved to St. Louis, Missouri with his second wife, Josephine T. Drummond. From 1903 to 1927, Dr. Burritt shifted his attention from medicine to the rubber industry. He received over 22 tire patents in the United States and foreign countries.

"In 1934 Burritt returned to Huntsville to build his mountain top retirement estate and community showplace on Monte Sana Mountain, the highest point in the city. 24 men were employed under the direction of G.H. Walters, superintendent of carpenters and Carney Gardiner, superintendent of labor. In June 1936, a fire destroyed the entire building and Burritt claimed he would not build again.3 However, the public sentiment and sympathy was so strong that he changed his mind and began construction again this time fireproof ing the straw by soaking it in a boracic and borax solution.4 The second mansion was completed in 1938.

"Burritt lived in the mansion until his death in 1955 at the age of 86. Having no heirs even after three marriages, Burritt willed the mansion and the surrounding estate to the City of Huntsville. Since 1955 the site has served as the Burritt Museum and Park. It houses art, natural history and prehistoric Indian collections."

Adapted from the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form prepared by Harvie P. Jones, FAIA and Jennifer Bryant/AHC Intern Reviewer of the Historic Huntsville Foundation, April, 1991. A link to the document is listed below under "Sources."

National Register information 

Status
Posted to the National Register of Historic Places on May 29, 1992
Reference number
92000627
NR name
Burritt, William, Mansion
Architectural style
Late 19th and 20th Century Revival: Classical Revival
Area of significance
Architecture
Level of significance
Local
Evaluation criteria
C - Design/Construction
Property type
Building
Historic function
Single dwelling
Current function
Museum
Period of significance
1925-1949
Significant years
1936; 1938

Update Log 

  • June 3, 2017: Updated by J.R. Manning: Updated listing, added description and added photos

Sources