The McGuffey House

An Architectural & Structural Overview of William Holmes McGuffey House

Built 1833, enlarged 1858, modified ca. 1866 and ca. 1905

McGuffey House and Elliot Hall, Miami University

McGuffey House (above)
Elliott Hall (below)

The William Holmes McGuffey House is the second oldest building on the campus of Miami University. Elliott Hall, or "Old North Dorm", completed in 1829, is significant as being the oldest extant collegiate dormitory in Ohio, and among the oldest in the nation. Elliot Hall is located a few hundred feet north of the McGuffey House, immediately south of the Beta Bell Tower.

Stylistically, the McGuffey House is an excellent regional example of Federal vernacular architecture, a style generally popular in Ohio from 1790 to 1840. The Federal style is named for its association with the post-Colonial, early American republic. This English-derived style is distinguished by its attention to classical detail and simple elegance. Vernacular structures were typically designed and built by skilled carpenters who were influenced by local climate, available building materials, and local building traditions. Builders' guidebooks such as William Pain's Practical Builder (1762) and Asher Benjamin's The Builder's Assistant (1800) helped standardize key aspects of Federal architecture.

Morgan House, Carry Cottage, Betts House

Top to bottom: Elisha Morgan House,
Cary Cottage, Betts House

Federal vernacular houses in southwestern Ohio often exhibit flat three bay facades with side-facing gables relieved by evenly spaced window and door openings. Other regional examples of three-bay Federal vernacular brick architecture open to the public include the Elisha Morgan House in Fairfield (1817), Cary Cottage in College Hill, Cincinnati (1833) and the Betts House in Cincinnati (1804).

It is highly unlikely an architect was involved in the design or construction of the original house. Early 19th century architects in Ohio were not licensed as they are today, and until 1850 few were known to practice outside urban centers such as Cincinnati, Hamilton or Dayton. In 1840, Charles Anderson noted in an early address to Miami alumni:

It is believed that most of these buildings [at Miami] were erected without plans or architects, either as to the particular building, or to the proportion and relative position of the whole group. Nor indeed is it known whether an architect has been consulted in regard to future additions.
—Anderson, Address to the Society of Alumni. Oxford: John Peat, 1840, p. 12

In small towns such as Oxford it was more customary that a local house joiner or builder designed and built houses according to guidebooks, local building traditions, material availability and client's specifications. To attain the status of a master carpenter or builder was no small achievement; traditionally a seven year apprenticeship was required.

Many local builders were highly skilled craftsmen and their work often exhibited considerable and sometimes remarkable sophistication. Their talents can be seen today through the quality of their finish and detail work, especially staircases, fireplaces mantels, interior trim, and exterior walls. All of the original brick and woodwork employed in the construction of the McGuffey House would have been hand made and fabricated in Oxford, and most likely would have all been custom work overseen by the supervising brick mason, millwright and carpenter. The house is evidence that these builders were master craftsmen of their era.

Several brick buildings on Miami's campus and within the Square Mile share similar design elements to McGuffey House. Elliott and Stoddard Halls, The Beta Theta Pi House, and the Campus Ministry buildings were all built ca. 1825-1835, all exhibit Flemish bond masonry, and all originally had or retain Federal interior woodwork. Although documentation supporting a common builder(s) has not been found, the physical similarities among all of these buildings suggest the possibility of a common brick mason or carpenter. We do know James T. Slack was the chief contractor and superintendent of construction for Stoddard Hall, begun in 1833 and completed in 1835. Stoddard Hall is nearly contemporary to McGuffey House.

Stephen Gordon, Curator
Fall 2006

Continue to Kitchen