The Art of Architecture in Hillsdale County

By Christopher Riley

All photos by the author.

Buildings are both the most abundant and least appreciated of artistic creations. Ask an educated man to envision art, and he will, more than likely, imagine merely da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or the jarring cubism of Picasso. The lowly Greek Revival residence standing a few blocks from his home hardly merits notice. Paintings and sculptures, cloistered in museums and displayed proudly in parlors, draw praise, whereas the myriad dwellings constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries receive scant attention from lovers of art history, perhaps because they are commonplace. By nature, humans tend to overlook the ordinary. Yet buildings serve as the most tangible evidence of a society’s history and its perception of beauty.

The city and county of Hillsdale, like many American communities, encapsulate the country’s changing tastes in architecture. Hillsdale County was formed from the Michigan Territory in 1829 and organized in 1835; Jonesville, platted in 1830, functioned as the first county seat, or center of government. [1] In 1843, this government chose to relocate to Hillsdale, a town slightly closer than Jonesville to the county’s center. In both locales, interesting buildings abound.

The northeasterners—natives of New York state, mostly—who flocked to Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, constructed primarily braced frame residences in the Greek Revival style, in accordance with the architectural norms of their homeland. Unlike other Midwestern states, Michigan never witnessed the development of a rich tradition of log construction (though log structures were, and remain, common in the forested counties of the Upper Peninsula, a region of Scandinavian settlement), and the state was populated too late to enjoy the formal architecture of the Federal period (approximately 1788–1835).

Thus, Hillsdale’s architectural legacy begins in the Greek Revival era. Grecian architecture rose to prominence in America by the 1840s, inspired by Jefferson’s Palladian experiments and the temples of democratic Athens, and popularized by the pattern books of Minard Lafever and Asher Benjamin. Two of Hillsdale County’s finest extant examples of the style, the William Murphy House and Munro House, stand in Jonesville. The Munro House, slightly awkward in its proportions, is the earlier of the two (reportedly the oldest structure existing in the county), having been constructed in stages between 1834 and 1840. Murphy built his splendid house between 1845 and 1850, though its Ionic porch was apparently appended in 1911. A similarly detailed Doric porch, with entasis (bulging columns) and triglyphs (grooved tablets), adorns Hillsdale College’s own Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house.


The Munro House in Jonesville, Michigan.

The Italianate style, indirectly inspired by the villas of rural Italy, predominated in the decades following the Civil War, which roughly marks the turn from neoclassical to picturesque (or, in common usage, “Victorian”) architecture. After the war, Greek Revival buildings were seldom built. Some academics schooled in the classical tradition scorned the exuberance of late 19th century structures; as the designer I.T. Frary quipped in 1936, early builders “had never gotten the knack of making ugly things, an art in which their descendants excelled.”

The Art of Architecture in Hillsdale County

All photos by the author.

Buildings are both the most abundant and least appreciated of artistic creations. Ask an educated man to envision art, and he will, more than likely, imagine merely da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or the jarring cubism of Picasso. The lowly Greek Revival residence standing a few blocks from his home hardly merits notice. Paintings and sculptures, cloistered in museums and displayed proudly in parlors, draw praise, whereas the myriad dwellings constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries receive scant attention from lovers of art history, perhaps because they are commonplace. By nature, humans tend to overlook the ordinary. Yet buildings serve as the most tangible evidence of a society’s history and its perception of beauty.

The city and county of Hillsdale, like many American communities, encapsulate the country’s changing tastes in architecture. Hillsdale County was formed from the Michigan Territory in 1829 and organized in 1835; Jonesville, platted in 1830, functioned as the first county seat, or center of government. In 1843, this government chose to relocate to Hillsdale, a town slightly closer than Jonesville to the county’s center. In both locales, interesting buildings abound.

The northeasterners—natives of New York state, mostly—who flocked to Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, constructed primarily braced frame residences in the Greek Revival style, in accordance with the architectural norms of their homeland. Unlike other Midwestern states, Michigan never witnessed the development of a rich tradition of log construction (though log structures were, and remain, common in the forested counties of the Upper Peninsula, a region of Scandinavian settlement), and the state was populated too late to enjoy the formal architecture of the Federal period (approximately 1788–1835).

Thus, Hillsdale’s architectural legacy begins in the Greek Revival era. Grecian architecture rose to prominence in America by the 1840s, inspired by Jefferson’s Palladian experiments and the temples of democratic Athens, and popularized by the pattern books of Minard Lafever and Asher Benjamin. Two of Hillsdale County’s finest extant examples of the style, the William Murphy House and Munro House, stand in Jonesville. The Munro House, slightly awkward in its proportions, is the earlier of the two (reportedly the oldest structure existing in the county), having been constructed in stages between 1834 and 1840. Murphy built his splendid house between 1845 and 1850, though its Ionic porch was apparently appended in 1911. A similarly detailed Doric porch, with entasis (bulging columns) and triglyphs (grooved tablets), adorns Hillsdale College’s own Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house.

The Italianate style, indirectly inspired by the villas of rural Italy, predominated in the decades following the Civil War, which roughly marks the turn from neoclassical to picturesque (or, in common usage, “Victorian”) architecture. After the war, Greek Revival buildings were seldom built. Some academics schooled in the classical tradition scorned the exuberance of late 19th century structures; as the designer I.T. Frary quipped in 1936, early builders “had never gotten the knack of making ugly things, an art in which their descendants excelled.” [6]


The front porch of the William Murphy House in Jonesville.

Though hardly matching the classical elegance of, say, a marble colonnade in an Alma-Tadema painting, the buildings erected in Hillsdale between 1865 and 1900 reveal an optimism unique to the post-war period. Two buildings on the Hillsdale College campus illustrate the Italianate style particularly well. The Lorenzo Dow House, now a dormitory, is a textbook example of the type, with its asymmetry, tall tower (emulating the Italian campanile, or bell tower), generous roof overhang, and bracketed eaves. Central Hall, which replaced the original Hillsdale College building after an 1874 fire, is also chiefly Italianate.


The Lorenzo Dow House, also known as the Paul House, serves as a dormitory on Hillsdale College’s campus.

If the Italianate and Gothic Revival styles (the latter omitted from this essay because of its scarcity in Hillsdale County) brought about the architectural eclecticism of the late 19th century, the group of related styles collectively termed “Queen Anne” perfected it. Such architecture originated as an American response to the work of British designers Richard Norman Shaw and Charles Eastlake. Carpenters, using jigsaws, turning lathes, and other woodworking tools [7], freely combined motifs from various styles, adorning their creations with rich ornamentation. So-called “Victorian” homes are undeniably showy (see, for example, the colorfully painted Jonesville residence illustrated in this article), and, for some, obnoxious. Despite this extravagance, the men who built these houses at least deserve commendation for their invention.


Portico, Hillsdale. A fine example of the Classical Revival style as applied to residences.

About the turn-of-the-century, classicism once again enjoyed a renaissance. The earliest Classical Revival residences of this period melded late 19th century forms with Greco-Roman ornamentation; at least one guidebook categorizes such architecture as a subset of the Queen Anne style, rather than a style in itself. The Classical Revival mode was particularly popular for institutional structures, and architects designed innumerable courthouses, libraries, post offices, and banks in the style. In Hillsdale, notable Classical Revival buildings include the 1911 City Hall, 1912 Post Office, and a number of residences.


A Victorian Jonesville residence

Neoclassicism never disappeared entirely (indeed, certain classical motifs have become clichés in suburbia), but its relevance diminished in the postmodern era. Greco-Roman architecture, it seems, is yet again in vogue, if the rift between the Hillsdale College buildings erected in the 1950s and 1960s (Simpson, McIntyre, and Olds dorms, especially) and those constructed in the last decade is any indication. That “traditional” architecture persists in the West, despite intervening faddish periods, is a testament to its brilliance.

Christopher Riley is a sophomore.

[1] History of Hillsdale County, Michigan (Philadelphia: Everts & Abbott, 1879), 124.

[6] Ithna Thayer Frary, Early Homes of Ohio (Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1936), 232.

[7] Ibid., 237.

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