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Symmetrical Architecture at Riversdale



north exterior facade of Riversdale

The Federal style of architecture was prominent in the United States between the 1780s and 1840s. The style contained less decorative details than previous designs and emphasized balance and symmetry. This may be seen in the arrangement of windows, chimneys, doors, and porches. While Riversdale appears to be symmetrical from the exterior, there are quite a few inconsistencies on the interior. Follow along to see some of the ways the interior design doesn't quite match up with the symmetrical exterior.


The salon is at the center of the house, connecting the formal dining room and parlor

When Henri Stier designed Riversdale, he was adamant that the three formal entertaining rooms (dining room, salon, & parlor) be arranged in the European style - en suite. The term "en suite" is French and means "afterward" or "following". These three connecting rooms all flow into one another.


Main staircase, obstructing window

The problem with designing these rooms in the center of the house meant that the main staircase needed to be built off to one side. Have you ever seen a staircase built across a window? Removing the window would have meant throwing off the exterior symmetry of the house so instead, the staircase was built across the bottom 1/4 of the window [right].


Partial window in servants' staircase

You could say that the exterior of Riversdale was built to perfection first, and the interior design was an afterthought. With a hallway running the entire length of the first floor, rooms and other features were arranged on either side wherever they would fit.




Partial window in butler's pantry

Do you think it's odd that the main staircase cuts across the window? Here's a similar example: there's half of a window in the servants' stairwell [above]. Where's the other half? In the butler's pantry [right]! This allows natural light in both of these spaces but does not work well with the exterior design.



Bottom 3/4 of window in George Calvert's study.

In the west hyphen, George Calvert’s study and the bedroom above it share a window. The study has 3/4 of the window [left] and the remaining 1/4 is at floor level in the bedroom [below]. There is a gap of several inches between the ceiling/floor and the window. This makes for a not very private office (or bedroom).

Top 1/4 of window in bedroom above George Calvert's study.






Let's go up to the attic (off limits to visitors)!

Take a look at the exterior photo of the house again [below]. How many chimneys do you see on the center block of the house? 4? Great!


North facade of Riversdale with chimneys numbered, 1-4.

Chimney #1 (double flue) connects to the master bedchamber, nursery, and dining room fireplaces.


Chimney #4 (double flue) connects to the guest bedchamber, parlor, bedchamber above the study, and study fireplaces.


Arched chimney, connected two fireplace flues.

Chimney #3 (single flue) connects to the best guest bedchamber and George Henry's bedchamber fireplaces. Wait, aren't those rooms across the hallway from each other? Yes, yes they are. #3 is a unique, arched chimney that connects two flues into one flue to leave the house [left]. Why? For exterior symmetry of course!



Faux brick chimney with wooden support system.

Chimney #2 (single flue) connects to nothing. Yes, you read that correctly. #2 is a faux chimney, designed to create exterior symmetry! An elaborate wooden support system holds up the chimney that is just tall enough to match #3 on the roofline [right]. How's that for preserving the exterior symmetry?




In conclusion, the exterior symmetry was important because more people were going to see your house from the outside than the inside. If some of the private and work spaces of the house didn't match the symmetry of the outside it didn't matter much because guests weren't going to see those spaces. The family wanted what was practical on the inside, rather than what matched the exterior perfectly.

Just remember, perfect symmetry on the outside, a bit inconsistent on the inside.



Main staircase obstructing window.

Post by: Maria G. Cathell, Riversdale Historical Society, Social Media Manager

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