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Nestled snugly, almost invisibly, in a thickly wooded ravine, framed majestically by wind sculpted bluffs, teased gracefully by a broad expanse of Mississippi River -- the storybook-like village of Elsah captivates the attention and imagination of all who pass through its narrow, tree-shaded streets.  

Two-hundred fifty million years of exposed geological history caress the Elsah valley and loom along the River's edge while atop these prehistoric palisades the remnants of prairie ecology gently blanket artifacts of once populous Indian cultures.  This dramatic oasis on the edge of vast stretches of midwestern flatness has attracted the human spirit for many thousands of years.

In such a context Elsah's modest past as a 19th century village is a mere speck of time in the scope of history.  But because the Village is an integral part of our visual landscape , it has become of ever increasing interest as symbolic of a recent, albet, bygone era.

Certainly it is hard to imagine a more dramatic setting for any village in the Midwest than is found in Elsah.  Named Mt. Radiance and Mt. Pisgua, two stately bluffs dignify Elsah's riverfront entry and beckon the curious-minded to explore for of this hidden hamlet.

Once in the valley itself, visitors often remark that Elsah "feels so much like New England."  Unfortunately, this casual observation leads to the mistaken assumption that Elsah is a New England-styled town.  This conclusion is not accurate.  Most of Elsah's first residents came from the mid-Atlantic states, the South, and the Midwest.  Actually, it is a rather young community by regional standards -- not being actively organized until the early 1850's when its Founder came here from Kentucky.  None of these facts detract, however, from the indigenous charm, wonder and grace which have always characterized the Village.

If Elsah is to be compared in feel to some other place, perhaps it ought to be a small village in the British Isles with clusters of stone cottages interspersed with intimate yards and tidy gardens.  (Old photographs of Elsah document a tendancy for Elsah builders to place their structures adjoining one another not unlike those found in old-world communities.)  Elsah's Founder, General James Semple, had ancestors from Scotland and it is said that he may have selected the small rock-like island just off the Firth of Clyde -- "Ailsa Craig" -- as the namesake from which "Elsa" was derived.  For Semble, Elsah's prominent limestone bluffs and pronounced valley terrain were logically reminiscent of ancestral homelands and maybe even civilization itself.

Ultimately, however, the architecture of the Village is decidedly of midwestern character.  The striking simplicity, even rustic nature of some of its buildings betray the rugged setting which hosted pioneer families for at least the first twenty-five years of their efforts to establish a viable community in this section of Illinois frontier.  Today, the somewhat primitive feel to Elsah's character emits an aura of fascination to both visitor and resident alike.  Perhaps we find nourishment in recent evidence of our pioneering past.

By virtue of its time in history, Elsah is clearly a product of the pervasive romantic attitudes of mid-19th century America.  Elsah's founding and most intense growth coincided with an was influenced by popular national trends in architectural styling -- trends which parted ways with traditional colonial classicism.  Literary America was aglow with romantic attitudes; and American builders reveled in the application of ancient Greek motifs, castellated Gothic ornamentation, and even exotic Egyptian shapes to their architectural efforts.

Ignoring the inherent contradictions of seeking an original "American Style" from diverse European and Mediterranean sources, architects profusely published their interprettations of "appropriate tastes". Builder's handbooks and style manuals were readily available even in remote sections of the American frontier and these pattern books articulated both aesthetics and construction details. An air of exuberance prevailed throughout the Young Republic and beneath the picturesque tranquility which Elsah exudes today, one can sense the unsophisticated optimism of a fledgling democracy.

The romantic style which was the initial and prevailing one in Elsah and which today serves as a golden thread of unity throughout the Village is called "Greek Revival."  It flourished in the United States from about 1820 to 1860 -- although Elsah was somewhat behind the peak of Greek popularity if measured by national trends.  Nevertheless, the Village must have presented a striking visual image of consistency just before the Civil War.  The Greek Revival Style in America did not originate in New England nor was it more popular in the northeast than in other regional areas.  It was inspired in part by the Greek War for Independence (1821-1830), and by concurrent archeological research in the Greek Isles. It was a perfect match, philosophically, for the proud and stately political climate of the burgeoning United States.  Professional architects created textbook examples of the style in cities throughout the country and the production of printed style manuals "spread the word" to the most remote hamlets.  Surprinsingly versatile as a style, the Greek Revival found itself subject to a diverse regional interpretation. For example, in Illinois stone and brick were more frequently used for construction and creative effect than in the East.  (Hamlin)

Elsah's adaptation of Greek Revival motifs was nominal by normal standards:  It did not create Temple-like porticoes and elaborate pediments on its buildings.  But the essential princples of classical Greek Revival design -- symmetrical balance, geometric proportion, rational form, and bold detailing -- were accomodated to Elsah's simple buildings.  So integral to the original edifices were tehse design traits that a surprising number of them have weathered the changes which fad and fashion imposed in the years following.  (In the nearby communities of Grafton, Godfrey, and Alton one can see excellent examples of more elaborate Greek Revival architecture in which the similarity to ancient Greek temples is obvious.

Therefore, as one looks at Elsah's oldest buildings, one is not looking at regional New England design -- but at a national design style with local interpretation.  This is one of the most valid reasons behind Elsah's unique contribution to the Illinois landscape.

Greek Revival motifs were used by Elsah's early builders.  It is the consistency with which these motifs were used that clearly separated Elsah from the post-colonial styles that lingered into the 1830's and early 40's.  Only a very few elements from these styles appeared in the Elsah valley and when used they were subordinate to the predominant Greek styling.  Having no eastern or southern colonial past, Elsah was free to emerge as an indigenous midwestern town influenced by national tastes and architectural trends.

As you walk through the village today, try to imagine Elsah's modest cottages without the gracefully redeeming features of even the simplest Greek Revival elements:  You will discover how much these elements contribute to the aesthetic refinements of the most humble building.

Eventually, the Greek Revival gave way to other, more exuberant styles.  The Gothic Revival, for instance. In America, the Gothic in architecture has often been associated with excessive decoration and detail. Elsah has only one remaining example of a Gothic Revival cottage which proudly sports a verge board. 

Elsah is an example of a community where the mixture of creative adaptation, raw aspiration, and economic reality often removed any semblence of the ideal from the final product.  Many of Elsah's cottages were unquestionably examples of economic expedience.  

This sober fact was not unique to Elsah but common everywhere and actually spawned a style of its own.  The invention of the power jig, scroll and band saws enabled Americans to readily adorn their simple edifices with "thin boards" galore -- creating a style of "frippery and gingerbread" which has come to be known as Carpenter Gothic.  Into this category fits much of the filigree which, in Elsah, found its way onto once pristine examples of Greek Revival design.  As examples of folk-art-in-architecture, these details deserve to be vigilantly preserved and meticulously duplicated when repaired or replaced.  Elsah would be much less 'fun' to look at without these authentic decorations.

One of the truly valuable contributions to the Illinois cultural landscape which Elsah is able to make is a documentation of the 19th century American attitudes as expressed in "country" architecture. So honest and simple was this manifestation in Elsah (and today so free from the intrusions of the 20th century indiscretion), that every effort should be made to protect the letter and spirit of Elsah's legacy to future generations. For these reasons alone it is valuable to have Elsah listed on the National Register of Historic Places and to have well-written, supportive zoning ordinances.  

There were many other stylistic influences which manifested themselves in Elsah alongside the Greek and Gothic Revivals.  Folk Victorian, for example. It is not unusual for Americans to be somewhat confused by the meaning of the word "Victorian" as applied to our domestic architecture. The question is often asked, "how come Elsah does not have any examples of Victorian architecture?" -- based on the assumption that this style of architecture refers only to large, highly ornate, vibrantly painted edifices.  It is true that the term "Victorian" is generally accepted to refer to the thirty-five years following the Civil War but in fact the Victorian era propertly encompasses the entire reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901).  This span of time includes an amazing spectrum of economic, social, and political attitudes as well as of architectural styles.  Within this framework all of Elsah's architecture is properly Victorian!  As to why Elsah doesn't have examples of "high" Victorian architecture -- the more oppoulent variety -- it is probably due to the combination of Elsah's confined geographic space and its generally modest economic success.  Although, it should be mentioned that just atop the two bluffs which frame the valley there once stood two examples of large, fairly flamboyant, and unmistadably "high" Victorian architecture -- one French Revival mansion and one Stick Style Hotel!

Some historians do prefer to make a valid distinction between the first half of the 19th century which was dominated by classical tastes in design and the last half of the century when medieval forms and textures were the genesis of the more elaborate Victorian styles.  It is easy to forget that steep gables, varied textures, exposed framing, asymmetrical floor plans and facades, and even castle-like turrets were all of medieval prototype!  Because Elsah's growth spurt occured mostly prior to 1865, the architectural influence which prevailed was the sedate and harmonizing classical Greek.

One last consideration of the notion that Elsah looks like a New England village.  Perhaps it is the tendency to equate "old in appearance" with "early American."  Let's remember that Elsah is a late 19th century village:  Most New England communities have their roots in the late 18th century (or earlier).  It is Elsah's relatively unchanged 19th century appearance (as compared to the vast majority of other American towns), that enables it to so effectively document vanishing aspects of midwestern pioneer culture.

There is one example of Italianate architecture in Elsah, which was an early 1880's remodeling of a Greek Revival house. The doorweay remains to remind us of the origianl style.

 A typical Italianate house is squarish and  usually two storiies high:  Assymmetrical floor plans and facades which included towers were more often found ona variation known as "Italian Villa."  Even though these styles originated as a reaction against the classical Italian traditions of ancient Rome and the later Renaissance era, the Italian countryside remained the source for English and American architects to offer various interpretations in their published pattern books.  Early examples were rather modest in detail and form; later examples were good representations of sterotypic "High Victorian" imagery.  

Roofs were usually low pitched or hipped; large, overhanging eaves were supported by ornamental brackets; and a "lantern" or "cupola" or "widow's walk" often capped the roof mass.

Also typical of the style were rounded, arched or pedimented windows; cast or stamped metal or wood-lathed decorative features; and tall, double-door entrys.

Historians for the National Trust and The Historic American Buildings Survey indicate that this style is also known as Tuscan, Lombard, Round, Bracketed, and even "American" because of its nearly national popularity in this country in the 1860's and 1870's.  

French Revival:  No other single style contributes as much to the "romantic" feeling of Elsah than does this one. It is also known as the "Second Empire" or "Franco-American" or the "General Grant" style.  Similar in many ways to the Italianate, it is the prominent roof shape which makes this style so quickly recognizable.  This roof form is called "Mansard" and is named after the 17th century early French Baroque architect, Francois Mansart.  Two centuries later, in the 1850's and 1860's, the roof shapes again became popular in the revitalization of Parisian architecture (including the Louvre), under the Second Empire reign of Napolean III.  

The introduction of the French Revival style to the world community was aided by the occurence of two World's Fair Expositions in Paris in 1855 and 1867.  Americans readily adapted the Mansard Style and it became synonymous with large buildings and ornate detailing. Even Elsah had a dramatic manse built atop its east bluff -- a landmark prominent to all who travelled by river. Known as "Notch Cliff", this summer home was of particular note because of its exaggerated Mansard roof!  Built in 1872, it may have set the tone for several building projects in the Elsah valley. Notch Cliff burned in 1911.

All across the Untied States the French Revival style flourished.  Large city buildigns and isolated farmhouses proudly sported the distinctive form and fashionable filigree.  One obvious, practical feature of the style was its ability to convert otherwise limited attic space into living area. In Elsah, the small Greek Revival cottages were perfectly suited for Mansardic modernization because of teh new roof profile could literally double the size of small homes. Historians identify the years 1855-1885 as the appropriate decades for the expression of this style but Elsah was still remodeling in the mode as late as 1892.

The style's development marks another important shift in the patterns of American architecture because it was the first post-Civil War style to break from the studied motifs of the Greek and Gothic Revivals.

Saltbox and Gambrel: Saltbox is most often called "Saltbox" in the north, "Catslide" in the south, or "Leanto" in the midwest.  A better way to identify this building is "a Greek-Revival style house with a saltbox-shaped roof".  "Saltbox" refers to the shape more than to style.  Many people readily picture typical colonial New England houses when thinking of the saltbox shape but saltbox prototypes were actually of postmedieval English design which as fashions evolved, may have incorporated any one of several different stylistic features.  By far the most common American "saltbox" house was only a simple folk form with a subsequent leanto addition such as that found on the Elsah example presented here.  

Gambrel: Today people associate its shape with that of "old barns" but in fact its widespread use on American barns is really a phenomenon dating from the 1920's and 30's.  Otherwise, it was used primarily on Dutch, English and Flemish colonial houses located heavily in the mid-Atlantic states and associated with the style and era known as "Georgian" (1700-1830).  The English are credited with importing the shape into Virginia, the Carolinas, and other southern states.  They also preferred to use wood instead of stone or brick.

The Elsah example pictured here has a profile which is found on southern colonial houses with some frequency although the Elsah example is, as can be expected, reduced to barest form. The nine-over-six sash and close eaves identify the house shaped as one of Elsah's oldest.  The original had an operable Dutch door for its front entry.

Folk or Cottage Victorian:  While the Carpenter Gothic mode of the 1850's-70's was basically a derivative of the Gothic Revival Style, its most common use was for singular decorative adornments such as door coverings, porch brackets, barge-boards, etc.  Folk Victorican applies to structures in the years 1870-1910 which had enough decorative detailing or folk form to make a significant impact on the stylistic appearance of the buildings and these features were most typically derived from the Italianate, Queen Anne, Shingle, and Stick Styles.  Their use was meant to mimic more pretentious buildings but beneath the fancy facades could be found simple folk forms of often the most basic floor plan.  The Elsah example represented here includes a substantial 1980's enlargement to the very plain, small, early 1900's square cottage.  Note the exterior wooden surfaces known as "drop" or "German" siding.  

Farmhouse or Bungalow:  These two examples reflect an important aspect of domestic architecture which is not especially evident in Elsah:  The vast majority of homes at any one time in history are usually not unique or otherwise noteworthy even though they may be graciously ddsigned or handsomely proportioned.

From 1860 to 1910 the simple L-shaped and T-shaped two-story farmhouse was very common in both farm and rural town settings. Lacking any distinctive features, its basic facade was symmetrical (perhaps of post-colonial or Greek Revival evolution), and it usually had a front porch which focused around the entry.  Easy to build, these dwellings are still a common sight although they lend themselves to dramatic alteration and eventual disguise. Elsah has only two examples of this style left, one of which was dramatically altered in 1936.

The "Bungalow" or "Craftsman" styled homes in Elsah are represented in this sketch.  This pleasant fashion became so popular in the early 1900's and it so typified the prevailing mode in many communities that it is almost taken for granted as "the" basic house style of its time.  It was actually a style which had its origin in California but received so much national publicity and was featured in so many plan books, that its California origins were quickly forgotten.  It's many theme-and variations span the years 1890 to 1940 and include elements of Queen Anne, Stick, and Oriental styling.  Even Sears & Roebuck offered through their catalogue, components to build a bungalow!  One tell-tale feature, in addition to the pronounced front porch, is the use of "exposed" rafters and "knee" brackets.

There are many miscellaneous styles of extensions and additions and outbuildings.  All of these unique variations make Elsah a picturesque and one of a kind Village.  Furthermore, the preservation of a village like Elsah does not serve to contradict the virtues and inevitability of change, but rather to illustrate the worth of occasionally isolating a community from the effects of unmonitored growth.


From  A Pictorial Primer of the Architecture Found in the Village of Elsah by Glenn Felch - Used With Permission from Glen Felch