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Crissey Place: The Changing Shape of 19th-Century Norfolk

By Ryan Bachman

Like many New England towns, Norfolk boasts an impressive selection of historic architecture. Colonial-era farmhouses face seldom-traveled backroads, surviving industrial buildings stand along the Blackberry River and Gilded Age summer homes line the shores of various lakes. Individually, each of these buildings illustrates a select period of the town’s history, and efforts at historic preservation have traditionally focused on structures like these, which tend to represent a single snapshot of an area’s past.Newer schools of thought, however, are recognizing the cultural value of historic buildings that have been noticeably renovated and remodeled from their original state. Such structures can tangibly show the ways that a community and its residents changed over time. Crissey Place is a unique Norfolk home that traces how the town transformed over the course of the 19th century.

The different architectural styles evident in Crissey Place reflect the changes in taste and prosperity in the history of Norfolk. Photo by Bruce Frisch

Crissey Place is located near the southern edge of the village green and is part of the Norfolk Historic District. The house is most recognizable by its distinctive mansard roof and cupola. As Michael Kelly wrote in the February issue of Norfolk Now, the house was originally built in the 1790s but owes much of its current appearance to a late 19th-century renovation.

The combination of architectural styles visible at Crissey Place gives the home what historian Kingston Wm. Heath has termed a “patina of place.” According to Heath, buildings are a vital source for understanding a region’s history: as a structure is altered by generations of homeowners, it takes on a metaphorical “patina” that can be analyzed to study how an area changed over time. The patina of Crissey Place reveals how Norfolk changed from a farming village into a modest mill town.

Crissey Place was built by innkeeper Darius Phelps in 1795. The building, which functioned as a dwelling and tavern for decades, was built in the Georgian architectural style, which flourished along the East Coast from the early 1700s until the end of the American Revolution. It was especially popular among middle-class New Englanders living in agricultural communities, much as Norfolk was at the time.

But by the time Phelps built his inn, the Georgian style was already declining in popularity. Its persistence in Norfolk may speak not only of Phelps’s tastes but also of the community’s relative isolation from more populated areas where newer architectural styles were taking root. The most noticeable difference between Crissey Place’s current appearance and its original state is the roof. Phelps likely topped his tavern with the side-gabled roof characteristic of Georgian architecture.

Phelps’s property was obtained by the Crissey family shortly after his death in 1818, and Ralph Crissey became the owner of the building in 1860. Crissey worked as an agent for a Salisbury iron firm that manufactured locomotive wheels, and it was he who gave the home its current appearance. The Crisseys exemplified the select local families that prospered as Norfolk and the surrounding areas took on a more industrial character during the 19th century. Ralph Crissey’s father had originally worked as a subsistence farmer but was able to purchase the Phelps home with money he later made from the booming charcoal industry. The industrialization of the Northwest Corner not only provided the Crisseys with the funds necessary to buy Crissey Place but also influenced their new dwelling’s redesign.

Sometime between 1860 and 1888, Ralph Crissey removed his home’s Georgian roof and added the current mansard roof and cupola, textbook traits of the Second Empire style then in vogue. Unlike Georgian architecture, the Second Empire style was mostly popular with wealthy city dwellers and was never widely adopted in rural New England. Norfolk’s newfound place within manufacturing networks led to increased connectivity with other areas of the country and helped spread new ideas to the community. Crissey’s redesigned house served as a status symbol that showcased his personal wealth and also his worldly appreciation of contemporary trends.

The multiple types of architecture prominently displayed at Crissey Place tell the story of how Norfolk changed during the course of the 19th century, from rural farming community to manufacturing town. Crissey Place is a truly unique symbol of Norfolk’s past and a perfect example of the type of building that many preservationists today are most interested in studying.




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