Thursday, March 8, 2012

Electrifying History: Wiring "Downton Abbey" and Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House

Downton Abbey fans, this one's for you:

Lady Mary and Carson the butler try out another new-fangled device.
The hugely popular PBS program, entering its third season, is set at the Victorian estate of Downton Abbey at the end of the Edwardian era - a time of great social, political and technological change.  One such change, which provides a good deal of comic relief in the first season, is the advent of domestic electric service.  Upon seeing and electrified chandelier in one of Downton's retrofit salons, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) shields her eyes with her fan and exclaims "oh...the glare!  I feel as though I'm on stage at the Gaiety!"  Later, below stairs, the staff discuss other large houses that have been electrified - even in the kitchen - and kitchen maid Daisy wonders aloud "whatever for?"  Both the family and staff at Downton express fears of the "vapors" produced by this strange, new power supply in their midst. 

Sir Charles Barry's drawing for one of Highclere's towers, 1842.
The main set for Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, ancestral home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.  The current house on the site is a Victorian, gothic revival tour de force designed by Sir Charles Barry (who famously created the Houses of Parliament, London). Highclere was retrofit for electric service by Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, in 1895 [see video:  Downton Abbey - a House in History].  Although many large, aristocratic English houses were electrified by the beginning of World War I, domestic electric service was not widespread in the UK until well into the 20s (by the beginning of the decade, fewer than 10% of British households were wired to an electrical network, and most of those utilized it for lighting only - Daisy, take note). 

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, NY, the elite of the Queen City were building their own Beaux Arts and gothic revival mansions, and supplying many of them with electricity from the start.  The Darwin D. Martin House was no exception:  the house was designed to be electrified, yet, surprisingly, not by virtue of the massive supply of power being generated 20 miles away at Niagara Falls, but rather by a private dynamo located in the carriage house basement.  This was not uncommon, at a time when Niagara's hydro power was being used primarily for street-lighting and industrial applications.  But it does seem ironic in retrospect that the Martin House, built a stone's throw from the electrical displays of the Pan-American Exposition (1901), should require its own source of power.  The Barton House, pilot project for the Martin House complex, was equipped for gas lighting originally, but soon converted to electric (using the same fixtures).

The Martins' impressive dynamo in the carriage house basement
Of course, the Martin House - described by the Illustrated Buffalo Express as a "Jules Verne" house ("A House of Many Oddities," 9 October, 1904) - was unconventional in most every respect.  But one has to wonder whether the staff at the Martin House feared electrical vapors or scratched their heads over the potential of an electrified kitchen.

Use your electrical computing device to CLICK HERE for a fascinating history of electricity at the Biltmore estate.

And - an interesting blog post on Downton, electricity and the future of energy HERE.

Experts on the history of electricity in Buffalo are invited to weigh-in and provide further factoids, corrections and clarifications, without resorting to fisticuffs, please.



barbara said...

Any indications or comments anywhere as to what the dynamo sounded like? Or what happened to it when the carriage house was demolished?

EJF said...

Hi Barbara -

Sorry, there are no indications of what the dynamo sounded like, or what became of it. But Im' sure it wasn't quiet!

Rich & Martha said...

Somewhere in one of Martin's diaries he said he had a generator because the cost of electricity was about 40 cents per light bulb per month. Our little accountant quickly did his math and determined that he had 350 light bulbs x 40 cents each which was more than he was willing to pay.

Martin was having at least a car load of coal delivered annually so he preferred generating his own electricity.

EJF said...

Thanks, Martha. That jibes with Martin's (relative) frugality.

Rich & Martha said...

Regarding the dynamo in the carriage house: it was in the basement, far from the main house. When the carriage house was demolished the dynamo was probably sold for scrap. Most likely it was taken out and sold during WW II when it was getting $7 a ton. A long list could be made of items sold for scrap and then recycled - but we didn't call it that - for the war effort.

Douglas said...

I would like to know how was the house wired. I'm sure in high class houses like this they would not accept wires going on the wall destroying their expensive decoration. And without anything to hide the wires, besides wallpaper, how was that properly installed?

francoselectric said...

Articles that are good and very interesting, I love reading the articles you make.
electrical services