Western Reserve Appearance

You are starting out on an exploration of the village of Hiram, Ohio, and its relationship to the region it is in—the Connecticut Western Reserve. Whether you are looking at this site on your computer--in Hiram or anywhere in the world where you can access the Internet--or are actually standing before the Library with an iPaq in your hand, these pages aim to inform you about the nature of one particular place. You are standing both in and on a landscape. As you look around you, you notice both the natural landscape and the built environment. The natural landscape consists of the topography of the land—in Hiram’s case you are actually on a hill that is more than 1200 feet above sea level—and the flora and fauna that inhabit that landscape. Hiram Hill, looking west from Udall Road. The library, part of the built environment on that hill since 1995, is one of many examples of human construction in this place over the past two hundred years. Its entrance, with its complex and dramatic design, has an important relationship to Hiram's setting. You can’t help but notice the way in which the architect (Steven Foote of Perry Dean Rogers Architects) has divided and subdivided the façade into many variations of the square. Those squares suggest not only the predominate windows in the early architecture of the village of Hiram, but they mirror the grid that lies below your feet. You are also standing on an unseen landscape. It is a map of northeast Ohio, a giant grid set down beginning in the 1790s that has an enormous impact on the ways in which we have come to perceive our environment. 1826 Map of the Western Reserve of Connecticut (Fox Map Collection, Hiram College Archives). If we look at a series of early maps of northeastern Ohio, there are several things that stand out. As a consequence of decisions that had been made by the Connecticut Land Company, the survey party, led by Moses Cleaveland in 1796, laid out the Western Reserve in parcels—called townships—that are five miles square. The Western Reserve is made up of the counties (quite visible because of the square townships) in the northeastern portion of the state. It turned out to be a unique land measurement in the new United States. The dimensions proved hard to reconcile with feet, yards, miles, and acres, and subsequent to the proportioning of this region, the greater part of the rest of the west was surveyed in six mile squares.  For a fuller discussion of the surveying process, see George Knepper's book The Official Ohio Lands Book. For early surveyors of the Western Reserve and for the settlers who were enabled by their work to buy and settle the land, the strict geometry of five-mile squares must have been gratifying. The 1837 Ohio Gazetteer says of Gustavus, a village about 30 miles east of Hiram, “It is pleasantly laid out, for the most part, in squares, each square one mile in length and breadth.” As difficult as the task was that loomed before them—of moving to and clearing an uninhabited wilderness—the regularity imposed by the map on the landscape suggested that human ingenuity could solve almost any problem settlers might face. By reducing what could be a threatening environment to arithmetic and geometry, newcomers could summon the courage for the task that they faced.  Here is an example of the specific tools used by an early Western Reserve Surveyor, at the Ohio Memory Project (No. 23). Look around the library. Check the pictures you see on your iPAQ with what is before you. There are, as we already have seen, many variations on the grid pattern reflected in the many types and styles of windows on the building.  This window is on the west  side of the building. There are some subtler suggestions of the grid beneath our feet on the diagonal patterns that are worked into the east tower and façade of the building. Hiram, apart from the College buildings, is a frame built community. Across Hayden Street on the west side of the Library, Jessie Smith House (the Education Department of the College) exhibits characteristics of grid, symmetry and proportion in frame buildings. A central two- story wing is flanked by two single-story wings that, except for slightly different roof heights, are identical. Just as we stand on an invisible grid wherever we are in Hiram, the buildings that we look at also have a structural grid that lies below the surface of what we see. Most pre-Civil War buildings in Hiram—as elsewhere in the Western Reserve—are constructed of post-and-beams (or lintels); that is, the frame, hidden beneath the external siding, is composed of large wooden, geometric units of heavy, wooden upright posts which carry the weight of, sometimes, enormous horizontal beams. A house recently razed in Shalersville (one township south and west of Hiram) on State Route 44 bared its geometric bones to the world in the Spring of 2005. Note the massive hewn-timber beams that outline the basic shape of each floor of the house. The analogy to a map on which roads and villages are placed can hardly be missed! As you walk around the village and township of Hiram, each early wooden structure you observe is built in a similar fashion. A good example of an early Hiram dwelling is the John Johnson House (a museum run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) at 6203 Pioneer Trail. Built in the late 1820s, it is easy to discern the geometric elements that govern its design. Closer examination reveals the geometry and symmetry that dominate the aesthetic of the house. The symmetrical arrangement of the east side of the house (the front, facing Pioneer Trail) continues throughout all the units of the composition, from the beautiful door to the individual panes of the window sash. If you tour the house, the parlor—the most fashionable and highly decorated of the first floor rooms—holds a startling surprise: the floor is painted in a bold pattern of brilliantly colored squares! It is a folk art treasure, the idea for which was doubtless brought by John and Elsa Johnson from Vermont when they emigrated to Hiram in 1818. The invisible grid is made visible! Back to the village of Hiram! Directly south of the Hiram College Library stands the Hiram Inn. The core of the house that is now the Inn may, actually, have been older than the Johnson Home. However, that oldest part of the Inn no longer exists, but the front of the Inn, facing Route 82, is nevertheless a remnant from the Hiram that existed before the College was founded in 1850. Until 1992 (when the College acquired it) the house had been the dwelling of many generations of descendants of Thomas and Lydia Tilden Young who emigrated to Hiram in 1812 from Lebanon and Windham, Connecticut. The unusual length of the front (it is an “eight bay house”; a conventional 19th century house is either three or five bays wide) calls attention to the way in which geometry has determined its appearance.  This is the five-bay section of the house to the west. This is the three-bay section to the east. There are subtle, asymmetrical aspects of the front if you look closely, but the overwhelming impression—because of the multiple variations on the square—is of order and proportion. If you step just a bit west of the Inn, look north beyond it for a singularly beautiful example of intersecting geometric angles in the rooflines of the Library and Hayden Auditorium beyond it. And if you now turn around you will see the Hiram Christian Church to your left and the Zeb Rudolph house to the right. The church building (the third on the spot) is an early twentieth century structure that, even though it avoids many traditional elements of church architecture, has many interesting angles and intersections. The belltower looks almost pagoda-like. The Rudolph House, on the other hand, was built during the Civil War in the Gothic Revival style. The steep roofline, the veranda, and the charming “rose” above the door on the second floor, have more in common with medieval sacred architecture than the red shingles and bricks of its neighboring church! Strict symmetry—the grid—has still been followed in the design of the house. Directly west of the Rudolph House is one of the oldest houses in the village, the Thuel Norton House, here as it was depicted in the 1874 Portage County Atlas. The extensive outbuildings are long gone, replaced to the west (on the right hand side of the picture) by a Victorian house. Here, as it appears today. It is a simple cottage, but it exhibits playful variations on the window grids (whole and half sashes in the gable end) that were used by the Library architect in his design. Until the early 1970s, this house stood across Route 82 from the Norton House. It was moved (in order to build a now defunct bank) to a site south of the Hiram Church near the Village Hall, where it was restored and has become the museum headquarters of the Hiram Historical Society. Its orientation to the street is a 90 degree turn from its neighbor--rather than the gable end, the long end of the house faces the street. Interior rooms also dictated a quite different arrangement of doors and windows. It is as though there were two distinct divisions of the facade governed by the pronounced symmetrical grouping of the "eyebrow" windows (the single sashes just below the eaves). The "light" (window) above the door suggests an early date for its construction.