The Oneida Mansion House

When Architectural Design Fosters Community Goals .. .   



Communities Magazine Summer 1997


In his 1977 book, A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander proposed that the structures of the built environment with which we choose to surround ourselves tend to affect our feelings for each other. When I visited the Mansion House in upstate New York, home of the 19th century Oneida Community, I could see this vividly illustrated.


Over the course of its 33 years, from 1848 to 1881, the Oneidans evolved a distinctive philosophy towards architecture that paralleled their philosophy of life. Indeed, as first observed by historian Janet White, their primary architectural statement, the Mansion House, reflected in its own detail the community's birth, expansion, decline, and dissolution.


When the enigmatic and charismatic preacher John Humphrey Noyes moved to New York from Putney, Vermont in 1848, he took with him a close community of some 50 followers, self-styled "Perfectionists," who wanted to take up the doctrine of the Apostles found in the Book of Acts, sharing all things and parting to each as he or she had need. All work was to be shared, all property joined together, and even marital and parental relationships were to be combined into group process.


Oneida's system of "complex marriage" was one of America's first free-love experiments. All adult men and women considered themselves to be married and sexually available to one another. Childbirth was discouraged in the early years, delegated by committee in later years. Children of any birth parents were considered to be children of all, and were cared for from an early age by surrogate parents in the "children's department."


Noyes and his followers wanted to be rid of the nuclear family, not by expanding to multi-generational extended families, but by creating large, open relationships among peers. Noyes encouraged and expected all members to participate in sexual encounters, but only with partners who would elevate them spiritually.


Oneida scholar Maren Lockwood Carden writes:


"In general it was felt that older persons were more advanced in fellowship than younger ones. Thus in sexual encounters it was considered far better for young men and young women to associate with persons of 'mature character' and 'sound sense' who were well advanced in Perfectionism."


Close attachments to only one partner, called "special love" were not permitted. Birth control was obtained by "male continence," or vigilant self-control. Continence, Noyes explained, "secures women from the curses of involuntary and undesirable procreation; and ... stops the drain of life on the part of man."


Within months of their arrival in New York, the original group began construction of the "Old Mansion House," a three-story wood building enclosing roughly 30 feet by 60 feet. The lower floors are divided into thirds, with kitchen, dining room, and root cellar on the first floor, parlor, school room and print shop on the second floor.


It must be seen from the dedication of limited space to printing that the group placed a high priority on spreading word of what they were about. The print shop transcribed meetings, published a newsletter, and printed books by Noyes.


The third floor of the Old Mansion House, called the "tent room," where curtains separated ten or more compartments with double beds, was devoted to sleeping and sexual liaisons. The attic above was divided into two unpartitioned dormitories for members who did not engage in what came to be called "interviews" between members in the tent room.


Between 1849 and 1852 additional wings were added, which included a dozen bedrooms, some smaller tent rooms, and an even larger tent room. This may reflect that some Oneidans discovered they actually enjoyed the relative lack of privacy for intimate matters and wanted that feature kept in the new design.


Children were housed separately, in the shanty houses and log cabins that had come with the land.


The community's common household tasks were also reflected in building design: the house had a single kitchen with one large bake oven, one large dining room, and one laundry. Washdays became weekly community festivals with vigorous philosophical debates, splashing good humor, even "a grand musical chorus."


The second floor of this first dwelling was dedicated almost entirely to a large, well-appointed parlor, with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows to eastern and western views of unobstructed field and forest. Its south-facing French doors opened onto a veranda above a spectacular panorama. Here the Perfectionists gathered daily for discourses on Noyes' philosophy, organizational meetings, and "mutual self-criticism" -- periodic structured gatherings in which the strengths and weaknesses of various individuals were openly and candidly discussed. The parlor became the architectural center of community life. "The love we bear to our old parlor is like the affection one feels to a kind parent," recalled one member.


In contrast, private space was "fragile and transient," with individual private spaces often separated only by wire and curtains that could be pulled back on short notice to create other spaces. It was Noyes' intention to gradually eradicate people's separate lives entirely and replace them with one big family life and "an advanced morality."


Within two years the community swelled to 109 adults and needed more space. In 1859 members built a much larger Victorian brick and stone structure, the "New Mansion House." Buoyed by the financial success of their metal fabrication factory and patented animal traps, the Perfectionists were able to lavish upon their new construction many of the features they felt lacking in the earlier version.


In the New Mansion House, one enters into a wide reception hall adjoined by reception rooms to either side and a large central library to the rear, with more collections of books in side rooms. Up a staircase to second floor one enters a second reception hall, flanked by display cases for gifts brought by visitors from all over the world. In the center of the building is the two-story Great Hall, with seating for 500, and another 200 in the third-floor balconies -- more than twice that required for the entire community as it gathered for nightly meetings.


Children's Hour occurred often after supper, when those children selected for evening's entertainment paraded out into the Great Hall or into one of the upper sitting rooms to perform music, recitation, or dance and to interact with the adult community. A lower sitting room was used largely by the older members who preferred quiet discussion or reading to livelier entertainment.


Walking the corridors today one is immediately impressed with the transmission of sound in an era before radio and television. Bedroom corridors radiate from side doors and balconies of the Great Hall. With the Hall doors open, the sound of string quartets, dramatic readings, opera, and public discourse carried clearly down the corridors and over open transoms into the bedrooms. Here one could sit, knitting by candlelight, rocking, and listening to Il Trovatore, HMS Pinafore, or Our American Cousin.


Because the Great Hall lacked the intimacy of the beloved old parlor, the Oneida family attempted to recapture a sense of closeness by providing smaller though still spacious sitting rooms on either side of the first and second-floor reception areas. Since only a relatively small number of members could enter these rooms at one time, intimacy was gained at the expense of inclusion. (And in the Great Hall, inclusion at the expense of intimacy.) The new Mansion House had begun to speak to its more than 200 full-time residents, and to instill in them a sense of appropriate community scale.


In the new house tent rooms and double bedrooms were eliminated, replaced by single bedrooms for most adults to sleep in, and larger "social purpose" rooms for intimate liaisons. Where in 1848 Noyes had conceded double bedrooms to members who had joined the community as married couples, in the 1862 Mansion House those distinctions were eliminated. Members were expected to have interviews in the social rooms for a period of time, then go off to private rooms to sleep. This was because the practice of male continence tended to encourage all-night lovemaking sessions (as the men's desire was not diminished), and if couples didn't show some restraint and go to sleep they'd be too tired for community tasks the following day. Social purpose rooms tended to be more lavishly furnished, while bedrooms were more spare, denoting the relative ranking the community assigned to collective and personal comforts.


Seven years after completion of the New Mansion House, an L-shaped south wing was added which more than doubled the size of the enclosed area. Seven years later, a north wing was begun, but left unfinished as the community began to break apart.


Many of the improvements added in 1869 and 1870 had to do with better heating, lighting, water and sanitation, but one feature was distinctively an effort in social engineering. A South sitting room complex dubbed "Hamilton Avenue" went in near the second floor landing of the busiest stairwell, with corridors of bedroom doors extending away to the East and Noyes' study to the North. Nearby workrooms drew in non-residents. An individual passing in through the West entry or ascending the stair tower would thus come in sight of both Noyes' study and the South sitting room and whoever occupied either at the time. Bedroom doors, which formerly adjoined continuously occupied public spaces, now opened from less conspicuous corridor space, broken up by jogs and wide landings. Liaisons, which had become increasingly awkward to arrange as the size of the community expanded, could now follow a pattern of social dance, with available singles gathering in the South sitting room and disembarking for interviews under the approving gaze of Noyes. Likewise, visitors and tradesmen passing through this busy entranceway might find in the allures of Hamilton Avenue a good excuse to linger and learn more of Perfectionism.


While organized (and transcribed and printed) mutual criticism sessions formed one mainstay of social order, there were stiffer sanctions. The Mansion House provided a form of internal banishment called "Ultima Thule." This was reserved for "deviants," but in practice assigned to those unfortunate women who arrived at Oneida when their husbands joined the Perfectionists, and who refused to adopt the community's sexual mores. After 1869, these women were segregated on the western third floor where they spent most of their days. They did not come into contact with the "family" at the dining table. Their meals were brought to them. "Ultima Thule" was an architectural cul de sac, not on the route to anywhere else, and not in the social flow patterns of the community. Adding a Hamilton Avenue along the lines of that on the second floor would have immediately changed the life of those in "Ultima Thule" but that was not the intention of John Humphrey Noyes. This was punishment. Conform or suffer.


When Noyes' strength began to falter with advancing age, a new generation of leadership ascended in hopes of salvaging the financially successful but increasingly uncertain family. Additional wings, opened in 1878, featured steam heat and newly devised flush toilets on each floor. The large central kitchen and dining building even boasted a mechanical dishwasher. However, the new buildings held no tent rooms and very little random mixing space. If anything, the residential wings resembled Ultima Thule. Residents wanted this space precisely because, in a period of factionalism, disharmony, and schisms, they had no desire for increased social intercourse. These wings, designed and built by outside architects, and approved by the community, were distinctively un-Oneida-like. To compensate, those Oneidans who still sought the camaraderie of their waning fellowship began gathering in the "quadrangle" -- that area of grass now enclosed by the three wings of the Mansion House and the Dining Hall. When social form became architectural emptiness, emptiness gave birth to form.


We humans, as patterns of vibrations intersecting with other patterns of vibrations, are without distinct boundaries and are continuously influenced by our surroundings. Unless we block off our sensations, we feel these influences in a variety of ways. Too little sunlight makes us pensive; too much makes us lethargic. We need a sense of the outdoors even when we are inside, shade and security when we are outdoors. We need private space and we need public interaction, needs which architecture and landscape design should address.


Fourth-century Rome (population one million) boasted 856 public baths, some with more than 100 occupants at any given time. The baths were considered indispensable, not just for cleanliness, but for the social interactions they engendered. The Finnish sauna, Turkish and Japanese baths, the Russian banya, and the Native American sweat lodge serve much the same function: establishing public intimacy. And what is community if not public intimacy?


Public intimacy can be found in the keyhole plazas and park trails, in street games and sacred dance, in sitting rooms and on benches by water fountains. The built environment works best when adapted to climates and social contexts, worst when out of balance with either.


What helped Oneida find itself as a free-love community was the restriction, through architecture, of private space, and the creation of space for intensive group interaction. What brought an end to the community after just 33 years was its over-reliance on its founder, the large scale of the experiment, the neglect of the natural love between bonded couples and between parent and child, and the earnest need we all have for privacy, rest, and a place to be alone.


Albert Bates is an attorney, educator, and author who lives at The Farm community in Summertown, Tennessee. He serves as regional secretary for the Global Ecovillage Network and publishes a quarterly journal of sustainability, The Design Exchange.