Syracuse University Library
Department of Special Collections
Oneida Community Collection

Oneida Community Mansion House:
Historic Structure Report

Digital Edition.

This digitization project was supported by Regional Bibliographic Databases and Interlibrary Resources Sharing Program funds, awarded by the New York State Library.

I. Introduction

In 1848, a small group of Christian Perfectionists seeking to build a utopian community, came to settle near the Oneida Creek in central New York State. Under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, a charismatic and enigmatic man, the experiment known as the Oneida Community was born. The Oneida Perfectionists enjoyed 32 years of success as they communally built a viable social, religious, and economic enterprise. At the end of its existence as a formal communal society in 1881, the Community distributed its substantial assets to members in the form of joint stock.

Founded on the principles of the Primitive Christian Church, the Perfectionists sought to order their spiritual and physical worlds as a communal people living and working together as one large, extended family. Seeking to create a "Heaven on Earth", the Community were intimately involved with the ideas and beliefs that might bring closer together the spiritual and physical realms of their existence.

The Oneida Perfectionists were first and foremost a religious society. Their social organization grew out of their belief in a communal family structure of individuals of all ages living and working together in spiritual harmony. Their goal was to attain a spiritual, social, and economic balance on the personal and community levels and thereby provide a model for a new world order. Internal social regulators at Oneida such as "Complex Marriage", "Mutual Criticism", and "Ascending and Descending Fellowship" were institutions created to further the spiritual mission of the group and to help them with the daily trials of their existence.

The physical environment created by the Community was also a conscious, planned, and ever evolving effort. The material well-being of the Community was intricately linked with its goal of spiritual perfection of each individual member. Noyes understood the concept of his "Bible Communism" to include a pleasant, efficient physical environment which would help the group to achieve a spiritual equilibrium.

To this end, the Community were ever improving and changing their built-environment.

As the community grew in number and prospered economically, its plans for specially organized structures containing private and public spaces for living and working were realized. The built environment at Oneida, in architectural style and function, gradually became more sophisticated and organized.

By the time of the formal end of the experiment in 1881, the Community had grown from 87 members in 1849 to 306 in 1878. Their "domain" consisted of more than 265 acres of farmland, orchards, vineyards, gardens and meadows; industrial buildings included silverware, trap, and silk factories; a fruit canning house; a foundry; carriage, horse, and cow barns; a printing office; store; and numerous "sheds". Their principal dwelling and working house, the "Mansion House" had evolved from a simple frame residence to become a complex of architecturally significant masonry structures occupying a central position atop a hill in the middle of their domain. Located amidst a picturesque landscape of stately trees, formal gardens, expansive lawns, and wide vistas, the Mansion House buildings were testimony to the successes of the Oneida Community experiment.

An introduction to the history of the Oneida Community would be incomplete without some discussion of the ability of the original Community and its subsequent incarnations to manage what is surely an extraordinary combination of continuity and change over the past 150 years. The continuity of the place lies in its principle use as a residence, uninterrupted since its beginning. The willingness to change in order to achieve an economic balance without gravely sacrificing the integrity of the buildings or the institutions, continues to be of prime importance.

In order to understand the many changes to the structures and grounds and the many uses to which they have been employed, it is useful to divide the 150 years into three distinct "phases", each with its own "family".

Phase I is the Oneida Community Period, 1848-1880, under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes. The "family" is the group of Christian Perfectionists living together communally. This is the time during which all extant structures were planned and built, with the exception of the "Lounge" (1914).

Phase II is the Oneida Limited Period, 1881-1987, under the early leadership of, most significantly, Pierrepont Burt Noyes. The "family" is largely descendants of the original Oneida Community members until the 1970's when more friends of family and employees of the Oneida Limited Silversmiths and local schools are resident in the Mansion House. Owner and manager is Oneida Limited. This is the period of most significant changes to the interior of all the structures as private apartments were created for families. It is also the time of most change to the landscape in and around the Mansion House.

Phase III is the Oneida Community Mansion House, (OCMH 1987 - present). The "family" is a group of resident descendants and non-descendants, many short-term guests visiting for meetings, conferences, social events and daily patrons of the museum. Use of the Mansion House as a residence continues while the museum and historic site functions have become most prominent. Owner and manager is a not-for-profit museum with a for-profit subsidiary.

The following sections give a broad overview of the history and significance of the Oneida Community by placing the Perfectionist Community in the context of 19th

Century American history, discussing its religious, social and economic organization, and

by introducing its architectural history as it reflected their fundamental belief system. A more detailed discussion of the physical and functional changes to the structures will be covered in later sections of the HSR.

II The Oneida Community in the Context of 19th Century America

America in 1830 was entering a period rich with social and religious experimentation. This pre-Civil War period was a time of social reform and great religious excitement. In reaction to a society which was undergoing rapid social and economic change, utopian and millenarian religious and social movements arose with separate visions for reordering the world. Utopians and Millenialists alike believed in the potential for purging society of its sins and evils and both were intent upon perfecting what they believed to be a corrupt world.

These movements took their roots from the intense religious revivals of the Great

Awakening which engrossed much of colonial America in the early 18th Century. By 1790, America had realized its independence from England with a new sense of unity which was increasingly compromised by a growth in political partisanship.

A shift in how social change was effected was taking place. Religious observance in general, was on the decline. The religious values that had traditionally defined the New England colonial mission to 'convert all nations to Christianity', became, in the words of Nathan O. Hatch, "diluted with, and often subordinate to, the commitment to America as a new seat of liberty."

A new understanding of how the spiritual transformation of the individual might bring

about change was taking place. Conventional logic followed that if men and women were good, then good institutions, good government, and good society would result. The vehicle for change at this time was the religious revival. Traveling evangelists were preaching repentance to all who would listen. In return, they promised admission to Heaven for any individual who would sincerely repent his sins.

The revivalists' emphasis was on the spiritual conversion of the individual in order to effect social change on a grander scale. The reform groups generally fell into two categories: the "Millenarians" and the "Utopians". Millenialists such as the "Millerites" and Seventh Day Adventists, believed that the Earth was coming to an end as they knew it and a new age of peace and harmony would commence for all believers. The Millenarians carried word to the people through their proselytizing strategies in order to gain converts. By contrast, the Utopians believed they could initiate change by creating new societies in miniature. The utopian strategy behind building a 'model community of believers' was to gain converts by good example.

Some utopian societies withdrew from the outside world altogether, such as the Shakers. Others were able to achieve the delicate balance of social and economic interaction with society, such as the Mormons, Amana Inspirationists, and the Oneida Perfectionists.

Geographically, the greatest emotional and religious excitement occurred in New York State. There was an area in the very central region of the state that the famous revivalist Charles Grandison Finney called "a burnt district", better known as "the burned over district". The phrase is a metaphor meant to describe the beaten path traveled by so many seeking a new way of life. This geographic area was defined by the route of the Erie Canal, as it followed from Albany to west of Buffalo. Some groups, such as the Mormons and Amana Inspirationists, passed through the district on their way to the western frontier.

The rural character of much of the district in combination with the New England origins of many of the millenialists and utopians created a particularly suitable climate

conducive to the growth and experimentation of these groups who were so devoted to change.

Most of the utopian social experiments had both religious and secular components. In addition to proclaiming off-beat or heretical religious beliefs, many also addressed family structure, the role of women, organization of work, distribution of property, and sexual expression. These groups tended to challenge, often radically, the conventionally accepted social expression of these issues. They were, collectively, the "counter-culture" of mid-19th Century America.

The Oneida Community was one utopian religious experiment which stood out from the general revivalist furor. The ideas supporting the group of Christian Perfectionists who came to settle at Oneida Creek began with one man, John Humphrey Noyes, as he became affected by the changes taking place around him and by his own religious education and personal conversion.

John Humphrey Noyes and the members of the Oneida Community were dissident idealists who looked upon the New World as a potential paradise. They belong to a class of 19th Century communistic societies which believed in collective ownership and organization. The Shakers, Mormons, Fourierists, and Amana Inspirationists are the most well-known of the utopian religious societies of this period.

The two decades immediately preceding the Civil War were filled with calls for reform. Labor rights, women's rights, abolition of slavery, educational reform, and equitable land distribution policies were just a few of the issues under national debate. The appeal of the small reform society was that it could address these issues on a manageable scale and often with great success, not just in theory, but in practice.

The Community at Oneida combined "garden", "machine", and "model home" in one of the most unusual, if not unique, such experiments.

III The Oneida Community and John Humphrey Noyes

The Oneida Community fits the classic model of a group of like-minded individuals following a charismatic individual. John Humphrey Noyes was unmistakably a charismatic and enigmatic figure who led a group of religious converts through a thirty-two year experiment designed to create a 'heaven on earth' where men, women, and children would live in harmony; separate, but not severed from the world. Ultimately, their goal was to serve as a successful model to the rest of the world. The importance of their religious convictions as believers in the "Primitive Church", is evident in all that they professed to be about, both in theory and in practice.

Their "experiment" as a formally organized society spanned a period of thirty-two years where three hundred individuals lived communally in unselfish devotion to the group and loyalty to their leader. Even after the dissolve of all community institutions in 1880, their economic successes carried them well into the 20th Century as the Oneida name continues to draw recognition as a world player in the production of fine silver and stainless tableware.

The beginning of the story for the Oneida Communitarians was not exceptional. In light of the classic model of the charismatic leader with a vision who attracts and organizes like-minded individuals, John Humphrey Noyes was not particularly unusual for his time.

Noyes was born in 1811 at Brattleboro, Vermont. He was graduated from Dartmouth College in 1830, studied law for a year in the law offices of his brother-in-law, Larkin G. Meade, in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, and returned to Vermont in 1831. At that time, minor revivalists who had been inspired by the famous evangelist, Charles Finney of New York, were setting up meetings in areas around New England as well. John Humphrey attended such a meeting, experienced a profound conversion and determined to devote the rest of his life to the service and ministry of God.

In 1831, at age 20, he entered Andover Theological Seminary. He spent a brief time at Andover, but transferred to Yale Theological School where he received his license to preach in 1833.

He there made a great discovery that the religious teachings were all wrong. He became convinced that Christ did not sanction a life of alternate sinning and repentance, but instead provided for the possibility of personal perfection here on earth.

For the next 15 years, Noyes traveled the country preaching "Perfectionism" and editing "militant" religious magazines and newspapers devoted to this new doctrine. In 1839, John Humphrey organized a 'Bible class" of friends and family. The group evolved to become the "Putney Community" in 1846. It was among this group of 30 trusted and loyal friends and family that Noyes formulated his plan for communal living. However, objections to the radical religious group grew in Putney within the next two years and by 1847, the Putney Perfectionists were forced to seek another location.

The doctrine of Perfectionism had become quite well known by 1845 and had won over a substantial number of worthy and influential church members in New England, New York, and New Jersey. Small groups of believers were scattered throughout these areas. One such band was gathering at Oneida Creek, New York and they invited the Putney exiles to join them.

By 1849, several families from NY, northern Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut had joined the new "Oneida Community" for a total of 87 members. Unlike the millenarians and certain communal groups such as the Shakers and Mormons, the Oneida Perfectionists did not consider it their business "…to proselyte mankind by superficial efforts, but to present a working model of Communism, and leave its effect on others to the silent action of truth and the Providence of God."

John Humphrey Noyes' views about Perfectionism and his ideas concerning the integration of religious theory and practice were becoming well known through his prolific writings on the subject. The Perfectionists' most fundamental belief related to the Second Coming of Christ and it was on this point that they differed most from the conventional orthodox views. They believed, simply, that this event was predicted to take place and did then take place during the time of the generation of Christ's disciples. By extension, selflessness, sinlessness, and perfection of society was a possible, attainable goal for life on earth. To all those who accepted these premises, the promise of salvation was a group endeavor, best attained through communal organization.

As Christ calls all believers into perfect union with himself, the Perfectionists at Oneida under John Humphrey Noyes's leadership believed that such …union in a common center, precludes spiritual division among believers, and implies an organization including all interests. …heaven is acknowledged by all to be a state of Communism. But Christ's prayer that the will of God ' may be done on earth as it is in heaven,' is an injunction to his followers to do what they can for its fulfillment.…The principles of the New Testament are sufficiently clear, and point irresistibly to Communism as the final design of Christianity.

In the Oneida Community, the social principles were derived from the religious principles. The genius of the arrangement might be described in the word ' agreement'. It was this quality which the members at Oneida highly prized and cultivated. It was what essentially enabled them to dwell together as one family for thirty years, to share all property and possessions in common, and to change their wilderness into a garden. They called themselves "Bible Communists" and agreed to adopt a social system they termed "Complex Marriage". The practice of a "Complex Marriage" was actually an extension of "Bible Communism" to marital and parental relationships. The definition of family was therefore expanded to include all members of the Community.

The Perfectionists identified a Biblical scriptural foundation for the practice of a "complex" marriage. They believed that the institution of marriage, as an exclusive, possessive relationship between a man and woman, did not exist in the kingdom of heaven. Because they believed in the potential for creating a "heaven on Earth", they believed they were laying the foundation for a new state of society by developing the true theory of marriage. They abandoned conventional marriage because of its selfish exclusivity of affection and its attitude toward possessive ownership of women and material things. The Community's new commandment was "that we love one another, and that not by pairs, as in the world, but en masse."

Adult men and women in the community considered themselves in "complex" marriage with one another, and therefore, sexually available. A third party, an elder Oneida woman, controlled the negotiations for "interviews", the Community's term for sexual intercourse.

The practice of "Complex Marriage" at Oneida was obviously a radical departure from acceptable social behavior and it was the one point on which all outside criticism of the Community focused over the course of its existence. In the Community, members believed that the matter of love and its expression should be subject to enlightened self-control and should be managed for the greatest good. It was understood that two persons should not become exclusively attached to one another and develop what they termed a "special love". Instead, "the heart should be kept free to love all the true and worthy, and should never be contracted with idolatry or selfish love in any form".

Children were very important in the Community and every effort was made to introduce them early to the ways of communal living. Infants remained with their mothers for the first year or more. Children between the ages of two and approximately twelve lived in a separate building and were cared for by nurses and teachers in the "Children's Department". The children became the property of the whole Community. Much as material property was held in common, so too were the children cared for and loved by all. As a general principle, they felt that a "child is best brought up in an open Community element, and not in a closed circle of family relatives".

For economic and social reasons, the Perfectionists desired to control the number of children born into the Community. They therefore practiced an innovative and successful method of birth control known as "male continence". The Community were in favor of well-ordered, intelligent procreation. They also believed that the time would come when "scientific combination will be applied to human generation as freely and successfully as it is to that of other animals". Indeed, by 1867, when the community was experiencing unprecedented economic growth, they decided to commence with a planned, scientific-procreation program of "selective breeding". They were ready to expand their numbers and wished to do so by increasing the number of births in the Community rather than by accepting new members. Their intent was to pair men and women who were spiritually and physically "robust". They called the project "Stirpiculture" One hundred men and women participated in the program between 1869 and 1878. Eighty-one became parents and fifty-eight children were born into the Community.

"Complex Marriage" as a social system, was subordinate to the central governing institution of "Mutual Criticism". An essential institution and central social principle of Community, "Criticism" was designed as a system of truth-telling between members. A kind of physical and spiritual therapeutic, similar to the encounter and group therapy sessions of today, "Mutual Criticism" was a means which allowed the Oneida Perfectionists to live together intimately in all the combinations that communal living presented. It was a means that provided for their essential harmonizing and perfecting each other and it facilitated a social control of the group.

Improvement of the individual in education, spirituality, and task, no matter how small, was greatly emphasized at Oneida. This focus enhanced the successful application of the system of "Criticism" particularly when individual members failed to initiate their own "self improvement".

While most of the criticisms were conducted in small groups by invitation and were aimed at pointing out faults or undue influences apparent in the individual, in extreme cases of disobedience to Community rules, unsolicited criticism was administered by the whole Community or by its leaders. As the practice grew, the Community adopted a combination of negative and positive criticism as a more effective means of correcting faults.

In all of their religious and organizational matters, the Oneida Community desired an openness and communication with the outside world. John Humphrey had a background rich in publication. He and his fellow Perfectionists had been "giving God a press" with an almost constant run of their printing presses since the 1830's. For the thirty years of the Oneida experiment, the Community published a free weekly paper, called first The Circular and then changed to The American Socialist in 1876. The papers contained a very frank record of the daily life at Oneida as well as religious tracts, discourses on current subjects of social, political, and economic interest, letters to the editors, and advertisements for the Community's varied manufactured goods. They made no secret of their manner of life and frequently sent their publications to the Governor and other state leaders.

During the first decade of the experiment, the Community pursued the pastoral and Biblical ideal of converting their frontier settlement into a fruitful garden. They were intent upon making horticulture their subsistence. While they gained some success at fruit horticulture, the upstate New York climate was not conducive to major fruit production and markets were distant and hard to reach at the time.

They survived during the lean early years but were gradually turning to any kind of minor industry that would keep them afloat. In addition to their sale of nursery stock and fruits and vegetables in season, they began making a variety of items such as rustic furniture, leather travel bags, men's cloth slippers, palm leaf hats, scuffle hoes, wheel spokes, mop handles, and steel animal traps. Where they had proudly and prominently named Horticulture their leading business of subsistence in every issue of the Circular, by 1855 the products of their horticulture department were listed alongside all the other manufactured items and services for sale.

By the beginning of the second decade in 1860, John Humphrey Noyes and the Community were developing a true business character. As their manufacturing and sales enterprise grew, so too did their organizational abilities. Practically every branch of Community activity was operated by committees: Aside from the Central Board and finance committees and various clerical offices, the following were appointed: committees to receive visitors; for the trap department, machine shop, blacksmithing, building department, shoe shop, bag department, printing office, kitchen, farm and dairy; fruit and garden; teaming, stables, silk department, bee keepers, soap and vinegar, poultry keeper…compost manager, commissioner of highways, steward, greenhouse, grist mill, schools …11

The decade of the 1860's tested the Community's skill as they courageously experimented with new ideas and gave up unprofitable ventures. By 1870, they were financially secure enough to concentrate their efforts on the three most successful business departments: Steel Traps, Silk Thread, and Fruit Preserves.

By 1870 there were more than 280 members living at Oneida and the Wallingford, Connecticut branch and the Community was experiencing unprecedented growth, financial security, and general well-being. They were constantly receiving applications for admission which they had to reject because:

By the mid - 1870's, the Community was still growing in number due to the success of the Stirpicultural experiment. It was expanding its major businesses, entertaining sometimes as many as 5,000 visitors a year, and beginning to seriously consider some problems facing its future.

IV Transition from Community to Company

There began a disintegration of the Community at Oneida around 1874. Although the Community continued to prosper economically, as an organization it was showing signs of internal strife at the same time the local clergy was renewing its crusade to bring down Mr. Noyes and the Community by condemning its social institutions.

In 1875, John Humphrey Noyes was sixty-four years old. He was devoting more of his time to writing, was less actively involved in the day to day running of Community affairs, and was growing increasingly deaf. The question of his successor was a serious matter and one not easily resolved.

The Community had been experiencing the first signs of internal dissent as the younger generation came of age and began taking leadership roles in the various committees and departments. Several of the young men had been sent off to college. Some of them returned to the community excited with the new ideas of Scientific Positivism and business strategies. In general, the younger generation held less strong religious convictions than the original joiners of the Community. The result was that although they had grown up as firm believers in Christ and the Bible, they had no real faith in communism. And as a class, the younger women and men desired more monogamous relations.

In 1877, John Humphrey Noyes addressed the Community on the question of his successor:

John Humphrey's first born son, Theodore, was expected to follow in his father's place. However, a trial seven-month period as leader of the Community, proved Theodore was unsuccessful at guiding Community affairs, especially in religious matters. At the same time the Community was trying to solve its internal problems, the external

world was applying pressure in an attempt to sway public opinion against the Perfectionist society. The local clergy, led by a Professor Mears of nearby Hamilton College, enlisted the help of the Presbyterian Synod to lead an attack against the Oneida Perfectionists as an institution "subversive to the family…and in opposition to Christian morality". Previous attempts over the years by Professor Mears and others to discredit the Oneida Community had faded in light of the Community's good business record and general good will and hospitality.

The charges brought against Mr. Noyes in 1879 were more severe and he was forced to retreat or risk the future of the Community. In June, 1879, Noyes left Oneida for Niagara Falls, Canada where the Community was in the process of moving its tableware business from the Wallingford, Connecticut branch. Under John Humphrey's guidance, the members at Oneida set up a new Administrative Council. Consisting of ten men and nine women, the Council was to serve as a spiritual and disciplinary body to conduct the domestic and social affairs of the Community.

By August of 1879 the community announced its abandonment of Complex Marriage and couples began to marry in the conventional manner.

The following year was a tumultuous one as factions developed around various proposed ideas for reorganization. A commission was formed to propose a "Joint Stock" plan to decide how to divide the community's property among the members. The "Agreement to Divide and Reorganize" was adopted in November, 1880. The Community was reorganized as a "limited liability" company and assumed the name "Oneida Community, Limited". The stock was divided among the members in the proportion of the number of years' service which each individual had contributed to creating the wealth of the Community. Specific provisions were made for children, the elderly, and the invalid. It also offered the guarantee of support for life to those who preferred it to the ownership of stock.

Many of the former Community members remained in the Mansion House buildings living much as conventional families did. They continued to enjoy the advantages of communal food preparation and dining as well as the social comforts and mutual respect from many years of living together.

The trap and fruit preserve business continued into the first quarter of the twentieth Century when they concentrated all efforts on the silverware industry. In 1940, they joined the stock exchange and dropped the "Community" name to become simply "Oneida Limited".

Oneida Limited is a well recognized name in today's market. It has long enjoyed a reputation as a prominent manufacturer of fine silver and stainless tableware in both domestic and foreign markets and as a successful profit-sharing enterprise.

V Architectural Context of the Oneida Community

The building history of the Oneida Community is best understood as an evolutionary process and one intimately linked with the group's social organization. It began with the small group of Putney Perfectionists who left Vermont and followed John Humphrey Noyes to central New York in 1848. They were invited by an Oneida Perfectionist, Jonathan Burt, to join a tiny settlement of fellow Perfectionists who were living on a small, rather primitive farm along the Oneida Creek. A Putney Perfectionist describes his visit to the humble residence at the Oneida Creek farm to another member:

At this early period there is evidence of the Community's vision ahead to a grand physical plan. The Oneida Community came into being on the eve of the Romantic Period in American landscape history. This period coincided with a rapid growth of cities and of poverty and general disorder. Nature and the rural setting became a lure for those who wished to escape the urban decay and build a new society. Utopian groups in general chose the rural, picturesque landscape as the ideal place to begin to build their new world order. Noyes and his followers believed a strong relationship existed between their social and spiritual principles and their physical environment. For the Perfectionists, an "architecture of community" would be essential to any successful application of their social beliefs. In other words, the model society would have to be supported by a "model space" and be an integral part of its very design and function.

The building plan at Oneida was highly intentional. The architecture of the Community evolved in many very sophisticated ways to serve as the reinforcement of its social structure and to provide a basis for social control.

Within their first year at Oneida, the new Perfectionist Community had purchased land and buildings adjoining Mr. Burt's and set about building a larger structure to house the growing membership. Proper siting of the house was an important matter as the subject was often mentioned in their weekly paper and journals. They chose a site atop a knoll with a good view of their growing domain. By the end of summer, 1849, they had completed a modest three-story wooden structure, sixty by thirty-five feet. The 'picturesque landscape' of rolling hills and meandering Oneida Creek fit in well with the utopian vision of a community set amidst a "Garden of Eden'.

Brother Erastus Hamilton, a young man from Syracuse, New York who was trained in architecture, designed and supervised the building of this very first Oneida Community dwelling house. Hamilton was to remain an important figure in the creation and expansion of the Community's buildings.15

Architecturally, the new dwelling house was a quite modest variation of the popular architect Andrew Jackson Downing's bracketed cottage. Downing's book, Cottage Residences, came out in 1842. Hamilton was very likely familiar with Downing's work as well as that of Alexander Jackson Davis. Davis was a popular landscape architect who collaborated with Downing on the development of new theories concerning the relationship between landscape and architecture. The Community's library lists several volumes of Downing's and Davis's work. The Perfectionists were generally well-versed in contemporary ideas concerning gardening, horticulture, and agriculture, and probably were aware of the popular exploration of new ways to describe man's relationship to nature. Many contemporary magazines and books were devoting considerable attention to this latest subject; defining at length the 'Sublime', the 'Beautiful', and the 'Picturesque' in landscape, architecture, and art. These discussions had moved from the theoretical to the practical with the publication of many "how-to" books, Davis's and Downing's work included. These "guides" served to lead the novice and professional alike in the search for a balance between the aesthetics of nature and architecture.

With the completion of the Oneida Community's first real dwelling house in 1849, they commenced to build and plan for the kind of space and structure, both inside and out, that would best reflect their spiritual and social goals. As the communal 'family' moved into their new house, they immediately set about converting two nearby structures into a children's house and nursery. The task of adapting space in existing structures, building additions, and creating new structures would become commonplace to the point of distraction as a member joked how the Community should really place its buildings on wheels, because they moved about so.

By the winter of 1850, the Community reported they had, in addition, erected a building for a store and printing office, and two wings to the main house.16

These buildings were modest frame structures, with little attention paid to ornament, but set intentionally in good relation to the 'new house' to ensure a pleasing effect between landscape, garden, and building. ( Figure 1 : reference to Charlotte N. Miller's sketch of 1852)

By 1855, there were 170 members. The conditions under which the Community managed to sleep, socialize, work the land and manufacture products, while attending to the needs of an ever expanding 'family' had become quite challenging as their need for more space grew constantly.

During this time the members of the Oneida Community were experiencing a crowding that led to competition for work and living space. Their 'built environment' was failing to keep up with all their needs, no matter how they tried to adapt their building interiors.

During the early years, when the Community believed wholeheartedly in the pastoral ideal, they planned to convert their entire domain into a garden and they had a clear sense of their surroundings and how they would wish to improve them. Even as they described in some detail in The Circular how they had been 'compelled for some years to aggregate so closely…' they maintained that some good would come of their patience and hard work.

"We shall go along…with our present accommodations until we can make them better. We want money for executing the various improvements and embellishments that suggest themselves in our surroundings, and we take this as a hint from the Lord to go to work vigorously and make money, which we shall endeavor to do. In due time we are confident that the interior life that is given to us will also have the means of clothing itself in fitting forms of external excellence and beauty."17

The Community strongly believed that their social and physical structures were linked in a mutually causative relationship. If they were to build a model society then their physical environment would need to reflect their beliefs. More specifically, their building interiors would need to be designed to facilitate the family's need for both individual privacy and communal gathering.

After several years of diminishing income, the Community gave up the pastoral ideal of subsistence farming in 1859 and an 'industrial revival" of a sort occurred at Oneida. The Community redoubled their manufacturing efforts and was ready to seriously consider expanding its built environment. Over the next eight years the Community would be engaged in a major expansion campaign of both its living and manufacturing spaces.

The Community had some kind of a long-range building plan. In 1861, Erastus Hamilton had completed a set of three architectural elevations for the proposed new 'Mansion House', South Tower Wing, and Children's House (figures 2,3 and 4). These included the new brick mansion with a north tower, an expanded wing to the south with an even more elaborate south tower, and a children's house connected to the west end of the south tower.

The new brick "Mansion House" was completed in 1862. It was to be their principal dwelling house and architectural and landscape focus. This brick "Mansion House" faced east and was erected just north of their first frame dwelling house and children's house. Another building called the "Tontine" was built in 1863-64 to accommodate the growing need for more and better food preparation and dining space. The Tontine was a separate structure located directly behind the "Mansion House" to the west. In 1869, the square footage of the brick "Mansion House" was almost doubled by the addition of an L-shaped south wing connected to the south facade of the brick mansion. This wing incorporated a grand south tower which served to anchor the extension of the wing along the south axis and to balance the whole main east facade of the brick Mansion House with its square north tower. The motivation for this expansion was the increase in size of the children's department due to the success of the stirpiculture experiment. This new wing was named the "Children's House" after the fact that it took the place of the old frame Children's House which was moved across the road facing the brick Mansion House. In 1870, the Community tore down its frame "Mansion House" because of perceived fire hazard.

With the completion of the new south wing and Children's House, the buildings and surrounding landscape were becoming more integrated as the design was clearly based on the European model of a courtyard formed by linked structures.

The new brick buildings designed by Erastus Hamilton were far grander and more elegant than the earlier frame dwellings. When the Community realized that the pastoral ideal and subsistence farming would not sustain them and they began to turn their attention more toward commerce and manufacturing, their physical image, which was very much a part of a 'self-consciousness', changed as well.18

Views of the Oneida Community buildings and landscapes were published in its Annual Reports of 1852, 1863, and 1870. (see figures 5, 6, and 7) It is easy to see from this set of photographs and engravings that the image of community was evolving. The image of the simple frame farmhouse set in a picturesque, bucolic landscape of gardens, arbors and pond was giving way to a far more formidable and formal image of massive brick buildings dominant in a still picturesque, but far more controlled landscape of orchards, vineyards, lawns and gardens, barns and factories.

The community paid great attention to the siting and placement of its buildings. Once completed, the complex of buildings would eventually be joined by corridors and wings to enclose a carefully landscaped courtyard. Situated on high ground at the center of their "domain", the Community Mansion House presented an impressive urbanized facade of heavy masonry and wood.

The predominant architectural styles are the Italianate Villa and French Second Empire. In particular, the 1862 brick mansion and the 1869 south tower wing exhibit great attention to detail in window bays, surrounds, and cornice and roof ornamentation.

Interior spaces were planned and ordered to facilitate communal living and work. The architectural "program" followed some basic needs of the communal arrangement and reflected the need to facilitate the social organization. To these ends, the interior had a large meeting place designed to accommodate the entire "family" during its ritual daily "evening meeting" as well as visitors to the Community during various social entertainments. This space was called the "Big Hall" and was located centrally within the brick Mansion House.

The children, as mentioned, were housed separately in their own "Children's House". Sleeping rooms or compartments for adult members were private but arranged around open, public "parlors". Public and private interior spaces were so designed as to facilitate an awareness of an individual's coming and going. This was a design plan created in direct response to the needs of the institution of Complex Marriage.

Interior finishes and ornamentation are very fine for a country house, especially in the shared parlors, meeting rooms, and corridors.

Just how the members at Oneida came to call their principal dwelling the "Mansion House" is not known. The Community were in the habit of naming their structures. The names were usually symbolic or reflected some use or function carried on within. Use of the word 'mansion' to describe particularly the main dwelling house seems to have started with the building of the so called 'new house' in 1849. The name stuck when the 1862 brick structure was built which was truly of comparative 'mansion' proportions and which became the main house after the 1849 structure was demolished in 1870.

*(for the purposes of the HSR, is it appropriate to discuss at any length the buildings which no longer exist, but for which there exists quite a lot of information. In particular, the interior plan of the "First Mansion House" with its "Tent Room" and dormitory arrangements which emphasized "communal" living in all activities in contrast to the brick "Mansion House" interior design of private single rooms and public parlors. In discussing how the two distinct arrangements of private rooms and common parlors: 1. Upper Sitting Room and Back Parlors of sleeping compartments arranged "around" an open public parlor and, 2. The "Hamilton Avenue" configuration (in the south tower wing, 2d floor) where rooms are arranged along a corridor with a closed parlor at one end. In other words, a case can be made for the Community's moving away from the intensely public environment of its early years toward a more private one for its members individually. As the physical environment and plans changed over the years, should more contrasts and examples be brought up in this introductory section in order to make the discussion of interior changes clearer in the body of the HSR - or will these questions be resolved in the analysis sections??)


  1. Michael Barkun, Crucible of the Millenium (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 22.
  2. Dolores Hayden, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), 15.
  3. The Oneida Community: A Familiar Exposition of Its Ideas and Practical Life, in a Conversation With a Visitor. (Wallingford, CT.: Oneida Community, 1865), 19.
  4. Ibid., p. 9.
  5. Constance Noyes Robertson, Oneida Community, an Autobiography, 1851-1876 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1970), 267. See also: Robert Allerton Parker, A Yankee Saint (New York: Putnam’s, 1935; reprinted in 1972 by Porcupine Press, Philadelphia), for a thorough discussion of the religious and social principles of the Oneida Community.
  6. Handbook of the Oneida Community (Oneida, NY: Oneida Community, 1875), 39.
  7. Oneida Circular, January 29, 1863; in Constance Noyes Robertson, Oneida Community, An Autobiography.
  8. For a detailed account of the contraceptive practice at Oneida, see Spencer Klaw, Without Sin, the Life and Death of the Oneida Community (New York: Penguin Books, 1993)
  9. First Annual Report of the Oneida Association (Oneida Reserve, NY: Leonard & Company, 1849).
  10. A compound of two words: Stirpes, Latin for "race", and culture, an English word meaning cultivation with a view to improvement.
  11. The Circular, April 4, 1861.
  12. The Circular, July 10, 1871.
  13. John Humphrey Noyes; in a proclamation to the Oneida Community, May 17, 1877; in Constance Noyes Robertson, Oneida Community, The Breakup, 1876-1881.
  14. Letter from George Wallingford Noyes to Mr. George Cragin, February 4, 1848, in The Putney Community (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 387-388.
  15. For an interesting account of the ‘New House’, see the First Annual Report of the Oneida Association.
  16. See the Second Annual Report of the Oneida Association (Oneida Reserve, NY : Leonard & Company, 1850).
  17. The Circular, October 5, 1855.
  18. For a discussion of the Community’s changing self -image as it relates to its expanding physical environment, see Dolores Hayden’s Seven American Utopias, 191.

Select Bibliography

Syracuse University Library, Special Collections. "The Oneida Community Collection in the Syracuse University Library." The Syracuse University Library, Department of Special Collections, has the largest holding of Oneida Community materials.

Barkun, Michael. Crucible of the Millenium. Syracuse, NY. Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Carden, Maren Lockwood. Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation. New York, Harper and Row, 1971.

Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: Three American Community Experiments of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Oxford University Press, 1981.

Hayden, Dolores. Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Comunitarian Socialism, 1790-1975. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1976.

Hinds, William Alfred. American Communities. Chicago, Kerr and Co., 1902.

Kern, Louis J. An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias - the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Klaw, Spencer. Without Sin: the Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York, Penguin Books, 1993.

Parker, Robert Allerton. A Yankee Saint: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community. New York, G.P. Putnam & sons, 1935.

Robertson, Constance Noyes. Oneida Community: An Autobiography 1851-1876. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1970.

________________. Oneida Community: The Breakup, 1876-1881. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1972.

Thomas, Robert David. The Man Who Would Be Perfect: John Humphrey Noyes and theUtopian Impulse. Philadelphia, University of Philadelphia Press, 1977.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Oneida Community Home | Top