In Peacock Yacht House Part I, appearing in the March 2009 issue of Thousand Islands Life, I excerpted sections of my Thesis presented for a Master of Science in Historic Preservation at Columbia University, New York. I provided the social history of not only the builder of the Peacock Yacht House, Alexander R. Peacock, but also the social history of that time and place in the Thousand Islands.
It was that social history that influenced the construction of the Peacock Yacht House. For Part II, I will explain some of the more interesting details of the yacht house itself, as well as its style and other examples of yacht house construction in the Thousand Islands. Some of these structures are still standing, but most of were torn down or succumbed to fire.
[Note: Please refer to Part I: Peacock Yacht House for details]
Peacock Yacht House, The Style and Other Examples
The style of the Peacock Yacht House had its origins in the Shingle style which developed during the late 19th Century. The bold silhouette, seeming to rise up from its wide base, spread low against the water, is typical of the Shingle style.
It did, however seem to lack some of the freedom that was typical of that style. The fairly rigid and symmetrical proportions reflect the changes in that style’s free interpretation of the past to a more academic one.
There was a lack of decorative motifs that is similar to the Shingle style, but with its 9/9 windows and cross braced doors suggest colonial revival influences. The composition of the South facade with its two story round arch opening flanked by two narrower, flat arched openings is an interesting variation of the Palladian motif.
The design of the Peacock Yacht House had many similarities to Church design. This was especially evident on the interior. The exposed laminated wood arches supporting the sharply rising peaked roof gave the interior a cathedral like quality.
The layout of interior space was very similar to that of a cathedral, with the two low aisles on either side of the high nave.
There are not many yacht houses of the size and scale left of the Peacock Yacht House remaining in the Thousand Islands. To my knowledge the adjacent Boldt Yacht House (Figure 1-29) and the Dark Island Yacht House (Figure 1-30), located near Chippewa Bay, New York are the only other extant yacht houses of similar size and scale.
There are several smaller yacht houses, such as the yacht house at Scow Island (Figure 1-31), near Chippewa Bay, still existing, but they do not have a high roof with doors opening nearly to the top that characterize the previously mentioned yacht houses.
These doors enabled the yachts to be housed with out taking down their tall masts. At one time large yacht houses were a common sight in this area. The no longer existing, Rafferty Yacht House was located just to the West of the Peacock Yacht House and the three yacht houses (Rafferty, Peacock & Boldt) must have been an impressive sight.
Other yacht houses such as the two that were demolished to make way for Keewaydin State Park marina (Figure 1-34) (Figure 1-35) were located up and down the St. Lawrence River. Although these structures were similar in function, they were each unique in their designs.
The Boldt Yacht House is an eclectic Shingle style design built some six years before the Peacock Yacht House. Its architects, the Philadelphia firm of Hewitt and Hewitt show a creative freedom that the Peacock Yacht House does not have. The construction was also different, having a steel skeleton to multi-gabled roofs.
The The Dark Island Yacht House was also much different in its style and method of construction. It was built for Fredrick Bourne, President of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, between 1904 - 1906. It is a combination Scottish Style castle architecture31 with stone walls and battlements. The architect was Ernest Flagg of New York City, who also designed one of the first skyscrapers, the Singer Building, in New York City.
Construction of the Peacock Yacht House
The Peacock Yacht House was 129 feet long and 85 feet - 6 inches wide, with its long dimension being oriented in a roughly north/south direction. It had an uncomplicated exterior shape.
The Peacock Yacht House was basically a heavy timber structure whose columns were supported on stone-filled wood cribs. The cribs were arranged in four rows running in the north/south direction and divide the structure into three bays. (Figure 1-19) The center bay was about 33 feet wide, while the two outer bays were about 26 feet wide each. The longitudinal structure was divided into eight equal bays, each being about 16 feet in length. Each column had its own individual crib and the cribs were connected longitudinally.
The interior was almost completely open, exposing the structural system. The two outer bays were spanned by a timber truss system with supplemental members to help buttress the laminated arch that spans the center bay.
The docks were constructed of planks carried on joists which run north and south and span from crib to crib. There was a separate system of pilings that were used to support the screw jacks used to lift the vessels out of the water. These pilings were located in pairs along the edges of all slips. The screw jacks were paired across the slips connecting a 10” steel beam that remained on the bottom until needed to help raise a vessel. A total of 26 pairs of screw jacks were located on the slips, 10 in the center slip and 8 in each of the side slips. The center slip which housed the steel hulled Irene II, had 10 pairs of screw jacks that were used to raise that 91 ton vessel. The jacks were used mainly in the fall for lifting the vessels out of the water for the winter. It was a slow procedure, requiring a man on each jack all turning in unison to keep the vessel on an even keel and to prevent the I-beam from binding. I was told that the Captain of the vessel would supervise the lifting by shouting out a cadence to the men turning the screw jacks.
There was a limited amount of floor space on the first floor. Most of the space had been given up to boat the slips, that began at the south end. The center slip extends almost the whole length of the center west slip which extended in six bays and the east slip in four. Remaining floor space in the north east corner was taken up by a wash room, mechanical room, store room and work space.
In the northwest corner there was additional work space and the location of the original electrical switchboard. At the second bay on the center west dock were the stairs leading to the second story. Four rooms were located here, in a structure that spans across the first bay of the center slip. A light weight floor had been installed in the northwest bay on the second floor. The first bay on the northeast side was taken up by a large cistern, used to hold water.
The Peacock Yacht House at one time was supplied with both gas and electricity. The Thousand Islands Sun notes that the St. Lawrence International Electric Railroad and Land Company had completed laying electric cable to Peacocks summer home from Alex Bay in June, 28 1906. The yacht house was mentioned as being "lighted with electric lights and acetylene gas throughout in 1910. Evidence of both the original gas and electrical systems still remained in 1981. It was possible to trace the route of gas lines along each slip and wall to a central distribution point in the northeast corner of the building. The extension of the center west dock was supplied with gas and the rooms on the second level had gas lighting fixtures, one of which was still there.
Electricity was supplied from shore through overhead wires to two different locations, one on the north facade, and one on the west. The north location was for a distribution panel with blade type contact switches.
Yacht house construction was not a common type of construction. At first appearance these structures may seem to have features similar to other structures built on land. This was often true, however, there was one feature that makes them unique, and that was their foundations. Above the water the Peacock Yacht House was basically a heavy timber structure, but this structure rested on stone filled wood cribs.
Crib construction was a very common method of support for the yacht houses in this area. It was stable, cheaper than pilings and sometimes the only method possible since most sections of the St. Lawrence River have a rocky bottom which will not accept pilings. In the case of the Peacock Yacht House one can only guess at the reasons cribs were used, the bottom was mud in this particular area. It was probably a combination of cheapness and stability over pilings.
The wood cribs would be floated into position, filled with stone and allowed to settle into the bottom. They would then be leveled with additional construction as necessary. Construction of the remaining structure would wait until there was sufficient ice to support the weight of crews and equipment (usually sometime in January). Construction work was often carried on year round during the hectic years of construction that took place when the Peacock Yacht House was built. In fact it was sometimes an advantage to have the strong, stable platform of ice during the Winter to facilitate dock and yacht house construction.
The laminated wood arches used to span the center slip were probably the most interesting feature of the construction. To my knowledge the use of laminated wood arches for yacht house construction was unique to the Peacock Yacht House. These arches were constructed of thin boards, bent to shape then nailed and bolted together, no glue was used. Laminated wood arch construction of this type originated in France during the 1820's. The technique was perfected by Colonel Emy, a French military engineer whose "first work of this kind was the shed of Marac, near Bayonne, in France".3
The English also used laminated wood arches, the most famous building being the King's Cross railroad station in London4, 1851. They were used in this country for bridges, churches, assembly halls and barns. The famous American architect,5 Bernard Maybeck used laminated wood arches for Hearst Hall at the University of California in 1899. Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered "Gothic" barns in their catalogs during the 1920's. One catalog had the following description of the "Landmark Modern Dairy Barn, no. 2056".6 The roof of this barn was made of strong built up arches. These arches add to the good appearance of the interior. They form a strong and serviceable roof support and a spacious unobstructed mow. The roof was so simple that it requires no more skill to build it than the roof of any other barn.
These laminated arches were probably constructed on the ice and then hoisted into position. The-arches would be laid out on the ground then stakes would be used to hold the pieces in position for bending and fastening.
The Peacock Yacht House also incorporated the latest in modern hardware for fastening and reinforcing the timber construction. Several different sizes and shapes of bolts, screws, angles and tie-rods were used.
The boom in construction of summer homes and yacht houses, supported at least two saw mills in Alexandria Bay. Readily available native softwoods such as hemlock and northern white pine7 were used throughout the yacht house. Local stone quarries also thrived and some summer residents, such as George Boldt opened their own quarries to supply their building needs. Local granite was relatively easy to obtain was an excellent building material. It was used to even fill the wooden cribs for dock and yacht house construction.
Another interesting feature of the Peacock Yacht House was a ventilation system for the smoke from the steam yachts. A large diameter pipe, connected to a roof ventilator, was suspended from the ceiling of the center slip, this metal ventilator was similar to the kind used to ventilate barns. This pipe could then be placed over the smokestack of the yacht to allow the boilers to be fired while remaining in the yacht house. The ventilating pipe was still in place in both the Boldt and the Dark Island yacht houses.
When I prepared my thesis in 1981, the Peacock Yacht House was in poor condition. As its second life of storing wooden tour boats became less important, repair work became infrequent and the years of little maintenance and fluctuating water levels took their toll on the underpinnings of the structure itself. The water fluctuations of 3’ are common over the course of the year. This cycle of subjecting wood timbers to wet then dry causes them to deteriorate and eventually fail.
Compounding this was what I believe to be a design or construction flaw in that the cribs on the east side of the center slip were much smaller than those on the West side and the columns supporting the laminated arches were located on the outer edge of these smaller cribs on the east side while they fell in the center of the cribs on the West side. This unbalanced loading caused the smaller cribs to tip and accelerated their failure. While the superstructure was in relatively good condition major work was needed to repair and rebuild the docks and cribs. It would have been an expensive undertaking to do the required work.
The once magnificent doors that opened almost to the peak of the roof were cut so that only the lower portion still operated. And even these were severely deteriorated and falling off their hinges.
The original metal smoke jack had been removed by 1923, replaced with a cupola which later disappeared completely.
In 1981, the various outbuildings connected with the Peacock Yacht House had deteriorated beyond saving. Remains of three buildings could be found. They were probably the machine shop, coal storage and a power house, they are all mentioned at one time or another. The machine shop had been used as a workshop and place to keep warm when the wooden tour boats were worked on in the winter.
I had recommended that a possible use for the Peacock be as a Museum or tourist attraction to showcase wooden tour boats and the tour boat industry. This included flooring over one of the slips for display space and making a connection with the ferry going to Boldt Castle. Although it didn’t happen with the demise of the Peacock, the Boldt Yacht House has become a similar venue with slips decked over for display of boats from the Antique Boat Museum’s collection and a shuttle to Boldt Castle.
The owners did try to raise some interest saving the building, however the funding for such an effort was not forthcoming. The Peacock succumbed to a fire in early 1990’s leaving only the outline of the docks, cribs and some of the screw jacks. The property was eventually sold and a home was built on the land behind the yacht house and the remains were removed to make room for new docks. Another unique but obsolete structure gone but hopefully not forgotten.
By Rick Tague
Rick Tague graduated from Alexandria Centre School in Alexandria Bay and received a degree in Architecture at the SUNY campus in Buffalo. After graduating he took a job with New York State as Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator. Working on historic buildings for NYS piqued his interest in Historic Architecture, culminating by attending Columbia University in New York City and receiving a Master of Science in Historic Preservation.
Rick is President of Bernier Carr and Associates (BCA) . BCA is a multidisciplinary architecture, engineering, surveying and construction management firm with offices in Watertown, Buffalo and Syracuse. BCA specializes in public projects with the Architectural Division working on schools, municipal buildings and healthcare and the Engineering Division working on water and waste water projects for municipalities. Rick has completed several important projects in the region including work on the Boldt Castle properties for Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, the historic court house restorations for Jefferson and St. Lawrence County. Rick and his wife Tricia are active community members. Rick is the immediate past president of the Thousand Islands Land Trust and Tricia is the current president of the Thousand Islands Association.
1 Julian Cavalier, American Castles, South Brunswick, 1973.
4 Carroll L. V. Meeks, The Railroad Station, an Architectural History, New Haven;-1956
5 Kenneth Cardwell, Bernard Maybeck, 1977, pg. 46.
6The Book of Barns, Honor-Bilt-Already-Cut, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Chicago, ca. 1921, pg. 13.