The Italianate Style Town House
The Polhemus House was a typical example of an Italianate town house, an urban residential building type popular between 1840 and 1870. The Italianate style is a characteristic by elaborate bold projecting exterior ornament with an emphasis on repetitive forms.
The architect of the original portion of the house completed c. 1863 is not documented, but the first-story and basement extension to the rear of the house constructed by Charles and Elizabeth Wagner in 1883 was destroyed and built by Newark's architect and "master builder" William H. Kirk, who also designed and built the North Reformed Church (dedicated 1850, with spire added in 1868).
Kirk established himself in business as a master builder in the 1830s and formed the Newark based firm of William H. Kirk & Co. In partnership with Thomas Kirkpatrick, Kirkpatrick died in 1860. In 1870, Kirk took his son Harmon H. Kirk and his son-in-law Nelson Jacobus into the firm as partners. For a period, the firm was known as William H. and Harmon H. Kirk & Nelson Jacobus. In 1884, Kirk employed between 100 and 150 men.
The Parlor Level
One of the hallmarks of Victorian-era house design is the organization of interior spaces into "public" and "private" zones. While guests were welcome in the areas of the house reserved for formal socializing, only the family and servants could access the more private spaces, such as bedrooms, kitchens, and baths. The Parlor or first-floor level was intended to be the most "public" space in the house, and as such, was the most elaborately designed, with 12' high ceilings, large open volumes and vistas through rooms, and more impressive wood plaster trim". Likewise, this floor was the most highly decorated and was reserved for showcasing the family's cultural refinement and social position.
This separation into public and private spaces also proved useful during the house's commercial period in the mid-to-date 20th century, when the parlor level could be easily adapted for upper-level executive offices and reception spaces, while the other floors contained more utilitarian work and office spaces.