William Ranlett was born in Augusta, Maine, on July 3, 1806. Little is known of his early training, which he probably received as an apprentice to another architect because no academic institutions offered architectural education in the early 19th century. By 1840, Ranlett had moved to New York City and was a practicing architect with an office on Wall Street. At the time, he was in partnership with Joseph C. Wells, who had emigrated from England in 1839 and was familiar with English architectural philosophy and styles.
While the partnership lasted only about a year, it broadened Ranlett’s architectural knowledge. He espoused the Romantic picturesque architectural philosophies that had originated in England and that, in the 1840s, increasingly were becoming part of American popular culture. Romanticism as seen in art, architecture, literature, and music in the mid-19th century was a reaction against classicism. [Tell me more about the Romantic movement.]
Ranlett’s Architectural Philosophy
Ranlett was a writer as well as an architect. He published a magazine titled The Architect, in which he included designs in various Gothic Revival styles. He also included less ornate buildings. Each style was seen as embodying different ideals and as inspiring and reflecting specific lifestyles. At the same time, architects stressed function and utility. Ranlett wrote “It should always be remembered that a dwelling is constructed for the accommodation of a family.” While he used many different styles based on the architecture of the past, he believed that his designs, and others designs of the mid-19th century, should have “an American expression,” which he saw in the comfort and livability (“habitableness”) of his houses. Ranlett’s architectural career was thriving when Elijah II Rosencrantz chose him as the architect to remodel The Hermitage.
The success of his publications spread Ranlett’s reputation, and she designed structures in upstate New York, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia, as well as in the metropolitan New York City region. In 1849, the year of the famous gold rush, he traveled to California, where he was joined by his wife and daughter. He settled in San Francisco, where he designed a number of buildings. His Italianate home in San Francisco was known as the “House of Many Corners” because of its very irregular massing.
Ranlett was unable to make a living solely as an architect, however, and he participated in other enterprises. In 1850, he operated a storage warehouse and two lumber yards and made maps. In 1853, he and some partners purchased land and developed it as the Long Mountain Cemetery. Ranlett was the superintendent of the cemetery, but the ambitious project, the building of his home, and the recession of 1854 caused financial failure. In 1856 or 1857, the Ranletts abandoned their mortgaged home to their creditors and returned to the New York City metropolitan area. He opened an office in New York City and became a neighbor of the Rosencrantz family, living on East Saddle River Road in Ho-Ho-Kus in an early stone house that he enlarged and updated. Locally, he designed a number of buildings, including the Republican Union Hall, a school for Ho-Ho-Kus, and Christ Church (1865–66). None of these building have survived.
Ranlett died tragically on November 8, 1865. His death is described by Killie Rosencrantz in a letter to her son, Will, dated November 12, 1865:
We have been plunged in great grief, for Mr. Ranlett was thrown from his wagon last Wednesday afternoon, and killed. Papa had to do everything he could for Mrs. Ranlett, and had not time to think of anything. Mr. Ranlett and [his son] Willie (whose body was brought on [sic] from the South a couple of weeks ago) are to be buried today at two o’clock, what a sad, sad day for Mrs. Ranlett.