James and Orland Norcross
by Jacquelyn McEttrick

Turn of the Century Home

James and Orlando Norcross, or the Norcross brothers as they are more commonly referred to, were the owners of Norcross Brothers Contractors and Builders, one of the most prominent and important construction companies in the nineteenth century. James and Orlando were born in 1831 and 1839, respectively, in Maine before moving to Massachusetts with their family in 1843. Originally settled in Salem, James and Orlando honed their carpentry skills there before moving to Worcester in 1868 when they were commissioned to build Worcester High School (no longer in existence) (Nutt 633-6). The high school commission was important for several reasons. First, it shifted the brothers' base of operations to Worcester, where it would remain for the remainder of the company's life (long headquartered at 10 East Worcester Street). Second, it marked the beginning of the Norcross brothers' relationship with H.H. Richardson, one of the most important American architects of the nineteenth century. This relationship would include the design and construction of at least thirty-three buildings, notably including Trinity Church in Boston, the Marshall Field & Co. warehouse in Chicago and the restoration of the White House, and help further the careers of both Richardson and the Norcross brothers (O'Gorman 107-9).

The brothers each had a specific role within their firm. James Norcross was the office manager. He handled all financial matters and tended to the bookkeeping. Orlando handled the actual construction process itself and was a much-celebrated builder (Nutt 633-6). Indeed, between 1889 and 1917, at least seventeen U.S. patents were granted in his name, all dealing with aspects of construction (O'Gorman 109). That the Norcross Brothers Contractors and Builders firm was one of the most successful and admired construction companies of its time is certain. Indeed, the company is worthy of this praise that appeared in a 1919 directory on the history of Worcester and its people: "No contract was too large or difficult for Norcross Brothers to execute, and there was scarcely a city of importance in the country in which sooner or later the firm did not have large buildings to erect" (Nutt 634).

Norcross Brothers Contractors and Builders was particularly known for its skill in stonework as exemplified in St. Matthew's church in Worcester. In fact, three of Orlando's seventeen patents specifically dealt with the cutting and dressing of stone. The brothers owned stone quarries throughout the country, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Georgia, and were thus able to provide the exact stone for every contract they handled (O'Gorman 110). The importance of stone to the firm can also be seen in the appointment of James' son, also named James, as superintendent of the stone quarry in Longmeadow, Massachusetts (Nutt 634). The extensive use of stone is a characteristic of all Norcross Brothers' buildings.

This is certainly true in the case of the brothers' own homes, located at sixteen and eighteen Claremont Street in Worcester. Built in the 1870s, the two homes are almost mirror images of each other. They are built in Queen Anne style, and claim the distinction of "introduc[ing] the Queen Anne style to the city" of Worcester (Langhart). In accordance with the style, the two houses feature an emphasis on the vertical as seen in the prominent corner towers of each and also feature a massing of forms that results in asymmetry (Langhart).

As expected because of their firm's extensive use of masonry techniques, the two Norcross homes were constructed using rock-faced sandstone that was quarried in nearby East Longmeadow. The rough-textured stone was used throughout, except for the polished sandstone employed at the door and window frames and the use of wood at the cornices, on the porch and for the door and window casings (Johnson). The stone gives the homes an air of substance and sturdiness that complements the complex roofline and the presence of the tower.

Each home includes three stories, the third story created with the use of dormers and gables and thus featuring varying ceiling heights and less square footage than the primary floors. Both homes included multiple bedrooms, parlors, dining rooms, servants' quarters and a kitchen. The homes also include a number of windows, often in unique shapes. Perhaps the most impressive windows are the multi-light windows located on both the first and second floors of the tower corner of the home (Johnson).

While the exteriors of the two homes are almost identical (slight variations exist between the porches and the roofs and the presence of a small wooden alcove on the façade of Orlando's home at sixteen Claremont), the interiors are much more distinct in terms of their decoration. James Norcross' home (18 Claremont) features a light oak paneling throughout most of the first floor and wallpaper of embossed leather in the first-floor entry hallway. There is a wide variety of paint colors throughout the home, including many shades of orange and pink and blues. Overall, the house is brighter than the home of Orlando Norcross located next door at 16 Claremont. Like James' house, Orlando's home also contains an extensive amount of wood, but it is a much darker wood. This home includes a split-landing staircase connecting the first and second floors. Orlando's home also contains several built-in window seats throughout. And while the fireplaces at eighteen Claremont are unornamented, the fireplaces of Orlando's home feature marble and art tiles. One of the fireplaces on the second floor even features tiles that recount Aesop's fables (Johnson).

Much like their builders and original owners, the Norcross brothers' homes have an interesting history. In the wake of the brothers' deaths in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the homes were sold to a series of private owners before institutional organizations took over possession in 1955. Since that date, the homes have functioned as a nursing home, a convent for the Little Sisters of the Assumption, a religious commune and a dormitory for Clark University (Johnson). At present, the Norcross brothers' houses are home to Clark University's renowned environmental studies program. James' house currently serves as the Jeanne X. Kasperson Research Library, home to an extensive research collection on the environment. Next door, Orlando's home at 16 Claremont houses the Marsh Institute, which explores cutting-edge questions about the environment and humans' relationships with the environment (Clark University, "Woodland Street Historic District"). Thus, just as the Norcross Brothers' homes were cutting-edge for their time with their introduction of the Queen Anne style to Worcester and their new stonework techniques, the tradition of progressiveness continues today in the people and institutions that currently occupy the homes.


Clark University. "Woodland Street Historic District." Available http://www.clarku.edu/virtual/woodland/woodland.shtml (April 2004).
Johnson, D.L. "The Norcross Houses." Clark University, 1989.
Langhart, Nick. Antique Homes Guide to Styles: Domestic Architecture of New England to 1920. 1999.
Nutt, Charles. History of Worcester and its People Volume IV. New York, NY: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1919.
O'Gorman, James F. "O.W. Norcross, Richardson's 'Master Builder': A Preliminary Report." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 32/ I (March 1973): 104-13.