My great-grandfather, J.E. Thompson, really admired his uncle, architect and builder Joseph Ough. The respect didn’t stem from Ough’s financial success. It was due to the man’s artistic and spiritual achievements.
“In your mother’s family, and mine, there were those that were stars in a financial way,” wrote J.E. Thompson in a letter to his son, “but the man in my family, that in my opinion was the most successful was named Joseph Ough.”
According to family legend, Ough designed and built the dome over the capitol building in Sacramento. Jack Synder, a great-grandson to Ough, hasn’t been able to substantiate that. He is confident, though, that Ough at least designed wood carvings in the capitol building. Ough also left behind some woodwork that’s collected in the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento.
Otherwise, not a lot is known about the work of Joseph Ough, who passed most of his adult years in Sacramento, where he designed and built homes. Ough’s home used to be at the corner of 8th and N streets, across the street from the the Leland Stanford mansion. Captain Roberts, an early steamboat captain on the Sacramento river, lived in the house across the street on the NW corner.
Though the Stanford mansion has survived, Ough’s home gave way many years ago to a boring, dated, earth-bermed government office building. However, several homes designed in the Victorian style of Ough’s home reportedly remain in old Sacramento neighborhoods. Synder’s parents still have a very fine English Victorian parlor set and an Eastlake bedroom set that belonged to Ough. The latter would probably have been in his house.
Census records indicate that Ough was born in Canada in 1841 and lived there until 1864, learning carpentry and architecture. In 1865, he married Hannah Thompson, the daughter of William Thompson and Margaret Maguire. The couple had three children, two of whom lived to adulthood.
A history of noteworthy people from Sacramento says Ough moved to Pennsylvania for a year then went to Cincinnati, where he worked for three years. In 1968, he journeyed to Montana, no doubt following his brother-in-law, William Thompson, Jr. A year later, he traveled to Sacramento, “overland, by the northern route, via Fort Benton.” Ough left behind an account of this trip, which we’ll cover in a subsequent blog.
J.E. Thompson, who spent a lot of time with Ough, wrote that Ough “designed and built the dome over the capitol building at Sacramento and it still stands to me a thing of beauty. Other parts of the the capital building have been damaged by earthquakes, but the most vulnerable part, the dome, is as built.”
The fact that he didn’t get to Sacramento until at least 1868, however, casts doubt on whether Ough designed the dome. On the other hand, the project, which was started in 1860 wasn’t completed until 1874. The complex, ornate project literally drove one of its architects crazy. Ruben Clark was committed to a mental institution in Stockton in 1864 and died there two years later. The official diagnosis? “Continued and close attention to the building of the State Capitol in Sacramento,” according to hospital records.
Ough, by comparison, seemingly remained grounded during his adult life. He found the time to create a beautiful Victorian sewing box, supposedly from wood left over from carving the Capitol, that’s in the possession of a Synder cousin. Another family story passed down to Synder suggests that Ough carved the bear heads on the main staircase. In any event, Ough made quite an impression on my great grandfather.
“He loved to plan and build fine homes and did build the finest homes of his time. Uncle Joe’s home was on a corner opposite Gov. Leland Stanford’s home in Sacramento. They were great friends. Stanford a great money maker and Uncle an artist and a lover of [homes?], especially his own. The two of them would sit under a tree at nights on a wooden bench and talk of Cal., the past and present.
“Stanford told him that he was going to build Stanford University one night and asked Uncle Joe what kind of building he would build. The next night Uncle Joe gave Stanford some rough drawings showing in a way what the University buildings are today. Stanford wanted him to cooperate with the architects that he had. It meant a move to Palo Alto, so Uncle Joe said no.
“Love of home and building other homes held him back, I suppose. He had a good house, as he liked it, some other houses that he rented, a little money in the bank, a nice family, a contented mind. I call him a very successful man. My first son Joseph was named after him. I am glad because I loved him.”