In Arts and Crafts Architecture: History and Heritage in New England, Maureen Meister examines the work of twelve architects, eleven men and one woman, who took leadership roles in the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts from its founding in 1897 to 1917: Robert Day Andrews, George Edward Barton, Ralph Adams Cram, Lois Lilley Howe, Alexander Wadsworth “Waddy” Longfellow Jr., Charles Donagh Maginnis, Louis Chapell Newhall, William Edward Putnam Jr., George Russell Shaw, Richard Clipston Sturgis, Charles Howard Walker, and Herbert Langford Warren. The book provides useful biographical background on these architects, charts their intersections in Boston arts and social organizations, and glosses their building designs.
Meister's intention is to flesh out our understanding of the generation of Boston architects who studied design or worked as draftsmen in the 1870s (or so) and practiced through the interwar period. Focusing on those architects who were associated with the Society of Arts and Crafts, Meister aims to “examine this Boston-based architecture in a comprehensive way, locating the architects and their buildings within the social, political, and philosophical contexts of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New England” (8). Key in this regard is the intellectual legacy of British leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement—John Ruskin and William Morris—and their champions in Boston, especially Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton.
The body of work that Meister considers coincides historically with the production of New England architects who were brought to modern scholarly attention by Vincent J. Scully Jr.'s pioneering 1955 study The Shingle Style and the Stick Style and by a number of articles that appeared in the May 1973 issue of this journal.1
Framing the study around the leaders of the Society of Arts and Crafts necessarily leaves out some important architects, as Meister acknowledges, notably Robert Peabody of Peabody and Stearns, who operated a large Boston firm from 1870 to 1917. Peabody also mentored a number of the architects Meister discusses and in the 1870s penned some important essays extolling the virtues of early American architecture as well as the British Queen Anne movement.2
Believing that Arts and Crafts philosophy inheres in the buildings by the twelve architects, Meister lays the groundwork for her study in the first chapter, which contains brief biographies that provide fascinating glimpses of the group's members. In chapter 2, “Arts and Crafts Advocates, Arts and Crafts Architects,” she offers an unremarkable overview of the development of the movement in England and its transmission to the United States. Meister illustrates this importation in the work of well-known American architects such as Greene and Greene and Irving Gill. The third chapter investigates an “intellectual stew” in which float Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Eliot Norton, and Louis Brandeis, all of whom contributed ideas to a regional discourse about art and labor. Meister charts the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement in New England in her fourth chapter, mapping the development of a preservation ethic with regard to historic architecture, evident, for instance, in the successful battle waged to save Charles Bulfinch's Massachusetts State House (1795–98), which was slated for demolition in the early 1890s.
The second half of the book is structured chronologically around familiar stylistic trends. Thus, chapter 5 is titled “Looking Backward: From Romanesque to Gothic Revival” and chapter 6 is similarly called “Looking Backward: Colonial Revival as Arts and Crafts.” The seventh and final chapter, “Looking Forward: Building for the Twentieth Century,” continues the chronology. Finally, the epilogue, titled “Confronting Modernism,” concludes a well-worn arc of architectural styles from the emergence of historicism in the post–Civil War era to the shift to modernism after World War I. However, in Meister's discussion of actual buildings by the twelve architects it remains unclear just what imprint their involvement with the Society of Arts and Crafts had on their work, which was often quite similar to the designs of their contemporaries who were not leaders of the organization. Meister admits as much when she writes that “one can page through local surveys and scholarly studies of the region's architecture and conclude that these architects’ favored styles were embraced by the greater architectural community during this period” (222).
Nonetheless, some building projects discussed in the book clearly demonstrate the impact of the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly through the incorporation of fine craftsmanship or even relatively unskilled manual labor. For instance, in the case of the William Fogg Library in Eliot, Maine, designed by C. Howard Walker, Meister notes, “When construction began, citizens donated their stone walls, hauling the rock to the site, where the choicest specimens were selected for the new building” (168). This is an intriguing window onto the actual production of a building that is as revealing as the finished work. In fact, one wonders whether looking for evidence of Arts and Crafts influence in the styles of buildings is perhaps the wrong tack, and whether instead it would be more illuminating to focus on the actual process of construction.
Meister looks mainly at the exteriors of buildings, some discussion of exemplary interiors notwithstanding. Given that Arts and Crafts design attempted the integration of all aspects of a structure, from the architecture itself to the furnishings, it would be useful to think about the impact of the movement on the spaces created by the designers who participated in it. That the Arts and Crafts movement was perhaps, more than anything else, about the production of spaces that contrasted with the modernizing world outside, which Meister uses as a counterpoint to the movement, is attested to by Lois Lilley Howe's photographs of places she designed or visited. Among them is the Twitchell House at Chocorua, New Hampshire, where in 1903 she captured the rustic living room, with its massive hearth and beamed ceiling supported by birch logs (Figure 1).
The photo underscores the architect-photographer's fascination with materials. Indeed, the pervasive concern with materiality evident in the diverse activities of the twelve architects—alluded to by Meister but not developed as a theme—might well be the most significant characteristic connecting them and the thing that motivated them to take on leadership roles in the Society of Arts and Crafts. For instance, after a period of employment as an architect, George Edward Barton became disabled and embarked on a course of physical rehabilitation through carpentry and gardening. He later served as the first president of the Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy and was known for “advancing recovery through craft work” (18). George Russell Shaw wrote books and articles on pines, including The Genus Pinus, published in 1914. A native of Maine (the Pine Tree State), Shaw could not have failed to be familiar with the lore that surrounded the tree as the chosen material for ships’ masts in the age of sail and as a common building material in New England. It would have been natural for these architects to gravitate, as Meister shows they did, to the British and American theorists of the Arts and Crafts movement, who championed manual labor as well as design and construction that was true to materials.
However useful an entrée into the Arts and Crafts movement these twelve figures provide, there is no doubt that they are a captivating group. We know from other sources, notably Douglass Shand-Tucci's work on Ralph Adams Cram, what a complex network of professional and personal associations tied the members of this generation of Boston architects to one another.3 Meister leaves us wanting to know more about the twelve as people, beyond their professional résumés and tepid buildings. For instance, unlike Shand-Tucci, she scrupulously sidesteps the queering of Cram's circle. And she pays little attention to gender issues, despite Robert Peabody's warm encouragement of Howe and her eventual establishment of an all-female architecture firm. These silences notwithstanding, Arts and Crafts Architecture provides a solid foundation on which to build further studies of Boston architects after Henry Hobson Richardson.