Drawing Toward Home: Designs for Domestic Architecture from Historic New England

Alexander Esty, Unidentified house, c. 1855, Courtesy of Historic New EnglandFor those of us who grew up here, the older homes of New England typically have the first and greatest architectural influence on us.  Those who move to New England later in life often quickly come to appreciate the unique language the houses of New England speak.  It’s a language worthy of study and appreciation which is exemplified in Drawing Toward Home, Designs for Domestic Architecture from Historic New England now on show at the Boston University Art Gallery.

Since I mostly draft by hand, as all architects did prior to the advent of computer-aided drafting, it was with great delight that I perused the architectural drawings from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries on display at B.U.  Most are presentation drawings while some are study drawings meant primarily for the architects’ review.

Well known and little-known architects are represented in the 100 exhibited drawings culled from Historic New England’s collection which contains the work of more than 400 architects.  I found myself drawn to three striking drawings which collectively reflect three areas of interest to architects: constructed elements relative to landscape; the house: its plan, exterior elevations, sections and representation in perspective; and its interior.

A landscape plan of the Ephraim Merriam House on Chestnut Street in Jamaica Plain c. 1856-57 by the office of Luther Briggs, Jr. Architect tells the story of architecture intertwined with landscape.  The black and brown ink with watercolor over a graphite drawing depicts a villa floor plan amidst carefully orchestrated surroundings.  The front of the house, toward the bottom of the page, boasts a generous “carriage sweep” drive between ornamental lawns and flower gardens.  A private drive leads to an offset stable.  Towards the rear, a grape trellis and exterior clothes-drying rack are defined in detail.  A huge vegetable garden occupies much of the back yard, while raspberries trail along the rear property line.  Both sides of the grounds are lined with several species of trees.  As my friend and fellow RISD architecture alum said upon examining the drawing, “What more could you need?”  Indeed.

A pen and ink drawing of an unidentified bungalow c. 1912 by the office of Frank Chouteau Brown assembles many different types of drawings on one page to beautifully communicate an overall house design.  A charming, freehand, perspective rendering of the front of the house set against a dense treescape occupies a large swath at the top of the page.  Immediately below it and slightly to the left are a plan and elevations, drawn at a considerably smaller scale.  A partial wall section, shown at an in-between scale, climbs up the right side of the page.  Together, they describe many features we associate with bungalows, like one and one-half story massing, a cruciform first-floor plan, central chimney, multiple mulled windows, and broad-tapered posts, to name a few.  The combination of multiple drawing types and scales all in black ink, artfully arranged on the page, makes this drawing an exhibit highlight.

An interior elevation within an unidentified house from the early twentieth century by the office of A. H. Davenport & Co. took my breath away.  It’s ink and watercolor over a graphite drawing on wove watercolor paper.  Titled “Dining Room in Blue and Gray” it illustrates a central fireplace with a soft-blue and white tile surround flanked by deep-blue, upholstered, built-in benches.  A cabinet composed of three glass-front doors tops the fireplace and displays blue and white china within.  The tableau reminded me of the work of Swedish illustrator Carl Larsson.  It’s a very persuasive drawing.  I wanted both it and the Dining Room to hang it in.

The charms of these hand drawn architectural works, and the many I haven’t room to comment on here, are irresistible.  Something about the quality, weight, and rhythm of lines drawn by hand in ink or graphite and supplemented by water color, chalk, or charcoal on paper reminds us of our common humanity.  It’s very difficult to find digitally-based renderings that are as compelling, though there are some notable exceptions.  Studio amd creates stunning “paintings,” but such refined digital skill is relatively rare.  I’m still partial to the allure of the hand-made mark on paper and how it connects us to our creations across time.

Don’t miss the work of Royal Barry Wills, Arthur Asahel Shurcliff (who designed the Grande Allee at the Crane Estate), Ogden Codman, Jr. (who penned The Decoration of Houses with Edith Wharton), Asher Benjamin, Arthur Little (who designed Neo-Federal additions to Salem’s Emmerton House) or John M. Allen which are all also on display.  Visit the B.U. Art Gallery website events page to learn about related upcoming gallery talks on December 2 and 15, 2009 and a symposium on January 16, 2010.  The exhibit will continue through January 17, 2010.

Purchase the exhibit catalog here

by Katie Hutchison for House Enthusiast