News Articles Library Event Photos Contact Search


Monday, December 11, 2017

Historic Preservation in New England: Recognizing a Champion

Historic Preservation in New England: Recognizing a Champion by Grace Friary
by Grace Friary

Well before the term "historic preservation" came into vogue, New Englanders were saving old houses. The first documented preservation effort in America was launched at Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1847, where residents joined forces to save the Old Indian House, survivor of an infamous 1704 attack on the village. Although the house was torn down, consciousness had been raised and a number of subsequent campaigns, like those for Mount Vernon and Independence Hall, were successful. In New England, preservation victories were tempered by major losses; most notably the 1863 demolition of Boston's venerable 1737 John Hancock House (Fig. 1). Throughout the nineteenth century, individuals like Henry David Thoreau championed saving old houses for their aesthetic value. Antiquarians like Deerfield's George Sheldon and Cummings Davis in Concord, regularly accessed neighbors" attics and cellars to "rescue" early artifacts and documents. Often viewed as eccentrics, these avocational preservationists were building a compelling case for the need to protect the material culture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England.

Fig. 1: John Hancock House, 1737, Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts. Razed in 1863.
Fig. 1: John Hancock House, 1737, Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts. Razed in 1863.

When, in 1910, Bostonian William Sumner Appleton (1874–1947) founded the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now Historic New England), he was responding to a growing concern about the future of America's past. Although he had witnessed several pre-SPNEA preservation successes (notably the Fairbanks House in Dedham; the Paul Revere House in Boston; and the Royall House in Medford), Appleton, America's first full-time historic preservationist, was determined to systematize the work of protecting the built environment of colonial America, which was increasingly in danger of disappearing. During Appleton's tenure at the society, fifty-one buildings were acquired, many of which were celebrated for their architectural merit rather than the importance of the original owner(s).

Appleton's death in 1947 marked the passing of a preservation visionary and, at the same time, provided opportunities for an expansion of his vision. Bertram K. Little (1899–1993), Appleton's successor, proved a strong manager with a keen eye for attracting talented individuals. In 1955 he hired the organization's first professionally trained staff member—a young curator from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Wing—to be his assistant director and editor of the institution's journal, Old-Time New England.

Fig. 2: Abbott Lowell Cummings standing in front of the Browne House, Watertown, Massachusetts, ca. 1698, a triumph of preservation undertaken by SPNEA founder William Sumner Appleton from 1919–1924. Photography by David Carmack.
Fig. 2: Abbott Lowell Cummings standing in front of the Browne House, Watertown, Massachusetts, ca. 1698, a triumph of preservation undertaken by SPNEA founder William Sumner Appleton from 1919–1924. Photography by David Carmack.

Abbott Lowell Cummings. Photography by J. David Bohl.
Abbott Lowell Cummings.
Photography by J. David Bohl.

The hire of Abbott Lowell Cummings (b. 1923) proved to be extremely fortuitous for the future of historic preservation in America (pictured here and in Fig. 2). For nearly sixty years, he has reigned as the iconic dean of the profession and his contributions to the interpretation of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century material culture and the built environment of early America are unparalleled.

A gifted teacher and an outstanding scholar whose warmth and wit have endeared him to generations of students and colleagues, Abbott Cummings molded the organization into New Englands premier center for the study of vernacular architecture. Concurrently, he expanded his interest in historic preservation to other institutions as well, including Boston University where, in 1971, he helped establish the New England and American Studies Program. The foremost authority on First-Period architecture and the recipient of honorary degrees and countless awards, Cummings recently accepted the Old Sturbridge Village President's Award honoring those whose research and scholarship on New England life and history have had a significant impact on the museum field.

Born in St. Albans, Vermont, Abbott was an avid researcher in historical archives by the time he was twelve, encouraged by a grandmother he describes as a "crack genealogist." But it was a present on his fifteenth birthday from a great-aunt—membership in the relatively new SPNEA—that launched his career. At Oberlin College, where he earned his BA and MA, his interests in the seventeenth-century art and architecture of Massachusetts clarified. His dissertation on the work of Greenfield and Boston, Massachusetts, architect Asher Benjamin (1773–1845) for his PhD at Ohio State University in 1950 broke new ground investigating the sources, stylistic evolution, and influence of Benjamin's builders' guides. Among his many publications, Cummings' The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625–1725, (1979) still guides the research of scholars in the twenty-first century.

Fig. 3: Gedney House, Salem, Massachusetts, 1665. The relatively plain exterior with its contemporary appearance, belies the untouched and intact interior of this important First-Period architectural survival. Photography by J. David Bohl.
Fig. 3: Gedney House, Salem, Massachusetts, 1665. The relatively plain exterior with its contemporary appearance, belies the untouched and intact interior of this important First-Period architectural survival. Photography by J. David Bohl.

Abbott Cummings is a man very much in the mold of Sumner Appleton: passionate about old houses and their enormous value as historical documents. During his nearly thirty-year career at the organization and his subsequent tenure as the first Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale University, Cummings has continually advocated for historic preservation as a kind of archaeology. Old houses, he maintains, contain layers that should be carefully uncovered so the structure can tell its own story.

Abbott Cummings was executive director of SPNEA from 1970 to 1983, when the historic preservation profession was ramping up and national interest in preservation was growing. Because of the financial impossibility of acquiring every endangered historic house in need, the organization, like other preservation agencies, instituted a stewardship program that enabled houses with marginal museum value to be protected with the assistance of funding from their owners. This, in turn, permitted SPNEA to focus on acquiring buildings that were indisputably irreplaceable.

Fig. 4: Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1938. The family residence of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Photography by David Carmack.
Fig. 4: Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1938. The family residence of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Photography by David Carmack.

The single most important accomplishment for which Abbott would like to be remembered while director, was the purchase and protection of the 1665 Gedney House in Salem, Massachusetts (Fig. 3). An example of what he calls "the bell jar theory," Gedney is a house with so little restoration disturbance that the decision was made to leave it alone and let the building tell its own story. Of the many preservation lessons Cummings continues to impart, cardinal among them is: do not tamper with or attempt to re-interpret history.

Fairbanks House, Dedham
House of the Seven Gables, Salem
Warner House, Portsmouth, N.H.
Fairbanks House, Dedham
www.fairbankshouse.org

House of the Seven Gables, Salem
www.7gables.org

Warner House, Portsmouth, N.H.
www.warnerhouse.org

Roseland Cottage, Woodstock, CT
Cogswell's Grant, Essex
Jeremiah Lee Mansion, Marblehead
Roseland Cottage, Woodstock, CT
www.historicnewengland.org

Cogswell's Grant, Essex
www.historicnewengland.org

Jeremiah Lee Mansion, Marblehead
www.marbleheadmuseum.org

Otis House, Boston
Phelps-Hathaway House, Suffield, CT
Spencer-Peirce-Little House, Newbury
Otis House, Boston
www.historicnewengland.org

Phelps-Hathaway House,
Suffield, CT
www.connecticutlandmarks.org

Spencer-Peirce-Little House, Newbury
www.historicnewengland.org

Also on the list: Gropius House, Lincolnwww.historicnewengland.orgsee figure 4

Cummings also argues that historic preservation is not just about saving old houses; it is about saving architecturally significant houses. This point is illustrated by the organization's acquisition, during Abbott's tenure, of the 1938 Gropius House (Fig. 4) in Lincoln, Massachusetts, built by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (1883–1969). Adding it to a stable of predominantly seventeenth- through nineteenth-century houses may have seemed unusual to some, but today Gropius—with its mixture of traditional and innovative building materials—is an important teaching tool attracting scholars and visitors from around the world.

As critical as "main-street" and "view-shed" preservation are today, there is a growing concern that historic houses and public buildings should be protected more aggressively. Thanks to Abbott and other pioneers of historic preservation, the groundwork has been laid; going forward it is a shared responsibility to ensure the longevity of our historic built environment.


All images courtesy, Historic New England.

Grace Friary ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) is a public relations consultant and freelance writer living in the historic McIntire District in Salem, Massachusetts. She thanks Lorna Condon, Historic New England's senior curator of library and archives, for her assistance in the preparation of this article.

Events