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East and West

The Arts and Crafts movement had distinct regional expressions.

By Dan Cooper

While the term "American Arts and Crafts Architecture" implies a universal design vocabulary that was practiced throughout the country, in reality there were several distinctive regional interpretations. Nowhere is this difference more obvious than in the works that emerged from both California and the Northeast. Each school embraced the tenets of the Arts and Crafts mandating the simplification of aesthetics and construction, and yet the pools of inspiration from which they drew were as varied as the culture and geography of the nation.

On the East Coast, the architectural muse was the region's collective tie to Great Britain throughout the centuries, as this had been its predominant source of culture. Additionally, the more immediate roots of the Arts and Crafts movement were to be found in the works of the early-19th-century Gothicists such as the Englishman A.W.N. Pugin and the American A. J. Downing. Their rejection of the rigidity of Classicism and preference for the naturalism of Gothic design was a response to the urbanization and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution. By mid-century, Charles Locke Eastlake and William Morris heralded a revival of English Medievalism that spurned the undulations and ornamentation of the Rococo and promoted a concept of design that stressed an "honesty" of construction and its place in nature.

Naturalism
The belief that architecture should be organic and naturalistic laid the groundwork for the later 1870s and 1880s, when two American architects, Henry Hobson Richardson in Boston and Frank Furness in Philadelphia, were producing their finest designs, each radically altering the way in which buildings were designed. They took completely different approaches – Richardson utilized polychromed ashlar to create rocky piles with Romanesque arches, while Furness employed his highly stylized Modern Gothicism that was closely allied with his British counterparts. In these works, we see the birth of what was to become the American Arts & Crafts Movement.

Concurrently, as the nation celebrated its centennial, and as we assessed our first years as a nation, we reflected nostalgically on the earliest architecture of our Colonial era – that of the 17th-century designs imported from across the Atlantic and constructed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which encompassed what is now the greater Boston area. These cedar-clad, wide-gabled houses adorned with tiny diamond-paned windows were reinterpreted as what is now known as the Shingle Style, the first true Arts and Crafts American architecture.

This Shingle Style sprang from the pen of William Ralph Emerson in Maine with Redwood, the first completely shingled home of the new era. Embellished with Tudor Revival half-timbering and deeply overhanging eaves, the parallels to its English forbears are easily evident. In Newport, RI, Richardson protégé Stanford White, along with partners McKim and Mead, continued in this vein, building grand homes worthy of English country estates, most notably the Watts-Sherman and Isaac Bell residences.

This radically new and organic architectural style maintained a fascination with English built history, and this is the crux of East Coast Arts and Crafts. Even the Classical motifs of the Colonial Revival that frequently appeared stemmed from the 18th-century American past instead of looking directly to Greece and Rome – unlike the tastemakers of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, who derived their designs from truly ancient architecture.

Eschewing Europe
In the late 1890s, and 3,000 miles to the southwest, the architects of California responded to the nascent Arts and Crafts movement in an entirely different manner. Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie Style, the houses of the West Coast were sprawling horizontals that melded with the landscape and supported low-angled or flat roofs unencumbered by such mundane considerations as snow-weight.

While the analogy of East versus West coasts becomes a bit murky here, suffice it to say that both the Midwest and coastal West existed far outside the gravitational pull of the East Coast and its English Colonial past, revealing little homage to Britain. This is not to say the Californians were not cognizant of their Colonial past, but in their case the country they looked to was Spain.

Indeed, the term "Mission Style" refers to the surviving Spanish Missions, and the massings and materials of these structures were incorporated into the Arts and Crafts idiom. This rough-hewn aesthetic used stucco and tile, adhering to the organic standards of the movement. In this part of the country, winter's chill was never the enemy; instead, it was the incessant sun, and so the dissipation of heat dictated the shapes of buildings. Unlike the Northeast, rooms were not huddled together two or three deep, and maximum exposure to breezes guided the hands of the architects; frequently, as many as three walls of a chamber could be exposed to the weather.

This is a defining aspect of West Coast Arts and Crafts architecture – an eschewing of England's formality and, instead, an embracement of the rusticity of the American West. While both coasts employed materials of an organic nature, such as cedar shingles, hewn stone and masonry, there is a casualness in even the grandest of the West Coast Arts and Crafts homes, as if the rules and customs of European architecture were no longer mandatory, and the expansiveness and freedom of this continent was the guideline.

An additional difference between the East Coast and West Coast schools is their approach to daylight and how it is received into a dwelling. Just as sunlight is a precious commodity in England, so it is in the Northeast, and fenestration is maximized to allow as much light in as possible to compensate for the length of the colder seasons and their low light. Roofs may overhang, but more so on the rafter-ends than the gable face; in fact, many of the more stylish Shingle Style dwellings sport gables that are almost flush with the rake-edge of the roof.Conversely, the residents of the greater Los Angeles area must cope with an overabundance of light, and this is reflected in the way in which windows are hooded with greatly overhanging eaves, and the overall square footage of the glazing can be far less than their East Coast cousins.

Japonisme
West Coast and Crafts design was not solely dictated by Spanish Colonialism – southern California was also influenced by the architecture of Japan. As the Northeast had McKim, Mead and White, and the Midwest had Wright, the architectural firm renowned for Arts and Crafts architecture on the West Coast was founded by Charles and Henry Greene. The brothers were exposed to Japanese architecture at World's Fairs in Chicago and St. Louis, and we begin to see the strong Japanese influence that is so unique to their buildings on the West Coast. The most famous of these is the iconic Gamble House in Pasadena, which exemplifies what is unique to southern Californian Arts and Crafts architecture.

Greene and Greene's work is typified by its revealing of the structural composition of a house. Its beams, columns and brackets are visible, and the attention paid to finish and trim is based upon the principles of Japanese cabinetmaking and architecture. This, along with the use of exotic woods, rounded brackets and skillful joinery, resulted in dramatically different homes that, while obviously falling under the auspices of the Arts and Crafts movement, bore no resemblance to the residences of Bar Harbor, ME, or Montauk, NY.

The Greene brothers were not the sole practitioners in southern California; at the same time in Pasadena, Alfred Heineman had created Bowen Court, with its soon-to-be ubiquitous clusters of bungalows. These humble cottages combined Wright's Prairie sensibilities to the sunny climate, and gave many people the opportunity for stylish and affordable housing. Just a few hundred miles inland, Charles Whittlesley created the rustic Arts and Crafts lodge El Tovar at the Grand Canyon and the Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff, AZ. Both structures, built in combinations of stone and shingles, captured the aura of the West in their rusticity, yet remained undeniably Arts and Crafts in feel.

From Craft to Ubiquity
In San Francisco, several prominent architects were designing buildings that differed greatly from those to the south, and yet fell squarely within the parameters of the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1895, architect A. Page Brown, along with draftsman Bernard Maybeck, designed the Swedenborgian Church, considered one of the earliest Arts and Crafts structures on the West Coast. With its heavy timbering and solid mass, this structure was a symbolic departure from the lacy Victorians indigenous to the Bay Area.

Maybeck then went on to design his most famous work, the First Church of Christ Scientist Berkeley, a remarkable hybridization of the Gothicism popular on the East Coast with the structural forms of the Prairie/West Coast. While the Gothic motifs and tracery are clearly visible, they are more organic and stylized than those found in the East, and would never be mistaken for that region's staid interpretations.

San Francisco also acknowledged the Spanish Colonial influence in its Arts and Crafts buildings, with Louis Mulgardt's San Francisco Conservatory of Music/Infant Shelter Building and the de Young Museum, along with the typical residential applications. Julia Morgan, who designed San Simeon, known as Hearst Castle, was also working in the Arts and Crafts style as well as in Neoclassicism.

By the early decades of the 20th century, there were still regional variations of Arts and Crafts architecture, but the popularity of the style and the availability of the designs throughout the country, either by kits or plans (i.e. Stickley, Sears, Aladdin et al.) resulted in a homogenization of Arts and Crafts architecture; a stucco home with a tiled roof could appear just as easily (although not as frequently) in suburban Boston or New York as it might in Los Angeles. The simple and inexpensive Bungalow style became the standard for single-family homes for two decades, before it was supplanted by the Dutch Colonial and eventually the Ranch at mid-century.  

 

 

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