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The Scholar Architect

In his preservation, renovation and new-construction projects, as well as scholarship, a New Jersey architect is a staunch proponent of traditional architecture.
By Will Holloway

The Bridget Smith House, the last intact iron miners' house in northern New Jersey, was built in the township of Mine Hill in 1855. Fifty years later and 15 miles to the south, Carrère & Hastings' 38-room Blairsden was realized in Peapack. Not long after, Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Farms was completed in nearby Parsippany. In 1920, a Harrie T. Lindeberg design was built for the clockmaker Seth Thomas in New Vernon.

These four structures in northern Somerset and southern Morris counties represent the spectrum of historical housing types, from modest workers' homes to expansive manses for the wealthy. Each has also played a key role in the career of New Jersey architect Mark Hewitt, who is currently restoring one, is involved in the preservation of two and recently penned a book on the architects of another. Through such work, as well as historically inspired new design, Hewitt continues to champion time-honored architectural traditions, furthering his firm belief that the contemporary built environment "is a pluralistic place – and Modernist architecture doesn't acknowledge the pluralism of the existing historical built world."

From Student to Teacher
Originally from Seattle, WA, Mark Hewitt headed east in the early '70s to study drama at Yale University. It was in his second year, after taking a class taught by architectural history professor Vincent Scully, that he switched his focus to architecture. "The reason I'm an architect is Vincent Scully," says Hewitt. "His course was a revelation – I fell in love with architecture and architectural history." Hewitt also studied with Charles Moore and Allan Greenberg, the latter whom he describes as his "main mentor." After graduating in 1975, Hewitt went to the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a teaching assistant for Greenberg – and where the Post-Modern movement was in full swing. "Like a lot of students of Post-Modernist architects," he says, "I thought that if you were trying to bring back the meaning and symbolism of traditional buildings, why not do traditional buildings?"

Hewitt worked briefly in Greenberg's office and then spent a few years in the office of Robert Venturi, where he did his apprenticeship. In 1982, having always wanted to teach, Hewitt relocated to Houston, TX, accepting a position teaching architectural history and theory at Rice University. There he became more interested in traditional architecture and the history of non-Modernist, 20th-century buildings, and, inspired by a trip to England, began researching what would become The Architect and the American Country House.

In 1986, Hewitt moved to New York City, where he taught architecture and historic preservation at Columbia University. The Architect and the American Country House was published by Yale University Press in 1990. That same year, Hewitt became an associate professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). His second book, The Architecture of Mott B. Schmidt, was published by Rizzoli International Publications in 1991.

"The idea for the Mott Schmidt book was brought to me by Allan Greenberg," says Hewitt. "While practicing in Connecticut during the late '70s, he was working with Greenwich's grand old man of contractors and happened to ask, 'Which architect that you've worked with in your entire career' – and he'd been working from the 1920s to the '70s – 'does the best working drawings?' The contractor replied, 'Without a doubt, Mott Schmidt. Technically the best architect I've ever seen.'

"So Allan was curious. He'd never heard of Mott Schmidt. He decided to look up Schmidt and met his widow. She was an absolutely charming woman, and really wanted her husband's work out there for the public. Allan said that he was too busy to write the book, but that I might be interested in doing it. I was too young then to appreciate how good he was. I admired the work, I wrote the book, and it was a perfect entry into learning how to design traditional buildings. In fact, my first house is Mott Schmidt-like."

That house was completed in 1989 in Lattingtown, on Long Island's North Shore. Hewitt had been referred to the client, a New York real-estate man and a collector of English antiques, by then Columbia dean James Stewart Polshek. "It was a fairly bold house for the mid-1980s," says Hewitt, "but Polshek was quite supportive. He said that if the client wanted something traditional, then I should design something traditional." For the hilltop site overlooking Long Island Sound, Hewitt designed an austere Georgian finished with Flemish-bond brickwork and a limestone door surround in Hewitt's version of the Ionic order. The house includes a basement-level garage and a Temple of the Four Winds pavilion – a Hewitt favorite – in the garden.

At the same time, Hewitt was also working on the restoration of an 1866 townhouse in New York City's Greenwich Village. The client had purchased the building in 1985, when the block was rundown and the house was, as Hewitt says, "an absolute mess. The stoop had been torn off and all of the window details had been messed up. But we had a twin house next door and we knew the architect was Robert Mook – who was also the architect of the first concrete house in America."

A stucco coat was applied over the original brownstone, which had spalled, then all of the details were re-molded and the stoop was restored. "It's a good example of prettying up one house on the block and everybody else following suit," says Hewitt. "A lot of the houses on the block have been subsequently restored – it's now a fairly fancy block of Perry Street." Indeed, in 1995, the restored townhouse took first prize for an urban house in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Great American Home Awards.

In the early 1990s, while at NJIT, Hewitt became involved in the preservation of Craftsman Farms, Gustav Stickley's home in Parsippany, NJ. That would lead to the publication of Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Farms: The Quest for an Arts & Crafts Utopia (Syracuse University Press, 2001). In 2002, the book received a New Jersey State Historic Preservation Award.

A Diverse Portfolio
After deciding to step away from teaching fulltime, Hewitt, along with associate Jerry Bruno, founded Mark Alan Hewitt Architects in the small north-central New Jersey town of Bernardsville in 1998. The office recently relocated to a Victorian house on Claremont Road, which is named after Beaux Arts architect George B. Post's house on Bernardsville Mountain. "I came here because my wife and I like the village," says Hewitt. "It's a good historic place for me – it resonates with my work."

Mark Alan Hewitt Architects has completed approximately 70 projects over the past 10 years, from restorations and renovations to additions and new houses. One of the first of those new designs was a Shingle Style house in Bedminster, NJ, that was inspired by McKim, Meade & White's Isaac Bell House (1883) in Newport, RI. The client had owned the property, a parcel of a large old horse farm along the Raritan River, for 20 years and had decided to build a weekend house. "We did an interesting thing here," says Hewitt. "We split the house into two pieces that are both framed with stick-built lumber. Then, in between, we inserted large laminated trusses that go all the way to the ground floor. The roof between the two sides comes across and makes a double-story living-room space, creating an Arts and Crafts quality – so we mixed metaphors a little bit." The exterior includes a typical large Shingle Style porch overlooking horse pastures and a detached garage that doubles as a studio space for the owners.

Soon after, Hewitt designed a Tudor-style house for a mountaintop site in the town of Tewksbury, NJ. At the beginning of the design process, Hewitt showed the client the work of Mellor, Meigs & Howe and Voysey, which became the inspiration for the project. Although he was working under an "impossibly low budget" and the details fell by the wayside, Hewitt says that the design is interesting. "It's a crooked plan," he says. "We made a fireplace in the staircase that then became the hinge around which the whole plan worked. It has a giant family room on one side, and a very traditional room arrangement on the other. The plan gave them two large decks on the back, which look out to the pool and the woods."

Other notable designs include a fantastical nine-bedroom house in Bedminster – which was never realized – based on Edwin Lutyens' Castle Drogo, and a sympathetic L-shaped kitchen addition to a 1915 Craftsman house in Madison, NJ. Creating such compatible additions to historic houses is a particular focus of the firm. "We strive to answer the need for additions to what I call vintage houses – beautiful houses from the 1870s to the 1920s, which I think is the great era of house building in the U.S.," says Hewitt. "It's the period at which, typologically and stylistically, we get the houses that we continue to build today. The architects that I've been studying, such as Mott Schmidt, Charles Platt, McKim, Meade & White and Harrie Lindberg, created the palette of styles and types in vogue today."

When creating additions to such vintage homes, Hewitt's goal is to leave the house looking as though it hasn't been touched by an architect. "When I got into this 10 years ago, I was a consultant to historic-preservation commissions, and I couldn't find a lot of architects that I thought were doing anything like a decent job – it was the Modern glass box on the back stuff," he says. "As I say to my clients, I want an addition to be good enough that what we've done is in the style of the original building, but doesn't slavishly copy it. I want a little bit of differentiation, but it has to look like it fits."

Hewitt is also heavily involved in historic preservation. He is currently working on master plans for five historic churches and continues to restore three historic farms in New Jersey. Next to the early-Dutch Wyckoff-Garretson House (1730) – which Hewitt restored in the late '90s (see Period Homes, November 2005, page 32) in Franklin Township, the Van Liew-Suydam House is in the process of having its interior restored. Although it dates to the 1700s, the largest portion of the Van Liew-Suydam House was built in 1875 – its woodwork exemplifies 19th-century Victorian farmhouses. "These farms were part of a state water-conservation project that called for a dam on the Raritan River," says Hewitt. "All of these farm fields were going to be flooded in the 1970s. The project was put on hold indefinitely, which allowed these buildings to be wonderfully preserved in terms of their original fabric. They were in a fairly awful state of disrepair, but funding from the state of New Jersey has allowed us to restore them."

The last remaining example in a town once filled with company-built houses – mostly for Irish miners in the mid-19th century – the Bridget Smith House is both extremely modest and a testament to how people lived at the time. When Hewitt first began restoring the house in the mid-1990s, it was falling down. Much of the cladding was replaced, the porch was rebuilt, a new roof was installed and the windows were rebuilt. The interior restoration is currently underway.

Looking to the Future
While busy at the drafting board, Hewitt has not slowed his research of architects and firms whose works he learns from and passes on to others. His most recent book, Carrère & Hastings: Architecture & Urbanism, which was written along with Kate Lemos, William Morrison and Charles D. Warren, came out in 2005. "Acanthus Press wanted to do a book on Carrère & Hastings and asked me to be the editor and assemble the team of authors," says Hewitt. "I felt an obligation to my colleagues who love Carrère & Hastings to get the material out there so people can see how good they were. They were not merely slavish proponents of French Beaux Arts doctrine in America. They worked in all sorts of different veins and responded brilliantly to different contexts – and are an example of why architects shouldn't be pigeonholed."

"I'm a polymath," says Hewitt. "I get bored if I'm not doing two or three things at the same time. I'll have a book that I'm writing and then I'll go back to the drafting board and do some design – that's just who I am." So it is not surprising that along with continuing his design, preservation and restoration practice, Hewitt has another book planned – on historic-preservation theory. "One of the problems that we face is that preservation tends to be biased towards Modernism," he says. "I'm trying to reframe the debate about historic buildings and the current environment in ways that make historic buildings more natural denizens of the environment we live in now, and less like untouchable artifacts."

"I think that in the contemporary world, one of the paradoxes we face everyday is the increasing need to have tradition and cultural continuity in a world being taken over by technology," continues Hewitt. "Everybody else in this culture has become pluralistic, because that is the way we live, but architects refuse. I can appreciate Modernist architects like Alvar Aalto and I can like Thomas Jefferson or a simple miner's building from the 1850s. That kind of catholic taste reflects the way the world really is, but architects won't get over themselves, won't get over the idea that 'new form' is what architecture has to be."  

 

 

 
 

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