The First Preservationist

It’s time to return to the life and work of the Salem photographer Frank W. Cousins (1851-1925), whose camera created a reverence for colonial architecture in his native city and elsewhere at a crucial time. He has popped up here in many a post, including one devoted exclusively to his work and business, but I’m still assessing the reach of his influence: in the years between then and now I have seen his photographs in countless books on Colonial and Colonial Revival architecture, architectural libraries and archives, contemporary periodicals about architecture and photography, and newspaper articles. He was clearly identified as Salem’s “First Preservationist” a century ago and he should be acknowledged as such now:  before Rantoul and Northend and Historic Salem, Inc. and Ada Louise Huxtable, there was Frank Cousins. As May is Preservation Month, this seems like a good time to bring him back into the spotlight–though I’m still in the early stages of assessing his impact. Clearly there needs to be a proper inventory taken of his printed photographs, both in collections and in publications, and a serious assessment of his life’s work; last summer I was contacted by a young woman in Germany working on a dissertation focused on Cousins so I have hope. And I did find a (little) photograph of the man himself!

Cousins Collage and Picture

Cousins Birthplace

Cousins Salem Cemetery

Cousins 1893 Door

Features on Frank Cousins from Country Life in America (1913) and some of my favorite Cousins photographs of Salem: his own birthplace on English Street, previously part of the Old Sun Tavern, the Charter Street cemetery, a Derby Street house with a “double door”, one of several plates he exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The little biographical blurb in Country Life in America is charming and revealing: “That old scrub, Cousins of Salem,” is the genial way her announces  his arrival to his many friends in the architectural fraternity. They  welcome his coming, for few men know and appreciate Colonial architecture as he does, and none can talk more interestingly and enthusiastically about it. A native of Salem, Mass., Mr. Cousins has studied her notable early architecture all his life, and during the past thirty years he has made thousands of architectural photographs in Salem and the neighboring towns, and in Portsmouth, Boston, Philadelphia, Germantown, and Baltimore.  Mr. Cousins in the author of “Fifty Salem Doorways”, the first of a notable series of books on “Colonial Architecture” and is much sought after by art societies and other bodies for the lecture on “Old Architectural Salem” which he has delivered many times. Of late Mr. Cousins has been extending his efforts to the furniture and garden features of Colonial houses, and we expect occasionally to publish the cream of his labors.”  Old Scrub! This narrative does seem to confirm what I had gleaned elsewhere: that it was the appreciation of Salem’s architecture that came first, and that inspired him to pick up the camera, around 1888. His membership in the “architectural fraternity” of the era is a testament to the detailed examination (and preservation) of architectural details captured by his camera, rendering him not only a preservation pioneer but also one in the fledgling field of architectural photography.

Cousins Well-Meek House 1918 BAC

Cousins Peirce Nichols Mantle

Doorway of Well-Meeks House in Salem, 1918 and Mantle of Peirce-Nichols House, “the best Adams mantle in the U.S.A, 1913.

Cousins disseminated his thousands of prints in a variety of ways, transcending artistic and editorial photography into the commercial realm. He sold them in his own Salem shop on Essex Street, the Bee-Hive, and through his own publishing company, the Frank Cousins Art Co., he published them in his aforementioned “Colonial Architecture” series and later in several books (Wood Carver of Salem: Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work, 1916 and The Colonial Architecture of Salem, 1919, both co-authored with Phil Riley), he formed partnerships with regional and national photographic publishers, and he donated them to scores of cultural institutions and publications. Given the size of his market share and his focus on Salem, you can imagine just how influential the “Cousins Colonial Salem House” would become in shaping the national image of colonial architecture in the early part of the twentieth century. Yet even though he identified himself as “Cousins of Salem”, he also transcended his native city and was recognized for his preservation and photographic expertise up and down the Eastern seaboard. In 1913 he was commissioned by the Art Commission of New York City to document buildings that were in danger of imminent demolition in the rapidly-expanding city, and effort that was recognized by a prominently-placed article in the New York Times in May 1914:  “The Camera to Preserve New York’s Old Buildings”. Cousins’ New York photographs are stunning:  equally as reverential as his Salem shots but somehow more poignant because of their context, the city that never sleeps, and ascends ever upwards. But surprise: the 61st Street building below, known in the nineteenth-century as “Smith’s Folly”, survives to this day as the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, owned and operated by the Colonial Dames of America (and I’m sure it’s all due to Frank Cousins)!

Cousins NYT Article May 1914

House on 86th Street Between Park and Madison Avenues. Red brick house on north side of street.

photographic print (7.5 x 9.5 in.), mount (9.5 x 11.5 in.)

Mount Vernon Hotel Museum

Houses at 86th Street and 421 East 61st Street (“Smith’s Folly”) in New York City, photographed by Frank Cousins in 1913, and the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden today.

Repositories of Frank Cousins’ photographs: the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum; Duke University Library; the New York Public Library Digital Collections; Archives of the Art Commission of the City of New York.


6 responses to “The First Preservationist

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