At the end of the nineteenth century, Salem was a mecca for architects-in-training, who came individually and collectively—most notably through the “summer school” of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s pioneering architecture program—to measure and draw details and outlines of its storied houses. Their work was published occasionally in the the American Architect and Building News as well as in a series of beautiful portfolios titled The Georgian Period. In volume III of the latter, published in 1899, the Rochester-based architect Claude Fayette Bragdon, a fascinating man of many interests including mathematics, set and lighting design, the occult, as well as architectural theory and practice, visited Salem for an afternoon, and rendered his impressions in both text and images. He acknowledges Salem’s two other major draws, the witch trials and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and then gets right into his categorization of Salem architecture: To the mind of an architect the buildings of Salem arrange themselves naturally into three classes: first, those very old houses, built by early settlers in the most primitive times, possessing all the dignity and simplicity and withal, the barrenness of the Puritan character, and around which cluster many strange, true histories and curious traditions; second, those built in later Colonial and Revolutionary days, usually by rich merchants and shipowners, when Salem had become a principal port of entry, and an important commercial centre, and in which the Colonial style is exhibited in its very flower, and third, those purely modern structures—confused, chaotic—which have sprung up in profusion in some part of the town, like weeds in an old fashioned garden. CONFUSED, CHAOTIC WEEDS! If this is Bragdon’s characterization of “modern” architecture in 1899, imagine what he would say now!
It’s not entirely clear why Bragdon’s illustrated essay is included in The Georgian Period: he was not affiliated with MIT nor was he was particularly reverent of colonial architecture. But I am very happy to be introduced to him via Salem, as he was a very interesting, multi-faceted man, who wrote several books on theoretical architecture and seems to have worked in every single genre of the decorative arts. He strikes me as a modern Renaissance Man, and I’m looking forward to learning more about him.
Just three of Bragdon’s works on architecture, in its widest possible sense.
Bragdon’s essay is included in a volume of select reprinted Georgian Period essays published in 1988 entitled The Spirit of New England, and MIT Summer School drawings and Frank Cousins photographs are added to round out his presentation—but of course that means the presentation is no longer his. But his words are there, as well as his drawings of “old colonial work”, including an interesting rendering of an Eagle-less Hamilton Hall. Missing McIntire? That’s pretty curious. Well, no matter, I’m still struck by Bragdon’s exuberant writing style. At the end of his six hours in Salem, he is reluctant to leave this veritable mine of architectural wealth but his impressions are “permanently” formed of an exceedingly quaint and picturesque old town, striving here and there to be “smart” and modern, like some faded spinster who has seen better days, who mistakenly prefers our shoddy fabrics to the faded silks and yellow lace and other heirlooms of an opulent past. I can see that, still, especially the bit about the mistaken preference for shoddy fabric.