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Just one look


In the 1880s, when memories of the Civil War were finally a generation in the past and the country’s centennial had quickened national pride, the seasons changed. Suddenly, it was summer in America.

Inspired by the picturesque features of the Colonial-era Bishop Berkeley house in Rhode Island, architects such as Charles McKim, John Stevens, Arthur Little, William Emerson, and Robert Peabody set forth to design the beloved American summer house.

Rising first along the Northeast coast, openly nostalgic for a preindustrial past, and attuned to nature but with playful spatial movement and quixotic volumes clad in waterfalls of simple cedar shingles, these buildings became the vocabulary for the architecture of leisure. It would take 70 years for the style to be named “Shingle” by the great teacher Vincent Scully, who died on the day I was writing this.

In Manchester, Massachusetts, especially, many fine examples sat over-looking the open sea, with names as beautiful as the structures themselves: River House, Singing Dune, and the masterpiece, Kragsyde.

Its name no hyperbole, the magnificent home of George Nixon Black clung to a rocky seaside cliff. Deep porches extended beneath its roof, and a jaunty tower sprouted. The legendary porte-cochere, a lovely leaping curve of shingled wood, was a collaborative solution — between Frederic Law Olmsted, who designed the grounds, and architect Robert Peabody — to limited carriage access on the site.

Left: The ocean-facing façade of the re-creation, in Swan’s Island, Maine.
Photo: Bret Morgan
Right: Original Kragsyde, in Manchester, Massachusetts.
Photo: Courtesy Historic New England

In those days, people like Black would arrive in late May for the season. Collars were loosened, bowler hats exchanged for straw boaters, and summer would begin. Picnics, bare feet, summer reading, and slamming screen doors are not inventions of our century.

Nor is open-mindedness from our time only. Kragsyde was as capable of sheltering its inhabitants as of impressing onlookers. Among the secrets of the house was Black’s long and happy gay “marriage,” which was lived within its walls.

Sadly, when Black died in 1928, the seasons had changed again, and the 19th-century summer was over. Kragsyde was demolished in 1929.

By 1978, when my husband and I decided to rebuild Kragsyde with our own hands, we were well into a long winter. The upheavals and malaise of that era certainly put us in a mindset similar to the 1880s architects. It seemed to us as we wielded our hammers that we were rebuilding summer, with all of its possibilities. Nostalgia and longing were in the air.

Today, amid another howling winter, as I write this from the endless summer of my own Kragsyde, I urge those who also build houses to consider a bit of what our ancestors knew: nostalgia, ornament, frivolity, amplitude, and the homely cedar shingle, which is as comfortable on a shack as an elaborate cottage.

Whatever season you are working in, build summer.


Photos courtesy of Jane Goodrich