A 130-year-old found album reveals the world of architectural storyteller William G. Preston
LOST Sep-Oct 2019
by Amelia Thrall AIA
The layout of the home created spaces to enjoy the outdoors from every orientation, and consequently any time of day.
Summer Cottage of William G. Preston – Album 195. Courtesy of Historic New England.
In an opening framed by woven shingles, a dog lazes on the lap of a gentleman whose companions are viewing photo albums; a hammock suggests this is a preferred spot for enjoying ocean breezes.
Surrounded by a sea of grass, a woman picks blossoms at the base of an abandoned chimney, a long gash revealing its construction.
An older woman rocks in a calico-cushioned chair as a child looks on from the open doorway of a half-cape, the unpainted trim decorated with ears of dried corn.
Here’s the dog again, stretched out beside a woman gardening below an oriel window with casement openings, small half circles ornamenting the bottom of each shingle in the lowest row.
This is an architect’s photo feed from 130 years ago, an album found and donated to Historic New England by Maine architectural historian Earle Shettleworth Jr., offering a window into the life of William Gibbons Preston through summer holiday photographs taken in Marion, Massachusetts.
As with today’s photo feeds, the personality behind the camera reveals itself more with each view. We see women posing helpfully in front of the architect’s newly constructed folly: a wood structure circular in plan, a heart cut into each wooden shutter, and a subtle arch in the roof. Another perspective of the structure shows an intriguing second folly in the distance with just two branching columns supporting the roof.
In the living room of the summer residence Preston had constructed eight years earlier, a banjo and an architectural watercolor lean informally on a built-in seat that, together with casework on the opposite side, forms a playfully asymmetrical fireplace surround. Looking around the room, we can see both Preston’s sense of humor and his love of drawing in the outsized cast-iron hinge nearly covering a cabinet door at the base of a bookcase. This is a space intended for comfortable living, as opposed to serving as a status symbol, with deep hip roofs protecting bedrooms from direct heat gain and early light. The house is a creative take on a colonial gambrel, designed at the height of the Shingle style’s inventive era.
Welcome to Prestonia, the world of William G. Preston (1842–1910), architectural storyteller. Although his name is lost on most Bostonians, we all know one of his jokes: the footbridge in the Boston Public Garden, for which he partnered with engineer Clemens Herschel, a friend from his year at Lawrence Scientific. He was just 25, but in 1867 Preston had already designed Boston’s Natural History Museum (recently restored by Restoration Hardware), incorporating mahogany bear sculptures as newel posts on the entry stair, as well as the new headquarters of architectural education in the state, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), working in partnership with his mason-turned-design-builder father, Jonathan Preston. William Preston and Herschel likely amused themselves with the idea of applying a long span solution to such a short span, and so they presented Boston with the world’s shortest suspension bridge. It was constructed the same year William’s son was born, so perhaps they drew inspiration from scaled-down objects in his home.
Natural History Museum, Boston, designed by William G. Preston
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection
Lake and footbridge at the Public Garden, for which Preston partnered with engineer Clemens Herschel.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection
According to Jean Ames Follett-Thompson, the first scholar to focus on William Preston’s work, William’s father, Jonathan, was orphaned at the age of 8 and raised by his grandmother in Beverly Farms before moving to Boston at age 15 for a masonry apprenticeship. Jonathan Preston took on increasing responsibilities as a builder, while also serving as an elected politician and chairing the Back Bay Commission when it formed in 1852. He trained Boston architect William Ralph Emerson, trading his construction knowledge for Emerson’s artistic talent until his son took over the role of design partner in 1861 to complete the museum and MIT commissions, following a year abroad working in an atelier. William Preston quickly became an expert in the technical aspects of construction. Two years after the footbridge project, he designed the largest building in the country: the temporary Boston Coliseum built to house 50,000 attendees and musicians during the 18-day National Peace Jubilee, an epic music festival celebrating the end of the Civil War.
Aside from technical know-how, William learned from his father the value of being an active community member, and the younger Preston fostered Boston’s growing architectural culture through thoughtful and steadfast support of the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) in all stages of his career. He was appointed treasurer of the BSA in 1871 and served in that role for 30 years. Seeing low attendance numbers in the BSA’s early days, he worked with MIT’s William Robert Ware to initiate a monthly speaker series. He pushed for design discussions, encouraging a stint of anonymous drawing critiques similar to those held among a group he had belonged to earlier called the Portfolio Club. During a later period when members visited newly opened buildings, he offered a town hall and an evangelical tabernacle for open peer criticism, which was as lively then as it is now. Preston participated in the BSA’s first code committee and served as construction methods examiner for Rotch prize applicants. In 1881, he identified an opportunity to keep a shared library of building materials and appliances in Mechanics Hall (a large building he designed as a streetscape, around the time McKim, Mead, and White applied a similar approach to their Newport Casino).
It was likely a shared sense of humor that connected him with his first client in his future summer community on the south coast of Massachusetts. Bessy Harwood was beloved for her comic representation of Dickens’ character from The Old Curiosity Shop, leading performances of Mrs. Jarley’s Waxworks throughout the Northeast. Her father, a rear admiral, had chosen to retire to Marion at the point where Main Street met Water Street, and her invitations to friends converted the small town into an artists’ enclave and newly fashionable summer community. Preston probably stayed at the nearby Bay View House—a well-worn hotel on prime real estate with a view across half a mile of active harbor to the sparsely populated other side of town, opening up to Buzzards Bay to the south.
A business-relationship guru, Preston returned during the years following Harwood’s small commission—exterior and interior alterations minimal enough to be drawn on a single sheet—to complete exterior renovations for private residences while securing a fruitful client, a town benefactress. In 1884 he bought the Bay View House property at auction after the hotel owner passed away, subdivided the land, and sold the hotel to a new proprietor. He designed a summer residence for himself (complete with a stone wall extending his lawn beyond the shoreline) on one parcel—a move that led to four residential commissions along the street—and increased accommodation at the hotel.
Preston usually had several draftsmen working in his office but completed a high quantity of drawings himself. One can see in his work that he entertained himself through drawing. The sheet for his round folly is titled “Casa de Aquaaltitudinator,” for it functioned as a well (a combination well/flagpole, to be precise). A band of plaster ornamentation below the roof indicates cardinal directions. The wall slopes slightly at 6 degrees, and the roof arches 4 degrees, echoing moves in the upper floor of the main house. He typically included a scale figure in elevation drawings, thinking about the human experience of a building, and his choice to show the figure here with paintbrush in hand is not surprising. He collaborated with mutual respect with building trades and was hired to design the Chadwick Lead Works (and family monument in Forest Hills) and the Boston Terra Cotta Company headquarters. His summer home on Massachusetts’ south coast no longer stands, but the Casa de Aquaaltitudinator remains—along with three private residences (and associated small garage and playhouse turned guesthouse) on the same street, and on the cross street: an addition to the town hall and a Shingle-style chapel—cared for 130 years later because of the spirit of the work that flew out of his pen.
To be responsible architects today, we need to build structures that are appreciated and maintained, for the more people care about a building, the greater the chance the building will outlive its predicted end of life. Preston, an inventive pragmatist, designed his best work with an open-minded and lighthearted reverence for the act of building. This approach saw him through two multiyear economic slowdowns. It was the creative spirit in his building for the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory that led Savannah College of Art and Design founders to select it for preservation and conversion into its first classroom building.
As architects work to add life cycle carbon consumption considerations to our design process, we may learn a parallel lesson while taking time to relax and reflect. What are the essential qualities of buildings we have loved? Seeking tranquility during time away from the desk may refine the focus of designers at all levels. Rowing a dinghy with the family dog seated in the stern, we may find the mental clarity we need to create buildings that surprise and delight, as William G. Preston did.
Amelia Thrall AIA is an architect at Ellenzweig and a volunteer at the Boston chapter of Open Architecture Collaborative.