Building Museum Exhibit Highlights New England Architecture

Posted March 9, 2010 at 4:46pm

“Drawing Toward Home: Designs for Domestic Architecture From Historic New England,” a new exhibition at the National Building Museum, takes a close look at the evolution of American architecture.

The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 15, features 100 sketches and explores the progression of domestic home design from the 1800s through the 20th century. The focus on New England allows viewers to span historical architecture from early in the 19th century — when builders began to think about adorning domestic residences — to modern times.

The survey is composed of sketches and plans from the collection of the preservation group Historic New England and includes noteworthy architectural offices such as Peabody & Stearns and McKim, Mead and White.

“Drawing Toward Home” is broken into four sections: the Rise of the Architectural Profession, the Art of Architecture, the Period House, and Tradition and Innovation. It features information about the evolution of various styles of architecture, including Greek Revival, which is defined by large columns, and Italianate, which often features square towers and low-pitched roofs. Architectural plans for domestic, industrial, commercial, religious and civic buildings are all used to illustrate the ever-changing field.

The exhibit, which was assembled by curator Chrysanthe Broikos of the National Building Museum, begins with sketches from 1800 to 1860. Prior to the 19th century, houses were designed and built by amateurs. It wasn’t until 1800 that architecture was recognized as a viable skill and career.

“Over time a more sophisticated society, new historical styles and new technologies demanded more comprehensive instructions. Earlier diagrams gave way to more varied draftsmanship and colorful renderings,” reads a plaque in the exhibit.

In the early 19th century, many houses were built simply with little to no embellishment. This is exemplified in the exhibit by plans of several homes in the seaside town of Portsmouth, N.H. The Rundlet-May House, built in 1807, is a prime example of this no-frills era in architecture. The three-story house, which is now designated and preserved as a historic museum, is essentially one giant box bedecked with little more than windows.

By the mid-19th century, buildings began to evolve into more elaborate structures in the Greek Revival style. This is illustrated by a sketch of the Augustus Clarke House, built in 1842. The large home features a porch on the first and second floors as well as several large white columns. From here, homes became more and more complex and sophisticated.

In 1867, the first architecture school opened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the latter part of the century, architecture was viewed as art, and sketches were shown at exhibitions.

By the early 1900s, architects were no longer a tool of the wealthy, but they also had middle-class clients. The exhibit concludes with sketches exemplifying the idea that came about in the second half of the 20th century to embrace modernism and the designs of the present.