Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Wilson Eyre was at the height of his architectural powers. For sixteen years he had had a successful practice in Philadelphia, one of America’s major architectural centers. The United States bad become a world power, with money to give con­crete evidence of this in the buildings of her great cities, and Philadelphia’s blend of conservative innovation gave it a civi­lized character all its own. Strengthened by the success of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a strong industrial base, Philadelphia’s fortunes grew and her suburban boundaries expanded. The picturesque hills and valleys of German­town, Chestnut Hill and the Main Line became the focus for a suburban ideal, fed by a strong local inclination to use wealth to buy country leisure. In this new era, Eyre and his fellow architects such as Frank Miles Day (1861-1918), Walter Cope (1860-1902) and John Stewardson (1858-96) fused local building tradition with current eclectic trends to develop what came to be known as the “Philadelphia Style” -an attitude toward design and residential living in the Philadelphia region that has continued to this day.

Based on the broad vernacular medi­um of the Pennsylvania farmhouse and the particular expression of the Georgian that had developed in eigh­teenth century Philadelphia, it combined broad surfaces and horizontal mass with small-scale detail at points of focus. Growing out of both the American Queen Anne Revival and the Colonial Revival, it moved beyond both to a new architecture appropriate for the times and the tradition of the region. While broadly within trends toward simplifica­tion and comfort apparent from Cali­fornia through Chicago to England and the Continent, it grew out of regional forms and met specific Philadelphia and American needs, climate and culture.

“Lycoming,” the 1907 house he de­signed for William Jay Turner in Germantown, reveals Eyre’s treatment of a moderately sized house for a suc­cessful real estate man and his family. What appears to be a set of farm buildings along a rural lane is in fact a sophisticated composition of subtle elements, materials and details. A com­fortable but unpretentious life style is expressed; the front is understated, and the rear elevation consists largely of sleeping porches and verandas overlook­ing a broad expanse of lawn.

The larger Jay Cooke III house of 1909 near Chestnut Hill more specif­ically combines English allusions with farmhouse forms: local gray stone is balanced with stucco and a few pieces of exquisitely carved ornament carefully placed for focus. As with bis larger houses of the era, the structure is broken into smaller elements, unified by a roof of subtly tinted tapestry slate. The overall impression is that of a series of domestic environments unified in what appears to be a structure artlessly added­-to over the years. A residential scale is thus stressed in a large house that might, in other hands, be organized for grand spaces and grandeur.

The interiors likewise were organized with a strong informality and an in­timate domestic scale. Eyre’s contem­poraries admired his ability to give to the residences of important men a sense of “home” and the quiet life. Using such built-in elements as mantels, window seats and cupboards to define the overall nature and flavor of the space, he hoped the owners would furnish them with the best examples of all periods, choosing furniture for comfort and artistic har­mony, rather than to fit a formal scheme. The library at “Fairacres,” the John W. Pepper house of 1904 in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, used a low beamed ceiling to define a large but informal space for an affluent Phila­delphia lawyer and judge. Antiques were casually placed about and used in what may be the ultimate expression of under­stated, inconspicuous consumption. Although Philadelphia had its glittering balls and formal cotillions, it perhaps treasured more a leisurely breakfast on a sunny breakfast porch, sheep grazing contentedly on the lawn and the smell of scrapple cooking on a nearby stove. The servants and owners were in their proper places and all was well with the world.

Eyre’s reputation also brought him work well outside the Philadelphia area. He maintained a New York City office for fifteen years, frequently designing commissions which were not in the usual taste of that city. Given picturesque seaside sites on Long island Sound, the domesticity of his designs conveyed a serenity within nature that was so long the romantic ideal. The Theodore Con­klin house, at Quoge, Long Island, is a study of tranquilly. The Henry White house and studio of 1914 on a rocky beach at Waterford, Connecticut, is another of a series or designs done for artists and sculptors who formed a significant portion of Eyre’s clients.

Eyre’s career spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, encompassing a number of periods of design or both European and American origin. As the last major practitioner of the American Queen Anne Revival and Shingle styles in the 1880s, he mastered the vocabu­lary, scale and freedom of plan and design while still young. His career essentially ended by World War I, which brought with it a more sophisticated eclecticism and the modern manner.

Born in Florence, Italy in 1858, where his father was a diplomat, he was born into two old Philadelphia families which numbered a secretary to George Washington among their kin. Educated abroad until the age of eleven, Eyre kept a strong European orientation which be­came tempered by his solid American roots. Deeply impressed with the ex­periences of his youth, be reinforced these with frequent trips abroad after he became a practicing architect. In his designs, he was able to achieve a happy synthesis of both European and Ameri­can influences, relating them to bis Philadelphia heritage and culture.

After a year of study at the Massachu­setts Institute of Technology, Eyre’s only formal professional training, he entered the progressive Philadelphia of­fice of James Peacock Sims (1849-82). Canadian born, James and his brother Henry Augustus (1832-75) had achieved prominence through the considerable success of their competition entry for the Centennial Exposition, which placed second, as well as for numerous other designs in the city. Their Canadian back­ground may have been a factor in the strong English inclinations of their designs, and they were the major local practitioners of the Queen Anne Revival in the pure style of Richard Norman Shaw and Philip Webb. Eyre joined the office at a propitious time. The promin­ent position of the firm provided the young architect with an excellent educa­tion as well as a vantage from which to build his reputation. He quickly ad­vanced and, on the untimely death of James Sims in 1882, at the age of twenty­-four, Eyre assumed the practice.

“Anglecot” was an important com­mission which Eyre received shortly after the office was fully his own. Designed in 1883 for Charles H. Potter in Chestnut Hill, it proved to be an ex­tremely important commission, for Eyre returned six times to devise additions and alterations as Potter’s family and position grew. This pattern is common in much of Eyre’s work and speaks well for his client’s satisfaction. It results in an architectural continuity with variety, conveying an organic sense of growth through time, an element he admired in the English houses he studied.

Although an early work, “Anglecot” displays Eyre’s skill in combining a variety of seemingly incongruous elements into a harmonious and visually satisfying whole. Terra cotta tiles pro­vide a backdrop for a colonial goose­neck pediment over the door; a selection of asymmetrically placed windows and fine Queen Anne white plaster work detailing combine with a porch, a bench and a sundial to form a complex three­-dimensional facade. An assortment of irregularly placed gables, roofs and chimneys create the picturesque outline of the roof. Certainly busier than his work of a few decades later, and gener­ally English in scale and detail, it showed a young man already accomplished in the use of materials and space to create artfully contrived comfort.

Eyre’s interest in indigenous American forms was interconnected with his work in the American Queen Anne Revival style and the new appre­ciation for local architecture which developed after the Centennial. The Howard Cooper house of 1891 in Camden, New Jersey, is largely a Penn­sylvania style farmhouse with a Gothic porch, oriel window and jerkinhead gable, signifying the transitional nature of the design. It is part of a body of work through this decade in which Eyre experimented with formal elements of design and detail, working toward his mature synthesis.

Eyre’s consummate sense of detailing and his attitude toward exterior orna­ment may be seen in a doorway for the 1891 double house designed for the Messrs. Neil and Mauran. Delicately carved banners handsomely reveal the exquisite restraint which was Eyre’s hallmark. The carving contrasts with the abstracted stone work and sturdy brick construction of the rest of the house. It serves to highlight the solid nature of the structure and materials by its well­-detailed, carefully defined contrasts of texture and scale. In its placement, it also conveys a sense of the construction of the building and its areas of use. Beyond this it forms yet another level of artistic expression appropriate for a “built object.”

Interior detail was handled in a similar fashion. The carved newels of the 1890 Clarence Moore house in downtown Philadelphia combined a sense of the English manor house with an Arts and Crafts aesthetic to focus and visually ex­pand what was, in fact, a physically con­stricted space.

The exterior of the Moore house, a fine study in largely French forms, made a harmonious pair with the adjacent 1894 Leidy house in Eyre’s somewhat Baroque Georgian style. Eyre valued variety on urban facades to enliven what he felt to be the monotonous nature of Philadelphia’s streetscapes. Although the detail and scale may vary, each facade related to its neighbors in subtle and sophisticated ways. The University Club of 1887, was one of a series of designs for small private clubs executed in Philadelphia throughout the 1890s. Although based on Eyre’s essentially human domestic aesthetic, they provid­ed a balance between both the private needs of the members and the semi­-public roles they served. Eyre’s design, described by contemporaries as “Moorish,” had a dark and sheltered entrance, stressing secrecy and intimacy for a group whose members all had to be college graduates.

Less successful but more important to his overall development was the office building for the City Trust Company in Philadelphia, dating from 1895. A strong statement of smooth white wall, its simplified Gothic was well detailed and the composition fairly well con­ceived. Still, it appears as a large house, and the scale of the ornament is perhaps too residential to work well.

His most successful large public com­mission was the Free Museum of Science and Art at the University of Pennsyl­vania. Designed in association with Frank Miles Day and Cope and Steward­son, the basic conception dates from 1893, but construction continued through 1926. Responsible for the final design and detail, Eyre broke a large building into intimate courts, using a free reading of a warm northern Italian Romanesque style. Embellished by carv­ings by Alexander Milne Calder and Eyre’s own intricate mosaics, it is perhaps the most artistically significant Philadelphia building of its decade.

Throughout the 1890s, Eyre was con­solidating his reputation as a vital force in Philadelphia architecture, and his work was admired and respected by his colleagues throughout America. In 1883 he had been a founding member of the T Square Club, whose purpose was to raise the standards of architecture within the profession in Philadelphia and to make the public more aware of architectural issues. Eyre was president of the club from 1887 until 1888 and also headed the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects from 1897 until 1903. His frequent participa­tion in exhibitions sponsored by archi­tectural organizations was well received both professionally and in the press.

Articles by Eyre and ones treating his work appeared in prominent architec­tural journals of the day, such as Coun­try Life in America, Architectural Record, Architectural Review, American Architect and Building News and Craftsman. These made his works and his views widely known both in America and abroad. He was further able to share his ideas with students when he taught architecture and pen and ink drawing at the newly established archi­tectural school of the University of Pennsylvania. His influence continued to spread when he opened a branch of­fice in New York City which remained active from 1901 until 1915.

His views ultimately found expression in House and Garden, the magazine he founded in 1901 with Frank Miles Day and Herbert Clifton Wise (1873-1945). Eyre maintained editorial control until 1905 when the periodical was sold to another publisher. The magazine con­tained articles not only on American ar­chitecture and garden design but on English and European work as well. Devoted to “Architecture, Gardens, and Decoration,” its contributors included Bertram Goodhue, Kenyon Cox, Ralph Adams Cram, Elmer Gray, Frederick Law Olmstead and Russell Sturgis. The magazine marked a culmination of his earlier efforts, concerns and interests, and indicated the direction his architec­ture would take in the future.

The turn of the twentieth century saw the establishment of the Architectural League of America in 1899, a confedera­tion of architectural clubs whose in­terests were to support the design aspects of architecture. The A.I.A. was to deal with the business side. Oriented to the development of a new American archi­tecture, the motto “Progress Before Precedent” summarized many of the concerns of contemporary architects. The first volume of the Architectural Annual, the official publication of the League, included an extensive article on Eyre, who must have been a spirit behind the movement, although his direct involvement has not yet been documented.

Eyre felt strongly, as did many of his contemporaries, that American architec­ture was on the verge of creating something excitingly and distinctively American. But he was only one of an energetic generation of architects who sought to inject a new vitality into American architecture. Eyre, however, differed from certain of his colleagues in that he did not see the route for this re­generation in the wholesale transfer of European models to American shores. Rather, Eyre drew freely from his own intensive study of American and Euro­pean architecture of all periods, trans­forming it into solutions suited to the needs of his clients. In this way, be reveals himself to be one of the foremost creative eclectics of his time, and very much in the mainstream of Philadelphia architecture.

Eyre closely studied all that he saw at home and abroad. His interests encom­passed ancient buildings, vernacular works and recent designs by his well known contemporaries including Richard Norman Shaw, Richard Morris Hunt and Charles Platt. Constantly sketching during his travels, he recorded what interested him, becoming fluent in a range of images which he was then able freely to translate into his own personal vocabulary.

Although clearly familiar with the en­tire fabric of architectural history, Eyre was able to assimilate what he saw, in­fusing his impressions with his own per­sonal vision to create something fresh and original. Eyre’s works bear little specific relationship to anything he en­countered, and the ultimate source of his designs must be properly sought within the parameter of his own fertile imagina­tion.

Sensitive to the needs of living in his time, as well as those ageless qualities which make for comfort and a sense of home, Eyre produced a series of buildings not only of supreme artistic achievement, but also of continuing meaning to those who live in or experi­ence them today. Striking a chord of understated domesticity appropriate for Philadelphia, his work became the basis for generations who have followed, from Edmund Gilchrist through George Howe to Louis Kahn and beyond.

 

Dr. Fahlman and Dr. Teitelman are con­tinuing to collaborate in their research on Wilson Eyre and plan to co-author his biography.

 

Betsy Fahlman, a specialist in American art, did her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke College and received her Ph.D. from the University of Delaware. Currently, she is an assistant professor in the Department of Art at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

 

Edward Teitelman, co-author of Archi­tecture in Philadelphia: A Guide, is an architectural historian and photog­rapher whose special interests revolve around Philadelphia residential architec­ture of the past hundred years. He is a graduate of Dickinson College and the Jefferson Medical College and is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UMDNJ: Rutgers Medical School at Camden.