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A New England Architect And His Work

brig-chArticle about Charles Brigham

By Oscar Fay Adams

New England Magazine, June 1907

A generation ago the architect’s profession in America held no so high place in popular favor as it occupies at present. When great public edifices were to be erected the necessity for calling in the architect to make designs was freely enough admitted; it was the very exceptional person of wealth who employed him to plan a dwelling. Millionaires might indeed summon architects to design their mansions, but they were commonly considered to be committing an unwarrantable extravagance in so doing, and staid conservative respectability leaned heavily on the supporting arm of “the carpenter and builder.” Now and then in the case of public buildings for the use of the smaller communities, “home talent” was encouraged in the person of some young man who aspired to distinction as an architect and whose ambitious, chaotic, Imperfectly studied productions still afflict the towns that gave them birth and unfortunate opportunity.

But the heyday of “the carpenter and builder” seems almost farther off than Homer in these bustling times when he who contemplates nothing more important than the erection of a hencoop appeals to the architect to help him out. The immediate consequences of this change in public sentiment have not invariably been of the happiest nature, as every city suburb gives sadly convincing testimony, but there has been, nevertheless, a very positive advance. As travel and reading have deepened the layman’s acquaintance with architectural principals, the architect has been thereby stimulated to greater excellence in performance, and the first is now often competent to criticize intelligently where formerly he could only admiringly apprehend such qualities as mere size, or profuse and vulgar decorative detail.

The time has not yet arrived when architects are expected to sign their works, as the painter unhesitatingly signs his; but public interest in the man who builds, as well as in what is built, is steadily on the increase, and the time for signature cannot, therefore, be far distant. It is of one such man, whose work, from its wide range and its monumental character, as it might be termed, is familiar to many, but whose name is known to comparatively few, that it is my present purpose to speak. Of New England ancestry on both sides, he claims direct descent, through his father, from one Thomas Brigham, who emigrated from England to the Bay Colony in 1634, and after a short stay in Watertown settled presently in Sudbury, where he practiced the somewhat unusual profession, for those days in the colonies, of civil engineer, while on the material side he is descended from Lieutenant Griffith Crafts, who settled in Roxbury in 1630.

Charles Brigham, the architect in question, was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, on June 21, 1841, and was educated in the schools of his native town, of which he has been a lifelong resident. In 1856, at the age of fifteen, he was graduated from the Watertown High School, and, as it had been planned that he should enter college, he spent another year at the High School preparatory to passing a college examination. At the end of this period, however, other plans for his future were developed, as a result of which he became an apprentice in the office of Calvin Ryder, a Boston architect. This experience continued for three years, and he then secured a position as draughtsman in the establishment of the once well-known, but now almost forgotten architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant, a man of talent who left his mark upon the Boston architecture of his day.

But these were stirring times, for civil war had just broken out and everywhere men were leaving office and shop and farm at their country’s call – and among them was the young draughtsman in Mr. Bryant’s office. Enlisting in the Union army in 1862, he served as second sergeant in a company of the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment commanded by Captain Crafts, who may very possibly have been a distant kinsman of his. At the close of the war he returned to Boston and, exchanging the musket for the draughtman’s pencil, soon found a position under Mr. John H. Sturgis, an architect who had been more or less closely associated with Mr. Bryant. At twenty-five he entered into partnership with Mr. Sturgis, an association continuing until a short time prior to the death of Mr. Sturgis, in 1886, a period of twenty years.

In these earlier days of Mr. Brigham’s professional experience his attention, as well as that of his partner, was mainly given to domestic architecture, and very many of the finer residences in the Back Bay quarter of Boston, as also in Newport and elsewhere, were erected from the designs of the firm of Sturgis and Brigham, the junior partner becoming responsible for the major portion of the designs as time went on. But such work did not wholly absorb the inventive energies of the firm, and the earliest as well as the most important design of a public nature upon which they were engaged was the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in Copley Square, a building which underwent considerable adverse criticism at the time of its erection. The structure has decided merits, but the lavish use of terra -cotta for external decoration failed to please generally at first, and after the lapse of years finds still fewer apologists. The Museum was erected in sections, with considerable intervals of time intervening, the earliest section dating from 1872, and from the later portions, which were the work of other architects, terra-cotta decoration is significantly absent.

A much more important edifice from an architect’s point of view is the Church of the Advent, on Brimmer Street, Boston, begun in 1876 but not completed till 1886, a cruciform building of moderate dimensions in a restrained and rather severe versions of First Pointed or Early English Gothic. It is in the main design of Mr. Brigham, and calls to mind to some extent the famous church by Pearson in Red Lion Square, London, dating from 1874. In both instances the theme is treated in red brick, but the London edifice is bolder in design and displays ingenious solutions of complicated vaulting-problems. The roofs of the American church are of timber construction, and no vaulting is attempted. The choir terminates in a pentagonal apse and there is a spired tower at the southwest corner of the nave, a feature for which Mr. Brigham is not responsible. The southern outline of the exterior is picturesquely broken by the successive projections of tower, Sunday-school rooms, transept, and Lady Chapel, and when viewed from southwest the effect of the whole is extremely pleasing. The transept roofs are unfortunately at a somewhat lower level than those of nave and choir, and the comparative shallowness, as well as the brevity of the nave, is emphasized by the great height of the clerestory. The interior suffers somewhat from lack of length, but even with this drawback constitutes one of the most solemn and impressive of American church interiors, nevertheless. The sombre effect of the red brick walls is relieved by the various string courses of light sandstone and the stone arches of the pier arcade. The crowns of these arches are placed some distance below the clerestory string, and the blank space between seems to cry out for something to fill it, but there is not sufficient room for the interposition of a triforium arcade, and it is quite possible that the necessity for filling the space may not appear so imperative to all observers.

Another structure for which the firm of Sturgis and Brigham was responsible is the Boston Young Men’s Christian Association Building at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley Streets, which, with its main entrance gained by a broad and high flight of steps and its crow-stepped gables, is well known to most Bostonians.

For some twenty years following the death of Mr. Sturgis, or until the organization of the present firm of Brigham, Coveney & Bisbee, in June, 1906, Mr. Brigham continued the exercise of his profession with a partner for a portion of the time only – a period in which his practice covered a wide territory, instead of being confined mainly to New England as heretofore, and embraced a great variety of structures and styles of design. Not a few mansions designed by him and included within this period will be found as far west as California (as for example the immense structure at Redlands which is the Pacific home of Mr. Albert Burrage) and as far south as Valparaiso in Chile, as also in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, while yet other buildings of a public nature in these localities testify as satisfactorily both to his skill and his remarkable versatility.

Among other structures of note erected by Mr. Brigham in recent years are the Boston residence of Mr. Albert Burrage, at the southwest corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Hereford Street, the Public Library, Laconia, New Hampshire, and the Institution for Savings, at New Bedford. The first of these is spacious and well-designed light sandstone mansion in the ornate French Renaissance manner, which presents a striking contrast to its severer looking neighbors. Of the two facades, that on the avenue, in which is the main entrance, is the least admirable. It displays a bewildering amount of carefully studied ornamental detail which, instead of being concentrated within certain definite limits, is impartially distributed over the entire front and its general effectiveness thereby so much diminished. No such objection may be urged against the Hereford Street facade, however. The whole treatment is here much more carefully considered, and the Burrage mansion as a whole is one of the most imposing of any residence which its architect has designed.

The Laconia library, however well suited to its purpose, offers no striking excellence of design and suffers materially from the conditions of its site. Of much greater importance is the] New Bedford structure, which displays Mr. Brigham’s talent in a new aspect. Within the last decade or so a new style of bank building has been developed,-a comparatively low edifice with an interior consisting practically of a huge apartment whose ceiling is the roof and which is lighted mainly from a dome, -and the New Bedford structure has been designed on these lines. The institution, which fronts on two streets, is entered from the street-level, and the band proper is lighted by a range of small windows in what is, architecturally speaking, the basement, and from the dome in the centre of the ceiling. The most striking exterior feature is the high-placed Corinthian portico adorning the northern facade.

In the eighth decade of the last century the need for extensive enlargement of the State-house in Boston, long apparent, now became imperative, and the square in the rear bounded by Mount Vernon, Temple, Derne, and Hancock Streets was selected as the site of the extension. The land was covered by a row of brick dwellings on Mount Vernon Street and a massive granite reservoir immediately behind them. After several years these structures were removed and Mr. Brigham was selected as the architect of the new building-a commission of great importance, but one in whose execution he was necessarily much hampered by the obligation of conformity, in a greater or less degree, to the lines of the time- honored Bulfinch original facing the Common.

Nothing was then said regarding the future creation of a small park to the eastward, and accordingly the eastern front, as well as those on the north and west, were planned with relation to the narrow streets whence, and whence only, it was expected that they would be viewed. When it was too late to admit of change in the Statehouse designs the State decided to establish the existing small park on the east, and the carrying-out of this plan involved the obliteration of the upper Temple Street and the razing of all buildings between the Statehouse and the eastern side of Bowdoin Street. Could this have been foreseen at the start, the architect would have planned his east facade with reference to the new conditions and with an eye to a more imposing effect. The real facts in the case being unknown to most persons, the rather unimpressive criticism-criticism legitimate enough had the present facade been designed for a park front, for which, indeed, it is certainly inadequate, but quite from the mark if considered with reference to actual conditions when first designed.

As it now stands, the really vast building consists of four sections,-the comparatively small portion erected by Bulfinch in 1795-1798 and completely restored by another hand in the closing decade of the nineteenth century, a second section constructed by Mr. Brigham to take the place of what was called the Bryant addition at the rear of the Bulfinch structure, a third section carried on a central and two side arches over Mount Vernon Street, and a fourth larger than the sum of all the others, extending northwardly to Derne Street. The last-named portion was the earliest erected by Mr. Brigham, who had planned to connect this with the second section by a bridge or bridges of some architectural significance. In this matter, however, he was overruled, and the existing third section was therefore substituted by him, after which the gap between the Bulfinch design and that spanning Mount Vernon Street was filled in with a structure whose roof is at the same level as the rest of the extension.

Comparatively few persons are familiar with the dignified classic portico on a lofty basement that forms the north facade, which is a pity, since it is unquestionably the noblest exterior feature of the great structure and when viewed as the close of some narrow street vista, as, for instance, midway of Myrtle Street on the west, is strikingly effective.

If under existing conditions portions of the exterior may not unjustly be charged with inadequacy of effect, the same cannot be said as to the interior. The Hall of Representatives, despite its somewhat garish coloring, is, with its long ellipse, a singularly imposing legislative chamber; the staircases and almost innumerable corridors are spacious and well designed; the State library, placed at the north end of the edifice, quite apart from the bustle of legislative business, is an attractive, restful apartment of ample proportions; the octagonal Memorial Hall, with its sixteen columns of Siena marble, its tattered battle-flags, and its subdued mellow lights, is none too rich in effect for its purpose; and the great contrast between its tawny marbles and the white and variegated marbles of the adjoining court and the Senate stairways is one to impress the least observing. Were Mr. Brigham known merely as the architect of the State-house extension (only a few of whose salient features are here touched upon), he would still tale high rank in his profession; yet this is but one of the very many notable achievements by him, while his most distinctive and effective works are still to be considered.

Of these others, almost the latest, and certainly the most imposing, as the majority would class it while under the strong spell of its somewhat grandiose proportions and adornments, is the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, completed in June of 1906. Although as a whole the temple in its style exemplifies a particularly rich phase of Italian Renaissance, for a part of its motif we must go to the great mosque in Constantinople which Sultan Ahmed I erected in 1608-14, and upon which is superimposed a high colonnade crowned by dome and lantern, but in reality the body of the edifice is practically an ellipse 233 feet long and 125 feet wide. From the ground to the top of the lantern the height is 228 feet. Owing to the narrowness of the streets about it and the closely built character of the quater of Boston where it stands, the exterior of the temple can be viewed, so far as the major part of it is concerned, only at great disadvantage, but fortunately its noblest feature, the swelling dome, can be seen from many distant points of view, and when so beheld it dominates the whole of the region around it as the more artless dome of Bulfinch fame dominates the whole of Beacon Hill.

American taste inclines strongly to domes: witness the long succession of domed State Capitals, Louisiana being almost the only state which has not thus conferred upon the dome the great seal of popular approbation. The dome of the Christian Science temple is a concession to the same popular taste, and while in no sense a copy of an elder structure of the same nature, it nevertheless recalls in a general way several domes familiar to the European tourist. Built upon pendentives after the Byzantine mode, the colonnade of masonry around the base is a thoughtful reproduction of that on the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Milan, while the type of the exterior dome of terra-cotta is furnished by that surmounting the church of the Madona Della Staccata at Parma. Yet it is not the Parmesan dome which is viewed by the worshippers within the temple, but one designed after the mosque of Santa Sophia at Constantinople, though with only a little more than one half the diameter of that above the great church of Justinian.

A long journey might be taken behind the scenes, as it were, of the Science temple (in reality between the inner and outer domes), and the ordinary visitor would return from such a trip overwhelmed with confused impressions of innumerable details of masonry and steel construction; of interminable spiral iron stairs to be ascended and descended with as much caution and good heed as John Gilpin’s steed displayed at the outset of a notable trip from London to Edmonton and beyond, and of glimpses of the outer and much lower world from extremely high altitudes. The professional person, while he might not be similarly overcome, would at least be impressed by the sight of knotty architectural and engineering problems courageously solved, and both, I think, would be compelled to admire the constructive skill everywhere manifest. Nor is it alone in the heights that this skill and inventiveness are displayed. Descend to what may be called the crypt and note the various devices for the comfort of the worshippers overhead. Here are huge electric motors performing this or that needful service; heating devices of latest mode; in one place a remarkable apparatus for washing the air that enters the church; and in another an ingenious contrivance for taking charge of coats and umbrellas during the hours of worship, with a storing-capacity for 3,500 of each.

A seeming maze of passages and columns confronts one on entering the building from the street floor to what the reporters would style “the auditorium.” This is seen to be a long ellipse terminating north and south in apses roofed by semi-domes of masonry, each apse containing two galleries. On the western side of the ellipses is a wide and deep recess containing three galleries, and in a corresponding recess opposite is placed the great Hastings organ, immediately in front of which is the dais for the speakers. Fully five thousand persons may be comfortably seated in this vast hall, the acoustic properties of which are excellent.

Admitting the existence of several defective features, though these are more likely to be detected by the professional person than the layman, the huge interior—with the grand curves of the apses, the lofty arches, north, south, east, and west, the glorious dome poised high overhead—may fairly be called magnificent. Indeed, the magnificence is almost crushing in its first effect. After a time one begins to distinguish the particular from the general, to become cognizant of the infinite wealth of the detail, both structural and decorative, which the grayish-white interior displays. In the planning and designing of this great church the senior architect was able seconded by his partner, Mr. Coveney, whose inventive skill is only equaled by his professional enthusiasm.

Turning now to other examples of Mr. Brigham’s art, our steps lead us to the old whaling-town of Fairhaven, overlooking Buzzard’s Bay. It is a quiet, restful place laid out in rather rigid checkerboard fashion, but with its rigidity somewhat softened by lines of branching elms. Here, within a comparatively contracted area, one may behold more structures of architectural significance designed by a single firm than elsewhere in New England, at the very least. If one has crossed the river from New Bedford, the just completed High School meets the eye,–a boldly designed edifice 172 feet in length by 101 in breadth,–and on the southern outskirts of the town is the spacious country mansion of Mr. Henry H. Rogers, a wooden edifice with pleasing irregularity of outline. In what may be styled the heart of Fairhaven one comes upon a public library of generous size, a town hall of yet more ample proportions, an inn of exceedingly hospitable aspect, and, forming parts of one architectural grouping, a towered stone church with parish-house and parsonage adjoining. Each of these eight structures is distinctly a building of note, and each is the work of Mr. Brigham.

Surveying them at leisure, one cannot help perceiving that in their construction a unique opportunity was lost. Each was the gift of Mr. Rogers to his native town, and in no case was the element of cost a matter needing to be greatly considered in construction. Had Mr. Rogers started with the intention of eventually erecting the entire eight, or could the architect have foreseen such a final result, some definite style might have been chosen in the first instance, to which the structures subsequently built should have confirmed. For example, the church is in the third Pointed or Perpendicular phase of gothic, and had the Rogers mansion, the school, the inn, the library, and the town hall been designed in the same style and executed in the same material, we should have seen wrought out in gray stone such harmony of architectural effect on a large scale as can be seen nowhere in America today. But presumably Mr. Rogers contemplated in the beginning now such series of architectural gifts to Fairhaven, and consequently his architect is not to be blamed for not seizing a non-existent opportunity.

We must deal, therefore, with things as they are, and the actual in this particular is something we may well give thanks for. The Millicent Library, the earliest of Mr. Brigham’s designs in this locality, was erected in 1892, and was a gift to the town from the children of Mr. Rogers in memory of their sister Millicent. It is a commodious structure of Dedham stone and buff terra-cotta, and is not without its points of excellence both in design and execution, but it hardly calls forth any especial amount of enthusiasm from the beholder. Far different is the effect of the town hall across the street from the library, an edifice whose civic character is confessed in its outlines, while the warm, rich tones of the brick and stone and terra-cotta are especially pleasing. Its proportions are generous, and the ornamental details well studied.

Farther south, and fronting on the same street, is the Tabitha Inn, a well-planned and most attractive appearing country hotel occupying the centre of a square of green bounded by four streets. Severe criticism would probably declare that the would-be antiquated sign-post before the entrance was a particularly unsuccessful attempt to reproduce an old-time feature, but for this frantic detail the architect cannot be held entirely responsible. Of the Rogers mansion, at the end of the street already mentioned, there need little more be said here than that, while of great size, it is dignified without being in the least pretentious, and as the country home of a man of great wealth reflects much honor upon the architect who had already many beautiful mansions to his credit ere this one was erected. It does not call instantly for notice, and at the same time is not inadequate in design or general effect.

Latest built of all the architect’s Fairhaven structures is the high School, hose appearance suffers a little from the present bareness of the site. At first view one is impelled to wonder if enough pupils to fill it can be found in all Fairhaven, but inquiry brings out the fact that in addition to Fairhaven students, others from any town in Bristol County are admitted on payment of school fees. The exterior is imposing from its size and disposition of parts, and inspection of the interior quickly reveals how far Americans have travelled from the educational ideal once embodied in ” the little red schoolhouse.” In the high basement story will be found a refectory and a cooking-school; on the street floor are a beautiful study-hall, classrooms, and an octagonal gymnasium not unlike a cathedral chapter-house or abbot’s kitchen; and on the second floor a nobly proportioned assembly-hall, a sewing-school, and laboratories apparently of every imaginable kind. No possible need seems to have been unconsidered by the resourceful architects, and for the working-out of the infinite details of construction, decoration, and mechanical fitting all the members of the firm are accountable, Mr. Bisbee having had general supervision.

But what must be termed, all things considered, Mr. Brigham’s crowning achievement, not only at Fairhaven but in his professional career yet remains to be noticed,–the Unitarian Church, with its immediate adjuncts. Beautiful beyond anything yet attempted in New England church architecture, it stands in all its fair proportions a lasting testimonial to the abiding love and reverence of a son for his mother and of the genius of the architects who translated that love into soaring tower and richly sculptured line so wisely and so well. That so important a work should escape captious criticism was impossible, but save in the case of the flying buttresses, which, however effective as details of decoration have no structural significance, such criticism has usually gone very wide of the mark. The beautiful and spacious south porch, with its statues and bronze gates, has been called “a protuberance” by one critic, forgetful that “the south porch” is almost an universal feature in English parish churches. Another objector complains that the tower stair turret rises above the rest of the tower, a usual and often charming feature of English church towers; and still another critic cries out because there is no portal at the end of the nave, declaring that such an omission could not possibly occur ” in a Gothic church outside of Yankee Land;” and all the time oblivious of the circumstance that Romsey Abbey and dozens of parish churches up and down the length of the British Isles exhibit the same lack he deems so reprehensible.

As before stated, the church which is its giver’s grateful tribute to a mother’s gracious memory is Third Pointed Gothic in style, and in its outline includes a nave of five bays and choir of one, lean-to aisles reduced to the proportions of ambulatories only, a south porch, and a tower 156 feet in height at the northwest angle. The major axis of the edifice is from east to west, and the entire length is 115 feet. Above the high pier arcade is a lofty clerestory, while the wide choir arch reaches nearly to the roof-level. The nave is spanned by a tie-beam ceiling of English oak with carved details of decoration; the choir and porch are vaulted in stone with stellar ribs; and the lower stage of the tower, entered both from the nave and the north aisle and designed for a baptistery, displays a fan traceried stone vault of great richness.

Interior and exterior both exhibit an infinite amount of detail in sculptured stone wrought out with the rarest skill and evidently with enthusiasm and individuality. Indeed, the carvers when their task was done laid down their tools with genuine regret that the work was ended upon which they had labored for many months with almost medieval devotion to the thing in hand, and that opportunity was no longer open for workmen to infuse something of themselves into carved crocket and corbel head or moulded arch. And not alone in sculptured stone is this wealth of inventive decoration discernible, for oaken pulpit and choir-screen are a mass of delicate carving, pew-ends and pew-backs display an equal amount of carved detail where no design is repeated, while the four towering organ-fronts almost bewilder the beholder with their intricate and extraordinarily delicate carvings. The architects must surely have borne in mind that “the gods see everywhere,” so utterly have they repudiated sham, so conscientiously finished is every detail, whether it be some corbel head almost out of sight at tower top or some moulding in full view. The many windows, all from designs by Mr. Robert Reid, are worthy of their place, and the great choir window, whose subject is the nativity, particularly challenges attention with its glorious blues and vermilions and the sweeping curves of its various lines.

A cloistered passage of three bays, the middle one on each side closed by exquisitely wrought bronze double gates, leads from the tower to the parish-house, the latter of no mean proportions and containing rooms for Sunday-school and other parish uses. Pantries and kitchen are found here, and in the former are seen immense stores of china, for the generous giver of the whole has not stinted his giving in any part. Here again is the hand of the carver everywhere manifest, and on the lower panes of the many handsome windows are emblazoned bits from famous poems selected by the venerable New York clergyman, Reverend Robert Collyer.

While church and cloister form two sides of a quadrangle open to the west, a third is constituted by the parish-house and the parsonage, with a strip of lawn between. The last-named building is of stone in the lower story and of half-timber work in the upper ones, which slightly overhang the lower and display broad gables with richly carved barge boards possibly studied from such an English example as the fifteenth-century Moot Hall at Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Indeed, here, as in cloister and church alike, the wealth of inventive decoration is a most conspicuous feature.

Ere concluding our account of the Fairhaven church it should be added that Mr. Coveney, who at the time of its erection was Mr. Brigham’s principal assistant, has been a close student of medieval church architecture for many years. The result of his thoughtful observation of the best foreign models makes itself everywhere felt in this remarkable group of buildings, both in design and elaboration of detail.

It is asserted by those in a position to know that more than a million of dollars has been expended upon this church and its subsidiary buildings, a statement one can readily credit after appreciative survey of the whole. The architects were hampered by no limitation in this particular; a free hand was theirs, and they directed their best energies to the task before them. The glorious outcome of their labors should remain an age-long witness to the wise munificence of the hands that gave, an all-convincing testimony to the skill of the hands that wrought.