While perusing “Peabody & Stearns: Country Houses and Seaside Cottages,” about the Gilded Age architectural firm Peabody & Stearns, one cannot help but think back to the 1960s, when historic American architecture was hardly a topic, let alone a field of study.

In those days, even the brightest liberal arts student, unless hailing from an old Boston family, would probably not have known the difference between Peabody & Sterns and Abercrombie & Fitch. Now all has changed, nationally and locally.

In Maine, this knowledge has been due to the hard work of organizations such as Greater Portland Landmarks Inc., the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and people such as Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Deborah Thompson, Roger G. Reed, Patricia Anderson and Jim O’Gorman.

Now with the advent of this new book, we can add the name of Brunswick historian Annie Robinson to the group.

A quick look through “Peabody & Stearns” should be enough to convince both generalist and specialist of the beauty of the book, in terms of both design and illustration. It opens with a gallery of 18 color photographs of houses and cottages, from the grand to the petite. The bulk of these were taken by the author, and all document what social philosopher Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.” In a time before income tax, the very rich could express themselves through architecture and architects with little thought as to expense.

The body of the work is neatly organized, very readable and carefully documented. In a time of “drive-by” research, where writers pick easily available facts and non-facts, then cut and paste them into the semblance of a book, this is the diametric opposite. “Peabody & Stearns” will be the standard catalog for years to come, the go-to book for its subject.

Robinson is immersed in the history of the firm, the development of the late 19th- and early 20th-century structural design, and American social history. She is not simply a fan of Peabody & Stearns; she is willing to be critical, to measure ambition, growth and change.

The introduction explains with rare economy of words how Robert Swain Peabody (1845-1917) of New Bedford and John Goddard Stearns Jr. (1843-1917) became partners in one of Boston’s most prestigious architectural firms and over the course of 45 years garnered more than 1,000 commissions.

Peabody was the artist-designer and Stearns the superintendent, quality control and budget man. It was a shared workload that worked like a charm.

The author explores Peabody’s years in France and England trying to “unite the artist and man of affairs,” then his practical apprenticeship in England. Stearns had labored stateside for Ware & Van Brunt for seven years as a skilled draftsman, and the two commenced business in 1870.

Aptly, the partners’ first commission in Maine was for Charles William Eliot, perhaps Harvard’s most famous president and a resident of Northeast Harbor. Lofted in 1881, and now destroyed, Sunshine/Blueberry Ledge was chosen for its natural unspoiled setting, unlike the mannered lawns in nearby Bar Harbor. It is these little observations by the author that spark the book along.

Union Church in Northeast Harbor, an elegant little stone structure paid for by Eliot and others, came next in 1887. Since 1998, it has been on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although several of the cottages are now lost, superb examples remain, among them Ravenscleft in Seal Harbor (1899-1903), Westward Way in Northeast Harbor (1903) and Gripsholm Manor in Islesboro (1904).

I think my favorite, though, is the 1902 shingle-style masterpiece, Cow Cove, designed for Robert Peabody’s brother, Francis. No nonsense here – beautiful design, perfect setting.

Robinson can be critical of the firm’s design in houses such as the Dupee-Sloane Cottage (1897): “It has a split personality detail – it presents a fairly controlled twin-gabled elevation on the water side of the cottage, while the land is a riot of picturesque shingle details.”

The firm’s cache never goes to the author’s head, and she knows of what she writes.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored five books including “Tate House: Crown of the Maine Mast Trade” and the novel “Pyrrhus Venture.” He lives in Portland.


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