I’ve been asked to contribute a few words each month to the TMS Architects blog. My qualifications are admittedly thin. I took a high school course in the history of architecture, but went on to major in English Literature. I read half of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and watched half the movie version. I dated two women who previously dated architects, and I spend a lot of time in buildings.
I’ve also written a couple thousand essays and articles about local history. You can’t write much about the past without getting into architecture. It is one of the ways we measure time – Colonial, Georgian, Federal, and so forth. And it’s how we define space. If I’m writing about ax murderer Louis Wagner dragging the bloody body of his victim through the narrow hallway and into the kitchen of the duplex on Smuttynose Island in 1873, technically, I’m writing about architecture.
That’s especially true in an historic city like Portsmouth where I live. A great number of the historical characters that populate my writing are connected to historic house museums – naval hero John Paul Jones, New Hampshire governors John Langdon and Benning Wentworth, writers Thomas Bailey Aldrich and Sarah Orne Jewett. Their distinctive seacoast homes are open to the public. Much of the time architecture defines the “setting” where my characters carry out their plots. Without these preserved homes, any historian can tell you, many of these characters would fade from memory.
All too often architecture is also the way we measure social status. Poorer people live in smaller, less-designed homes like mine. The rich and powerful live in mansions. But the rich and famous move on, as architect John Mead Howells discovered in 1935 when he tried to restore the city’s South End. “In Portsmouth there is nothing,” Howells wrote to William Sumner Appleton, “the last of the aristocracy is falling — it is a town of tradespeople and politicians without interest in old houses.”
But the prosperity of Portsmouth has returned and the city is coming back to life. We care about old houses again and about the stories that fill them. The story of the city’s renaissance is also a story about architecture, of new structures great and not-so-great. As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about structure, and theme, and decorative touches. I like to think that I build my essays, brick by brick, and that, like architecture, they are designed to a human scale and to stand the test of time. My work is functional and purpose-built for a paying customer, for the most part, but sometimes a great piece shines through.
I haven’t known many architects, but I’m surrounded by their work. And, perhaps, we have a lot in common. Architects, I think, might be like writers who can also do math. Some are journalists and copywriters, some are novelists and poets. You don’t have to be able to diagram a sentence to read one, and I don’t have to know Ionic from Doric to know what looks good to me.
J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of books about history. His latest books are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812.