Architecture: Royal Barry Wills was ahead of his time when he marketed ‘Colonial’ homes in New England
In 1925, about 40 years before the historic preservation movement launched in the United States, a Boston architect thought that history could become alive in contemporary homes. This 30-year-old architect’s insight happened 30 years before Walt Disney built history anew in Disneyland — the first place where historic pastiche was aggressively used to create nostalgia.
The architect was Royal Barry Wills, a recent graduate of MIT’s architecture school. Wills thought that “Colonial” was not an archaic aesthetic, but one that was ardently and actively loved in both symbol and substance by millions of families. He believed that the one near-universal residential access point for burgeoning middle-class home ownership (especially in New England) was the Colonial.
The idea that buildings embody history was nothing new, although typically those buildings were associated with a person or event: Presidents’ birthplaces, forts, civic icons all were windows to history because they were physically part of it.
But young architect Royal Barry Wills had a completely different, and as it turns out, abiding idea: that a lot of people want the their home to have all the latest conveniences, but also to feel as comfortable, inside and out, as your favorite pair of blue jeans. “Cutting edge” by definition cuts, and “antique” is a straightjacket of long gone technologies, values and lifestyles.
Working for Turner Construction as a draftsman out of college, Wills was itching to do creative work and so convinced the Boston Transcript newspaper to publish his un-built designs as a way to boost the paper’s builder advertising (and his own baby architectural practice).
Intuitively Royal Barry Wills knew that the most generic of built shapes, a symmetrical, gable-roofed rectangular box with a central chimney was embedded in the American consciousness as “home.” Careful cladding and windowscaping made the box a home. That resulting home’s characteristics were culturally defined as “Colonial” and that particular Colonial was a Cape Cod.
Unlike the jot-and-tittle detailing imposition on the previous century’s style-fetishes (Arts & Crafts, Richardson Romanesque, Victorian, Adam, Queen Anne) a Royal Barry Wills Colonial is both relaxed in plan and astringent in material application. Perhaps analogous to Shingle Style on a low-fat diet, the care of a Royal Barry Wills Colonial design allows the landscape on the outside and the furnishings on the inside to express themselves: Its gentle touch, all clad in white, allows for the expressions of each individual homeowner’s tastes and sense of style.
Within a year of publishing his designs Royal Barry Wills had enough commissions that he could start a thriving home design practice. Wills knew that homes were the single most expensive investment and the one possession that was both intimate and public, so he created a very simple set of descriptive truths of good design that anyone could understand.
Apply these “rules” and include huge central fireplaces, “modern” kitchens and baths, careful clapboard/shingle spacing and often opened-up interiors, and voila, a Royal Barry Wills Colonial. Of course the shapes/names varied: salt box, center hall, garrison Colonial. But the dead-simple, soft and comforting palette of materials created homes of various sizes and budgets for the next 90 years — and counting.
It’s one thing to be a talented designer, excellent technician, responsible professional, but Wills also wrote eight books, all but one directed to the homeowner, not to fellow architects. The book titles and drawings are as inviting as the accessible Yankee language he used to write them: “Houses for Good Living,” “Planning Your Home Wisely,” and “Houses Have Funny Bones.” One of the books published the modernist designs of then-unknown Eliot Noyes, an associate in the firm Royal Barry Wills Associates, who became a modernist maven.
The firm’s work was published by Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Parade and Country Living and has been featured on television in recent years. Throughout his career Wills sought recognition by entering design competitions (two dozen of them) — and winning a gold medal from President Hoover in 1932 for the National Better Homes Competition.
But one Depression-era competition provided spectacular results that took an already successful firm to the height of popular recognition. In 1938 Life magazine staged a competition, “Eight Homes for Modern Living,” in which four families each reviewed two designs sized and priced to fit their needs. Royal Barry Wills ended up going face-to-face with none other than the first American starchitect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Well, the New England Colonialist beat the Midwestern purveyor of “Usonian” homes (miniaturized Prairie Style Houses). Will’s winning creation on the pages of Life magazine was the era’s equivalent of a home design “American Idol” and it received recognition that made a great career a legendary one.
Over 3,000 homes have been built from the firm’s designs in the 90 years, three generations and more than 50 years after Royal Barry Wills passed on.
The Colonial style as used by Wills was not replication, or even homage, it is simply the distillation of the carpenterly craft of New England common sense building into a universal solvent of residential design. The authentic need not be original. That just may be the motto of New England.
Excerpted from “A Home Called New England” (Globe Pequot, 2017) by Duo Dickinson and Steve Culpepper. Dickinson writes about architecture for Hearst Connecticut Media Group.