By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services
Continuing a theme that started many months ago, it is time to take a new look Around the Neighborhood for another glimpse of the history that is part of, and surrounding, the MHS. In this installment, let us look just around the corner onto Ipswich Street, where we find the Fenway Studios.
In 1904, a fire at the Harcourt Studios on Irvington St, near present-day Copley Plaza, deprived many Boston artists of their studios and life’s work, some lucky to emerge alive. Almost immediately, members of the Copley Society and St. Botolph Club started collaborating to get a new space designed and built. It took only three months for the group to raise $90,000, through subscriptions, to fund a building and to get land donated.
Built the same year, the Fenway Studios is the oldest continuously functioning building in the United States that was designed and built for use by artists. The building is now on the list of National Historic Landmarks.
The studios were built in the Arts and Crafts design, a style that took its cues from the Aesthetic Movement that was in vogue in England at the time. Englishman William Morris summed up his vision for the movement when he said “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” The simplicity of this idea and the implied ambiguity – what constitutes Useful or Beautiful? – have granted the Arts and Crafts movement impressive longevity.
Drafting of the building was done quickly but not without heavy input from the artists that would occupy its space. Many of these original artists had studied in Paris in the late 19th century and, with that as inspiration, came up with four elements that were key to their vision of a new workspace: abundant north light, spacious rooms, convenient location, and affordable rents. The building was thus constructed with each of the 46 studios possessing 12-feet high, north-facing windows and 14-feet high ceilings.
Externally, the building was constructed using clinker brick – bricks that are partially vitrified. When created, the bricks are burned at extremely high temperature which yields denser, heavier, and darker bricks. The resulting pieces are very water resistant but with higher thermal conductivity and therefore lending less insulation.
Though the building is still standing and in use today, according to the National Park Service, as of 1998 it has severe structural problems on the north elevation and, due to possible encroachment by the development of the Turnpike in front of it, the north light that is so vital to artists is under threat.
While the MHS does not hold any records relating specifically to the Fenway Studios, the Society does hold some secondary works relating to the Arts and Crafts movement as well as some pieces created some of the notable artists of the day that would have used the studios, including Charles Hopkinson, Lilian Westcott Hale, and Philip Hale.
Contact the MHS Library to find out more!
– Brandt, Beverly K., The Craftsman and the critic, Amherst, Mass: Univ. of Mass. Press (2009).
– “Fenway Studios History,” Friends of Fenway Studios, accessed 21 March 2013, http://www.friendsoffenwaystudios.org/about_fenway.php.