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A Home for Art Education in Boston: Hartwell and Richardson's Design for the Massachusetts Normal Art School

State Normal Art School Engraving with hand coloring

State Normal Art School

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This 1889 architectural drawing depicts the Massachusetts Normal Art School's headquarters designed by Boston architects Henry W. Hartwell and William C. Richardson. The school was located at the corner of Newbury and Exeter Streets in Boston and was demolished in 1969.

The Founding of the Massachusetts Normal Art School

As Massachusetts rapidly industrialized during the nineteenth century, there was a need for an increasingly well-trained work force including men and women skilled in "industrial drawing"—technical drawing to show the construction and operation of machinery and manufactured products. In 1870, the Massachusetts state legislature passed the Massachusetts Free Instruction in Drawing Act, making the study of drawing obligatory in public schools and instruction in industrial drawing free to persons over fifteen years of age in towns and cities with a population of more than 10,000.

While the legislation met with broad public support, there were almost no art teachers available to instruct students, so the legislature also established a State Normal Art School—a training school for art teachers. The shortage of drawing instructors extended to the faculty of the new Normal Art School and was so great that teachers skilled in industrial art education were recruited in England to train American art teachers. The top students in the first class to graduate from the Normal Art School were offered direct appointments to the faculty of the school.

Over time, the Normal Art School evolved from its vocational origins and not only prepared instructors "to teach and superintend industrial drawing in the schools" and "to provide for high skill in technical drawing," but to encourage creativity in a broader range of art culture.

A permanent home for the Normal Art School

After renting and leasing temporary space at different addresses in the center of Boston, in 1886 the legislature appropriated $85,000 for a Normal Art School building. Within a year (and under budget), the architectural firm of Henry W. Hartwell and William C. Richardson designed and constructed a brick and brownstone home for the school at the corner of Newbury and Exeter Streets in the elegant new Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. In February 1887, the school moved into its new headquarters that had been created to concentrate classrooms and galleries on each floor where they would receive the most natural light.

Henry W. Hartwell and William C. Richardson were known for their conservative, well-built shingle-style suburban homes and brick and brownstone town halls and school buildings. They were influenced by and worked in the shadow of H. H. Richardson (no relation to William C. Richardson). Their most prominent earlier project stood diagonally across the street from the Normal Art School-the very grand First Spiritual Temple of Boston, now the Exeter Street Theater building. [See a web presentation of a photograph of this building from Digital Commonwealth: First Spiritualist Temple, corner Newbury and Exeter Streets.]

As the Normal Art School evolved to become the Massachusetts School of Art and then the Massachusetts College of Art-now MassArt-it moved, by stages, from its home in the Back Bay to its present campus on Huntington Avenue, Boston's "Avenue of the Arts." It remains the first and only public independent college of art and design in the United States.

Further reading

The American Architect and Building News, Vol. 25, no. 688, March 2, 1889.

In addition to the rendering featured here, the March 1889 issue of The American Architect and Building News includes a description of the school and its construction with an accompanying floor plan on page 102. A digital archive of issues of The American Architect is available online at the University of Pennsylvania American Architect website: https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=amarch

Massachusetts Normal Art School. Circular of the Massachusetts Normal Art School at Boston: Under the Direction of the State Board of Education, 1876-1877. Boston: Wright and Potter.

An overview and explanation of the purpose of the Normal Art School.

Stankiewicz, Mary Ann. The Development of Visual Arts Education in the United States: the Massachusetts Normal Art School and the Normalization of Creativity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

An institutional history of the origins and early years of the Normal Art School and placing the founding in the context of a larger debate over the public purpose of art education.

Vogel, Susan Maycock. "Hartwell and Richardson, an Introduction to Their Work." The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 32, no. 2 (May 1973), 132-46.

A well-illustrated overview of the architectural partnerships of Henry W. Hartwell, William C. Richardson, and others between 1881 and Hartwell's death in 1919. The firm continued under the name "Hartwell and Richardson" until 1935.