John Calvin Stevens: The Early Years


By Stephen Abbott

Photography François Gagné

Based on the research and writings of Earle G. Shettleworth Jr.





If you live in Maine, chances are that you have seen or been in several buildings designed by John Calvin Stevens—he is not only Maine’s most celebrated architect, he may just be its most prolific. Over his illustrious 60-year career, from 1880 until his death in 1940, Stevens completed more than 1,000 commissions, including approximately 300 on the Portland peninsula and another 100 in Portland’s Deering neighborhood. Unlike any single architect before or since, Stevens’s work and legacy have come to define that most enduring of qualities: the Maine mystique

From Office Boy to Architect
John Calvin Stevens was born in Boston on October 8, 1855, the same year that Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass. Two years later, drawn by Maine’s robust economy and the heady entrepreneurial optimism of the day, Stevens’s father moved his family to Portland to open a grocery, an experiment that lasted three years before the elder Stevens turned his hand to hotel management. Stevens’s aptitude for drawing emerged at a young age, and upon graduation from Portland High School in 1873, it was his ambition to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which offered the only architectural instruction program in the United States. While the Stevens family enjoyed a degree of financial security, they were by no means wealthy, and Stevens’s collegiate aspirations proved financially unfeasible. Like many middle-class adolescents at the time, Stevens chose the next-best option and became an office boy, for Francis H. Fassett, then Portland’s leading architect.

The job of office boy in the 1870s combined manual labor with the intellectual demands of a formal apprenticeship. Days were filled with menial tasks, and nights were given over to the study of professional literature. Edification was a sporadic endeavor, however, and the office boy learned by observing the experienced draftsmen, gleaning the occasional lesson, and availing himself of the boss’s library. Fiery ambition and natural talent, more than formal education or pedigree, often determined the heights to which a young apprentice could rise. Stevens was both a quick study and a gifted draftsman, and in only seven years he rose from office boy to chief draftsman to partner in the renamed firm of Fassett and Stevens. But Stevens was also independently minded and ambitious, and within four years he would establish his own practice in Portland with Fassett’s blessing.

Stevens was among the first generation of young men who had been specifically trained in the architectural profession. Earlier architects were of two basic types: the “gentleman designer” and the “architect-builder.” Gentleman designers of the 18th century and early 19th century were learned amateurs from the upper classes who were possessed of a hobbyist’s passion for architectural history and drawing, and who could produce basic plans with a degree of precision. Yet the majority of new constructions, even into the late Victorian era, were designed by craftsmen who had learned the rudiments of architecture during their years in the trades. These carpenters and masons often produced crude but serviceable sketches that displayed little in the way of exacting detail or artistic flourish. And as cultural expectations evolved and new building codes were adopted, the architect-craftsman was gradually replaced by trained architects skilled in the nuances of salesmanship and learned in the arcana of architectural precedent, engineering, and ordinance. As Stevens reflected in 1935: “In looking back over those first years, the preparation of plans for a house seems to have been a very easy job compared with the many things for which now it is absolutely necessary to provide….There were no building laws of any account, no zoning requirements, or other regulations to be followed, so that the architect was free to carry out his ideas as he pleased; and as nearly all the architects had been graduated from the experience as a constructing carpenter, the sizes of timber and structural members were determined by past experience.”

Stevens came of age when the profession of architecture in the United States was still in its infancy. Armed with a comparative abundance of talent and education, and unfettered by a relative absence of regulation and competition, Stevens was swept into a serendipitous confluence of historical forces that propelled him into the ranks of America’s most revered and influential architects.

The Emergence of an American Architecturehistory2.jpg
The year 1876 marked the American Centennial, and with this celebration of 100 years of shared history, the United States lurched forward with a newfound sense of maturity and purpose. The great clanking mechanisms of the Industrial Revolution filled the skies with the smoke of industry, newly constructed railways radiated across the untamed landscape, the minds of young men were giddy with the intoxication of enterprise, and the first great monuments of an insurgent capitalism were being erected. And far from a cultural or economic backwater, Maine was still experiencing a golden age of prosperity that began around the middle of the century. From York to Fort Kent, Maine was being milked of its bountiful resources, commerce was brisk, and its many industries, such as lumber, textiles, and shipbuilding, were flourishing alongside a blossoming tourist trade.

For most of the 19th century, American architecture was still largely imitative of European traditions and construction techniques that could be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Iconic features such as fluted Doric columns, elaborate decorative cornices, and arched Palladian windows were imported into much of the public, commercial, and residential architecture in the United States. English architectural styles, in particular, were widely imitated by New England architects, who generally worked for wealthy clients striving to drape their homes in the sumptuous garb of aristocratic grandeur. At the forefront of American architecture, however, a small group of pioneers was carving a uniquely democratic path through the thicket of Old World influences. One of the first truly American forms of architecture to emerge during this period was a distinctive synthesis of European principles and the American vernacular architecture the 17th and 18th centuries. This new architecture, later named the Shingle Style, would fascinate Stevens for the next decade.


The Rise and Fall of the Shingle Style
With more-open floor plans and larger rooms than were customary during the time, bold gabled and gambrel rooflines, heavy fieldstone foundations, contiguous wooden shingles across the roofs and sides, and an overall absence of superfluous ornamentation, the Shingle Style heralded a new direction in architectural design, one that married traditional principles with a homegrown American look.

Stevens was first exposed to the Shingle Style in the most old-fashioned of ways: fortuitous happenstance. During the first years of the 1880s, Fassett and Stevens endeavored to open a branch office to the south, and Stevens was dispatched to set up shop in Boston and oversee the short-lived venture’s only known commission: the Hotel Pemberton. Stevens rented a space at Five Pemberton Square, the same building in which the office of William Ralph Emerson—the man widely considered to be the originator of the Shingle Style—was located. Stevens was apparently much impressed by Emerson and his young associate, Albert Winslow Cobb, so much so, in fact, that when Stevens returned to Maine he not only began designing houses based on Emerson’s ideas, but he also invited Cobb to join his firm several years later.

In 1888, the 30-year-old Cobb left Emerson’s employ to become a partner in the firm of Stevens and Cobb in Portland. The most important product of this three-year association was the publication of Examples of American Domestic Architecture, which was nothing short of an impassioned clarion call for a new form of architecture that was aesthetically beautiful and purposely engineered to reduce the widespread social inequalities of the period. While the strident and occasionally ponderous idealism on evidence in Examples is widely considered to be Cobb’s doing, the book’s lyrical prose and innovative Shingle Style illustrations won international recognition and acclaim for the two architects.

Fashion, however, is a fickle mistress. The halcyon days of the Shingle Style were but a brief florescence, and by the turn of the century its popularity had largely succumbed to the ravages of changing fashions. Yet the Shingle Style aesthetic would not only come to symbolize the quintessential seaside home, it would also filter down through the decades and help shape American residential architecture for generations. To this day, Shingle Style–inspired homes continue to be built with an enduring persistence up and down the New England coast.

The ideas and idealisms that spurred the development of the Shingle Style foreshadowed the work and writings of the most influential 20th-century American architects, most notably Frank Lloyd Wright, who aspired—like Stevens and Cobb before him—to create nothing less than a distinctly American form of architecture that was not only independent of European influences but appropriate to America’s needs, values, and landscape.

Though Stevens, in many ways, helped define American architecture and the Maine aesthetic, it was Maine itself that provided his greatest inspiration. And perhaps no one has described Maine’s allure more eloquently that Cobb did in 1889: “One feels here no impending menace of some popular paroxysm; but feels rather the calm spirit of a contented people environed by the unperverted things of nature.”


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