John Calvin Stevens: The Later Years


From the end of the Civil War to the eve of World War II, Maine experienced unprecedented growth in both commerce and tourism. The state’s natural resource industries—such as lumber, granite, and ice—were supplemented by the manufacture of textiles, shoes, and paper, all of which harnessed the rivers to power their factories. Potato farming in Aroostook County prospered, as did shipbuilding, fishing, and lobstering along the coast. Portland became a major transatlantic port that was linked by rail to Canada

history_4_copy.jpgThe Industrial Revolution in the Northeast produced middle and upper classes that had both the means and the desire to escape the region’s hot, diseased cities in the summer for the cool, healthful shores of Maine’s rugged coastline and scenic lakes. From York Harbor to Bar Harbor, hotels and cottage colonies sprang up along the coast and islands. Likewise, the times also gave rise to great inland resorts such as Poland Spring and the Mount Kineo House at the head of Moosehead Lake. Remote lakes and streams became populated with sporting camps and rustic log cabin retreats. Travelers arrived at their Maine destinations by the ease of frequent railway and steamship connections.

In this expansive age of optimism, John Calvin Stevens of Portland emerged as Maine’s premier architect, a designer equally comfortable with planning a shoe factory, a summer hotel, or a shipbuilder’s estate. Born in Boston in 1855, Stevens grew up in Portland and graduated from Portland High School in 1873. For the next seven years, he trained with Francis H. Fassett, the city’s most experienced architect. In 1880, Fassett asked Stevens to become his junior partner and sent him on an 18-month assignment to Boston that changed the course of the young man’s career.

During the 1870s, Francis Fassett had employed the accepted period styles of Italianate, French, and High Victorian Gothic architecture. But in Boston, Stevens was exposed to the picturesque Queen Anne style and, more importantly, to its country cousin the Shingle Style. Two prominent Boston architects, Henry Hobson Richardson and William Ralph Emerson, are credited with fostering this aesthetic and utilitarian return to the simple vernacular features of early New England architecture, especially in the construction of summer cottages and suburban homes. Informal floor plans, crisp geometric forms, natural stone features, and extensive use of wooden shingles appealed to a public that was not only weary of European affectations, but longing to rediscover a less-complicated lifestyle.

By the time Stevens had started his own firm in 1884, he had already designed both seasonal and year-round houses in the Shingle Style. Soon the south side of Bowdoin Street in Portland’s fashionable Western Promenade neighborhood would be lined with shingled residences, including his own, while his Shingle Style summer cottages would cover Delano Park in Cape Elizabeth as well as Cushing’s Island and the Diamond Islands in Casco Bay.

But taste is a restless and ever-changing force. Around 1890, New England architects, Stevens included, shifted away from Shingle Style simplicity to the formal symmetry of Colonial Revival out of a growing nostalgia for the 18th-century past. Novelist Sarah Orne Jewett of South Berwick reflected these sentiments in 1893 when she wrote of Maine’s pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair: “It ought to have been a great square house with a hip roof and dormer windows, and a railing around the chimney. The best houses in all our best old Maine towns were built so a hundred years ago, and nothing looks so well in our Maine landscape, or in the pleasant streets of our villages.”

In writing of her ideal house, Jewett could have been describing the group of elegant red brick homes that Stevens designed for the Western Promenade area between 1900 and World War I. Found especially on Bowdoin and Vaughan Streets, these residences were described by Stevens’ son and business partner John Howard Stevens as “the best examples of the Colonial style, being very satisfactory in proportion and detail, and yet not an historical copy of an old house, but a new creation of the same style.”

John Calvin Stevens’ residential work in the Colonial Revival was not confined to the urban setting of Portland. Influential men such as the president of the Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, Fred E. Richards, considered him “head and shoulders above any other architect in Maine.” As Stevens’ reputation grew, he received commissions throughout the state and from beyond its borders. In response, he adapted the Colonial Revival for both seaside and country homes. In 1912, for example, he designed Shorelands, the Camden home of Edward M. Hagar of Chicago. Shorelands’s gracefully curving facade conforms to its harbor-side location, which is in contrast to the Georgian formalism of Elmhurst, the great brick country house that Stevens created for the Bath shipbuilding magnate John S. Hyde in 1913–1914.

John Calvin Stevens remained a staunch advocate of the Colonial Revival for private and public architecture until his death in 1940. During the last decade of his life, the architect saw the supremacy of the Colonial Revival challenged by such trends as Art Deco from France and the International Style from Germany. Yet the dignity and charm of Stevens’ Colonial Revival designs have steadfastly held their appeal into the 21st century and are now as prized as the 18th-century houses they sought to emulate.

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