William Ralph Emerson: Father of the Shingle Style

May 19, 2016

Historic New England is working to transform the 1878 Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts, into a museum and study center opening in 2017. The estate is a significant work by New England architect William Ralph Emerson. Curatorial and Interpretive Planning Assistant Elyse Werling introduces you to Emerson, “the father of the Shingle Style.”

William Ralph Emerson is often first introduced as a “distant cousin of Ralph Waldo,” but his legacy and architectural genius allow him to be famous in his own right. Emerson was a true New England architect, designing homes and buildings from Connecticut to Vermont.

His works were most prevalent in communities such as Milton, Massachusetts, and Bar Harbor, Maine. In Milton alone Emerson designed roughly twenty-five different buildings, although not all were constructed and, of those that were, not all remain standing today. This includes the Queen Anne style Eustis Estate (1878) and Emerson’s own Shingle Style home (1886).

Emerson was born in 1833 in Illinois but spent his childhood and formative years in Kennebunk, Maine, and Boston. Although he came from a line of Harvard men, Emerson rejected a college education and taught himself architecture. From 1857 to 1873 he worked in partnership with two other architects, first Jonathan Preston and later Carl Fehmer. After the partnership with Fehmer dissolved, Emerson operated his own firm for the rest of his career.

Emerson’s architectural style evolved from his early, classically English, Queen Anne masonry-based designs to his later, well-known American Shingle Style designs. He traditionally worked on large rural estates or seaside villas and cottages. Emerson did not fully develop his signature architectural style, the Shingle Style, until the early 1880s.

Emerson’s Shingle Style designs differ greatly from his earlier English Queen Anne and Ruskinian Gothic buildings. The Eustis Estate stands as an important example of Emerson’s Queen Anne designs. Soon after its 1878 construction Emerson swiftly began to adapt and develop the Shingle Style houses that defined his legacy.

Redwood (1879), located in Mt. Desert, Maine, was one of Emerson’s first Shingle Style masterpieces. Emerson’s family house on Randolph Avenue in Milton (1886) represents a total embodiment of the Shingle Style, reflected in both the complete envelopment of the exterior in shingles and the vernacular New England farmhouse/barn-style house.

Today only about half of Emerson’s designs are extant, which is why Historic New England’s preservation of the Eustis Estate is so important. Changing architectural tastes and a lack of respect for historic structures have left many Emerson buildings in danger. When the Eustis Estate opens in spring 2017, it will be the only Emerson house open to the public.

Archival images courtesy of Hathi Trust.

Biographical information from Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. The Architecture of William Ralph Emerson 1833-1917, Cambridge: Fogg Art Museum, 1969.