Saturday, September 11, 2010

Was Tefft coming back?

Thomas Alexander Tefft
RI's first AIA Architect
(3 Aug 1826 Richmond, RI - 11 Dec 1859 Florence, Italy)

The 11-year architecture career of RI native Thomas Tefft was brief indeed, from 1845 – 1856, with a certain beginning and a legacy that continues to challenge Rhode Island: Why not?


The one-room school house at Quarrelsome Corners in rural Richmond, RI. This is where Tefft was teaching school when Henry Barnard invited him to Providence to apprentice with one of the architects of the Arcade, James Bucklin. Photograph by permission of the Richmond Historical Society.

In the summer of 1845 the nineteen-year old was “discovered” teaching in a one-room schoolhouse at Quarrelsome Corners near the current Washington County Fair Ground and brought to Providence to apprentice as an architect in the office of James Bucklin, an architect of the 1828 Westminster St Arcade. Almost immediately, Tefft made a mark with a series of precociously accomplished buildings, including the Providence Union Depot (1847-48), which was voted in 1885 by architects of the American Institute of Architects as still one of the 20 best buildings in the United States. (Tefft’s Union Depot burned in 1896.)  

Thomas Tefft designed the Providence Union Depot in 1847 when he was 21. Voted by architects as one of the 20 best buildings in the United States in 1885, it burned in 1896.

From 1847-1851, Tefft worked to pay his way through Brown University, graduating with the aid of Brown’s  “New System”, or Latin-free curriculum, which was introduced in 1850 specifically to help a self-made Rhode Islander like Tefft achieve a college degree. Now known as RI’s first college-educated architect, Tefft’s career as an architect and founder of the Rhode Island Art Association paralleled a period of prosperity that abruptly ended in the summer of 1856 with a NYC banking failure, the subsequent run on banks in October 1856, and the nationwide Panic of 1857 in which the stock market lost almost two-thirds of its value. Tefft used this unpromising economic environment to embark on his first trip to Europe. In December 1856, having recently turned 30, Tefft left RI.  The only drawings on the boards were for Vassar College, the hoped-for first woman’s college in America. Tefft had completed preliminary designs for Vassar in May 1856, but the project appears to have been put on hold by the end that year. As it turned out, Vassar was not founded until 1861.

Tefft's proposal for a Merchant's Exchange next to the Arcade (on the historic "Turk's Head" site where Westminster and Weybosset Streets join) was Tefft's last commercial design before he left for Europe in Dec 1856 at the age of 30. It is still considered one of the most daring and visionary buildings of the nineteenth century that almost got built. Exhibited by permission of Brown University Archives.

In Europe in 1857, in the midst of an economic crisis with many parallels to 2010, Tefft first introduced himself as a visiting American architect with the prestige of membership in the newly founded American Institute of Architects. But what really set Tefft apart was the confidence with which he agitated the heads of state for a monetary gold standard and the rational merits of a universal currency that would provide a more level playing field in the global arena of capitalism. In 1858, Tefft published his ideas as Universal Currency: a Plan for Obtaining a Common Currency in France, England, and America.

By January 1859, the economic situation in RI had recovered enough that Tefft was appointed the first RI Commissioner on Industrial Education, with the brief to visit design schools in Europe and return home as planned to help RI found an art museum and take the lead nationally in design education.  However, at the end of this planned 3-yr Grand Tour (from Dec 13, 1856 to Dec 1859) - his visit ambiguously changing into a prolonged expatriate possibility - Tefft died of fever in Florence at the age of 33.

Tefft had settled in Rome and then Florence after Nov 1858, and before his unexpected death Dec 11, 1859 he had just taken out a two-month membership at a library in Florence, which his friend Albert Jones belonged to. Can we be so sure Tefft was coming back to RI?  At the first memorial service for Tefft in RI in Jan 1860, a poet alluded to this possibility that RI had lost its native talent:

Oh Friends! we sent thee forth to foreign lands, 
And with our parting clasp of thy warm hands, 
Laid on their palms sweet wishes and commands: 

That though should'st haste to reap in hoary fields,
The precious fruit that fertile Europe yields 
To every arm, which Art’s bright sickle wields.

“We charged thee, O, dear friend – and thou the while
At what seemed causeless care in us, dids’t smile
To let no foreign home thy choice beguile:

But to be true to this new home of Art,
Where yet ten thousand bright ideals shall start.
To glowing life, from teeming brain and heart!

And thou did’st gaily vow, yet gravely mean,
In Eastern lands Art’s golden lore to glean,
To go and come, with three years’ lapse between. (…)

The third year speeds apace; and ere its sun
The Zodiac’s round its glittering wheels have run,
Thy broken vow shall yet, alas! be done.

Thou wilt come back, O friend! With empty hands,
Nor bring again, from treacherous foreign lands,
The will to do our wishes and commands.

Tefft was buried Dec 13, 1859 at the so-called English Cemetery in the middle of Florence, alongside the Hiram Power children and a veritable who's who of American expatriate artists and poets.

Albert Jones and the expatriate American sculptor, Hiram Powers, buried Thomas Alexander Tefft Dec 13, 1859 at the English Cemetery in Florence. But Tefft’s body was disinterred in Feb 1860 and shipped back to RI.  Possibly this shipment included the Coliseum photograph as a memorial from his close friend, the Benefit St. expatriate, Albert J. Jones, who had “the melancholy privilege to watch at [Tefft’s] bed side, and to close his eyes in the sleep that on earth knows no waking”. 

After Tefft's death, expatriate Albert Jones sent this five foot wide photograph of the Coliseum back to the Athenaeum. Jones and Tefft had been in Rome or Florence since at least Dec 1858, and likely new Cuccioni, one of the most important architectural photographers working in Italy

A much-loved young man, Tefft’s death continued to be sharply mourned. Alexis Caswell, a Brown professor and later sixth President of Brown, confessed the need to  go to Florence "to visit the chamber where [Tefft] had expired", as "a tribute due [Tefft's] memory, as well as a melancholy satisfaction to myself." When Caswell returned from that trip to Italy in 1861, he donated to the Providence Athenaeum a copy of the 44’ tall solitary Column of Phocas memorialized by Byron. (Exhibited with the other two sets of Corinthian columns from the Forum in Rome, on the table to the right). 

A portrait bust of Albert Jones is in front of the solitary Column of Phocas that Brown Professor Alexis Caldwell sent back from Rome in 1861.

The question of who would get to keep Tefft's  personal belongings – his cape, a box of shells, his scarf and gloves - triggered a lawsuit between his South County RI farming family and the older Providence architect, Bucklin, to whom Tefft had first been apprenticed.  

Tefft had, in a sense, three gravesites: one in Florence, and then two in RI. In May 1860 Thomas Tefft was re-buried in Swan Point Cemetery - a landscape he helped lay out - in a funerary monument of his own design. He is buried next to the James Bucklin, the architect of the Arcade.  A marker to Tefft's memory also rises in the Tefft family plot next to the First Richmond Six Principle Baptist Church in rural Wood River Junction, RI.

Tefft is the subject of one of only three monographs written about an architect in the nineteenth century.

A 1951 Providence Journal article relays the chance story of how Tefft's portfolio of drawings had recently been saved and donated to Brown.

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

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