Queen Anne, Georgian and Tudor: Three architectural languages of Montclair
Marvin Clawson has earned a reputation for renovating historic homes with a modern sensibility. Architectural styles, to him, are not part of a progression, but languages that can be learned and recited.
“We understand historic styles well enough to quote them,” Clawson said. “We try to take the historical cues of a house and then enhance it and make it better for longevity.”
On May 5, Clawson will give a presentation for the Montclair History Center on three of those architectural languages found in Montclair — Queen Anne, Georgian and Tudor.
The information and examples he’ll present have been collected over his two-decade career as principal of his namesake firm in Maplewood, Clawson Architects, which he co-founded with his wife, Mary René Clawson.
The presentation will cover how these styles originated in Europe, then traveled to the United States. Often the features of these styles aren’t merely decorative, but rooted in bygone social conventions. For instance, Queen Anne entryways often feature double doors that would allow gentleman callers to ceremoniously escort dates within the home, Clawson said.
The architecture of Montclair is a particular fascination of his because the township, he said, was planned with intention — from Charles Anderson’s Oakcroft subdivision to the park designs of the Olmsted brothers.
“Montclair is a treasure of architectural styles,” Clawson said. “If you drive down Highland Avenue you can see the variety in one road. It tells a story about how the township grew up.”
The former post office at 242 Belleville Ave. — with its steep gables and half-timbering — was one of the first Tudor-style buildings in town and is credited for establishing this architecture as the signature style of the Upper Montclair Historic District, Hellen Fallon, a board member of the Montclair History Center, said during a
presentation on Upper Montclair’s historic downtown in 2020. One example is a residence at 1 Russell Terrace, where Col. Isaac Lewis, maker of the Lewis machine gun, once lived.
Local architect Francis Nelson, who designed the post office, was fond of Georgian Revival homes and chose that style for 155 Wildwood Ave., built in 1930, historian Lisanne Renner said in a history center presentation.
The township’s Historical Design Guidelines note the Georgian style was originally popular in the 18th century, and revived in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
“Although the Georgian Revival structures employed many of the details of their earlier Colonial predecessors, they did not closely follow the rules of Georgian architecture,” the guidelines say. “Classical details were either overexaggerated or updated for the 20th century, and the strict Georgian symmetry and order was usually broken. Georgian architecture usually always consisted of a two-story façade with five window and door openings on both the first and second stories of the main façade.”
Georgian homes are characterized by features such as being two stories tall and symmetrical, having an entry portico with classical columns, and having entrances with sidelights and dormers at the roofline, the guidelines say.
Montclair has many examples of Queen Anne architecture, because this style coincided with the township’s boom years at the turn of the last century. These buildings are marked by asymmetry, wrap-around porches and turrets. A particularly fine example is the Livermore House at 66 South Fullerton Ave., designed by Charles McKim, Jane Eliasof, director of the History Center, said during a presentation last year.
Meanwhile, a wave of renewed interest in historical architecture — perhaps best evidenced by architect Robert A.M. Stern’s Art Deco-inspired new skyscrapers, like 220 Central Park South and 15 Central Park West in Manhattan — has kept Clawson’s firm busy. It’s often tasked with restoring features on homes that had been stripped away during the mid-century era. Many feel these types of restorations are a welcome change from the streamlined look that became popular post-World War II.
Veterans returning to civilian life sought employment in trades, and mid-century designs offered novice carpenters an entry into the workforce, Clawson said. Neoclassicism was also attacked on philosophical grounds. In Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead,” a struggling modernist architect complains that Greek Revival marble ornamentations, like fluting and triglyphs, tried to mimic features found in wooden structures that have no true function in stone.
“Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood,” Rand wrote. “Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood.”
But Stern disagrees that classical architecture is merely an exercise in recycling old styles: “We are always trying not to copy the past, but to interpret it and reinterpret it as artists often do,” Stern told Architectural Digest in 2018.
As a professor at the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art, Clawson met two major figures in the New Classicism movement — the institute president, Henry Hope Reed, who helped organize protests of New York’s Penn Station demolition, and Richard Cameron, who founded the institute in 1990. Cameron is now leading the charge to rebuild Penn Station as it once was as an “astonishing act of cultural revision,” Cameron said.
“If you could re-create the station the way it was, it would be a wonderful addition to the city,” Clawson said. “But if you get a bad facsimile of it, I don’t know if it will have the same power and substance.”
For Clawson, the merit of any architecture can only be judged experientially.
“It’s all about how you feel in that space,” Clawson, who has won nine American Institute of Architects medals for his designs, including a home on Erwin Park, said. “I fear sometimes that with the current architectural education people forget that we’re designing for human beings.”