There are no confirmed records of Asher Benjamin ever visiting Newburyport and yet, he had more influence on how this seaport would look and feel than all the other architects who contributed to this city combined. While notables like Bullfinch and MacIntire made significant impacts, it was Mr. Benjamin who was the most influential in creating the unique style of American architecture that would spread through all the eastern seaboard.
To understand his role in American architecture requires the reader to at least have a rudimentary history of design. Asher Benjamin’s importance to the architectural profession can be understood only in relation to late-18th-and early-19th-century trends. All architectural thought from the 14th to the mid-18th century was dominated by the writings of the Roman architect of the Augustan Age, Vitruvius. Sir Christopher Wren (1631-1723), his follower James Gibbs (1683-1754), and the 18th-century “Palladians,” including Colen Campbell, were the last of the major English Vitruvians. Gibbs and Campbell published architectural books from which lesser-known architects copied, and these books were imported to the United States.
Benjamin adapted many of the designs to American use; he changed the stone details of expensive, monumental English buildings to constructions in wood to fit the scale and finances of the New England communities. Benjamin stated in his The American Builder’s Companion (1806) that two-thirds of the contents of English architectural publications were unsuitable for the American craftsmanbuilder.
In 1823 and 1824, Benjamin was part of the “Middling Interest,” a coalition of middle class entrepreneurs and artisans opposed to the Federalists, and who supported Josiah Quincy for mayor. He would later help Mayor Quincy and Alexander Parris plan Quincy Market.
It was this drive to create designs that most Americans could appreciate and afford that turned high-brow British designs into uniquely American designs.
His work transitioned between Federal style architecture and the later Greek Revival. His seven handbooks on design deeply influenced the look of cities and towns throughout New England until the Civil War. Builders also copied his plans in the Midwest and in the South.
Benjamin also introduced some of the new ideals of post-1750 European architecture: a freedom from Vitruvian ideals, epitomized by the romantic movement and, in the realm of classical architecture, by romantic classicism (neoclassicism). In The American Builder’s Companion Benjamin admitted that many “old fashioned workmen” would follow in “the footsteps of Palladio” but that “reform in some parts of the system of architecture is loudly demanded….”
Benjamin’s greatest influence, however, is due to his pattern books. It was these handbooks that created the Newburyport of today. A uniformity and central theme runs through the city causing a loveliness more than just one house or more but encompassing entire neighborhoods.
It is this amazing contribution that causes a host of people to be attracted to Newburyport.
These handbooks provided superb drawings and practical advice for full house plans, including such details as circular staircases, doorways, fireplace mantels, dormer windows, pilasters, balusters and fences. He sketched proposals for dwellings and churches, even a courthouse. The archeological sources of his designs were scrupulously cited, from the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens to the Arch of Titus in Rome. Other architects, including Ithiel Town and Ammi B. Young, freely assimilated his plans, as did innumerable carpenters. Indeed, the charm of many early New England towns owes a debt to Asher Benjamin. The Ridge in Orford, New Hampshire features a series of houses based on designs from his books, many of which remain in print. And although he helped disseminate the Federal style, he was not averse to changing fashion. In fact, his book published in 1830, The Architect, or, Practical House Carpenter, helped redirect American taste towards the Greek Revival.
Asher Benjamin (June 15, 1773 – July 26, 1845) was born in rural Hartland, Connecticut, shortly after which his father died. The first 30 years of his life would be spent in the Connecticut River Valley. He received his early training from a local builder, and showed an aptitude for architecture by carving Ionic capitals for the 1794 modifications to the Oliver Phelps House at Suffield, Connecticut. In 1795-1796 he designed and built a stone spiral staircase in the Old State House at Hartford, which had been designed by Charles Bulfinch. The latter’s use of overall symmetry, blind arches, fanlights and smooth brick greatly influenced Benjamin, who would help spread the urbane Federal style into the countryside. Gideon Granger would write of Benjamin that:
“From a poor boy unaided by friends, by his indefatigable industry and talents in a few years he has raised himself to the first rank of his profession.”
He first settled in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he built two large houses, including the Leavitt House (today’s Leavitt-Hovey House) for Judge Jonathan Leavitt, as well as publishing his first handbook, The Country Builder’s Assistant (1797). On November 30, 1797, he married Achsah Hitchcock of Brookfield, who bore him four children. Benjamin later moved to Windsor, Vermont, where he built three large houses and the Old South Congregational Church (1798).
By 1803, he was in Boston. Listed in the city directory as a housewright, he designed numerous churches and houses. He also appears to have conducted the country’s first architecture school, credited with teaching Robert Henry Eddy, Elias Carter, Solomon Willard, Samuel Shepherd and Ithiel Town. After his first wife died on January 30, 1805, on July 24 he married Nancy Bryant of Springfield, who bore him another four children.
But as architectural historian Talbot Hamlin writes:
“…he, more than any other person is responsible for the character we roughly call ‘Late Colonial’; his moldings, his doors and windows and his mantels and cornices decorate or at least inspire the decorations of numberless houses up and down the New England coast and in the New England river valleys.”
Asher Benjamin died in Springfield at the age of 72.
Ionic order, from The Architect, or, Practical House Carpenter 1830
Architectural Books and Pattern Books that he produced:
§ The Country Builder’s Assistant, 1797
§ The American Builder’s Companion, with Daniel Raynerd, 1806
§ The Rudiments of Architecture, 1814
§ The Architect, or, Practical House Carpenter, 1830
§ The Practice of Architecture, 1833
§ The Builder’s Guide, 1838
§ The Elements of Architecture, 1843
We all need to study his books (many are online) to be able to properly see renovations/restorations done correctly on our old buildings. Since Newburyport is not known for one or two significant buildings but is regaled for its historic neighborhoods, all seven ought to be made available to not only craftsmen but to homeowners who use them. (The Preservation Trust has made some of the books available through the library.)
Craftsmen need to hold these true books as their guides especially when dealing with the exterior of the houses.
§ Mary Wallace Crocker, “Asher Benjamin: The Influence of His Handbooks on Mississippi Buildings,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 38, No. 3 (October, 1979); pp. 266-270
§ Florence Thompson Howe, “More About Asher Benjamin;” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 13, No. 3, (October, 1954); pp. 16-19
§ Juliette Tomlinson, “Asher Benjamin — Connecticut Architect,” Connecticut Antiquarian 6 (1954)