Manchester-by-the-Sea 350th

"Cottages Great and Small" by Stephen Roberts Holt

Pearse-May House, Colonial Period

Colonial Period

The first colony on Cape Ann, Massachusetts was established in 1624, just four years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. The settlers who arrived in what is now the Gloucester area were mainly fishermen unprepared for the extremes in climate and most of them retreated to what is now Salem. William Jeffries, however, remained in West Manchester and built himself a home similar to the kinds of structures built in the first year of the Plymouth colony. It was a one-room structure measuring 15feet by 15 feet with a fireplace for surviving the rugged winters. By 1640 there were 63 people living in "Jeffries Creeke".

The Pearse-May House in Manchester was built in 1640 from the framing members of an earlier house across the street. It is clear from these timbers that the basic frame was similar to the one-room structure of the early settlers. It included a large chimney on one bay, a modest ladder or little staircase next to it and one large room, which was, by medieval tradition, called a "hall". The features that made it unique to New England were the centrally located internal chimney designed to retain and radiate heat, the exterior sheathing of wooden clapboards, and the orientation of front windows toward the south. With additional growth a second bay was placed in line with the first, extending the house another 10 feet, and at a later date, the kitchen was moved from the hall to back of the chimney. The Hall became an additional room, the staircase more fully developed and sleeping space added on the second floor. The building began to resemble the typical salt-box architecture.

The elevations of these early houses were low, yet had a vertical proportion; they were plain, lacked symmetry and yet clearly revealed their roots in the medieval tradition imported by the colonists. Typical features included a steeply itched roof with gable ends. At the start of the 18th century gentle modifications appeared centered around a lower sloped roof, proportional doors and window openings. Throughout this period one room that remained essentially unchanged was the hall with its large fireplace, the heart of the house. It was retained in all houses, even as they grew in size and became a symbol of close-knit family life.


Having achieved a mastery of the essentials of living, the colonists began to consider the arts of living and the architecture reflected this thinking as the utilitarian an pragmatic evolved toward a new design. Forms of Georgian architecture, popularized by Palladio in England were beginning to find their way to America. Unlike Boston, small towns never fully developed this intellectual style, but it did appear in details such as doorways, window treatments and pilasters. The Pearse-May House, already significant for having retained the framing from the early period, was to become a showcase for subsequent architectural periods as development progressed.


The Federal style dominated the last quarter of the 18th century.
Increasingly there was a subtle refinement in detail, and some reflection of the English architect/decorator, Robert Adams. The humble 17th century house which adapted into the Georgian style was becoming larger and more formal and began to show a lighter architectural style with classical detailing on the exterior. The Federal style used brick in a simple rectangular plan, its long side facing the street with the entrance in the center. The central stair hall is still located in the heart of the house, although it now separates two large rooms on either side. The house remains colonial in nature, but the hall has become more of a stair-hall than actual living space. Federal design is characterized by balance and symmetry with a level of detail in which lightness and elegance are in its overall mood. Late Federal exhibited delicate and refined details with sophisticated pilasters and doorways.

Greek Revival Style

Greek Revival

The turn of the century (1800-1860) brought structures with a bold silhouette and proportions. Greek Revival buildings had a classic temple front with a big pedimented gable and inside, the ubiquitous central stair hall. Many had large, free-standing columns or more modest pilasters. The Greek Revival style grew out of admiration for classical Greece. Its spirit offered a perfect aesthetic ideal and its architecture offered a classical vocabulary which adapted to the urbane, the vernacular, the romantic and the rational. It was easy to understand and simple to build. Although they look solid and sound, they are difficult to renovate because they are structurally problematic, having been built rapidly with a hodgepodge of new available materials.

Henry Kitfield House, Gothic Revival Style

Gothic Revival

By the latter part of this period (1840-1860) the influence of the Gothic Revival began to be felt. The rules of ancient Greece were replaced by the more romantic appeal of the past. In a society made uneasy by waves of immigration, crowded cities, emerging class conflicts and a growing disillusionment at the discrepancies between expectation and reality, it was evident that the Greek Revival forms and material prosperity could not mask the confusion of modern life. The early Gothic Revival was a yearning look at an idealized vision of a domestic haven away from urban confusion. The style developed with a great deal of irregularity of form and a bold composition. Characteristic Gothic elements are the chunky cast-iron door, hinges and hardware, steeply pitched cross-gable roofs and wall dormers, and dominant chimneys and vents grouped and decorated as medieval symbols of hearth and home. Window openings are varied in size and shape and tend to be asymmetrical in placement with Gothic moldings above. In a sense this is looking back to the medieval past in England, something the Americans had last copied with their simple salt-box structures and centrally located family hall, but has later moved away from in the 18th c. in a desire from more elaborate surface treatment and refinement.


In 1847, the advent of the railroad providing regular access from Boston to Cape Ann changed everything. The train with its steam-powered locomotives, smoke and noise epitomized the energy of the Victorian period. It brought families from Boston, New York, and Washington, all seeking respite from hot, dirty, crowded cities. The railroad was able to bring in the necessary building materials to areas previously isolated, and large summer estates known as cottages sprouted along the coastline of Cape Ann.

Stick Style

The Stick Style, so named for the exposed framing or sticks on its exterior was an attempt at a new honesty in structural detail. It was also an extension of the Gothic style, and heralded the beginnings of a truly American style of architecture. The interiors of these buildings were picturesque, simple, embellished by shelving and china and the design, including organic wallpapers, showed the influence of William Morris. Externally is was unpretentious and homey.

A new and powerful force began to be felt on the North Shore of Boston as men who had amassed fortunes in the Industrial Revolution looked for ways to spend them. An appealing investment was an elaborate home or estate. Many among this growing class of affluent Americans sought to establish the grandeur of European manor homes. Some of the first structures built locally reflected the influence of the English architect Norman Shaw. Contracting firms grew to meet the demands of these new clients, and the best known of these was Roberts and Hoare. This firm designed many of the structures it built but it also worked with architects McKim, Mead and White, Peabody and Stearn, and Arthur Little. The firm of Roberts and Hoare was started by Oliver T. Roberts, son of a sea captain. The Roberts family had lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts since colonial times.

Shingle Style

Hemenway House, Shingle Style

This was a period of great activity with architects looking back to our colonial past and again, instead of borrowing from Europe, they chose the simple shingled forms that are found along the New England coastline, and combined them in new and imaginative ways, using open floor plans. The result was the creation of a wonderful, comfortable, sophisticated home, as contrasted with the rigidly correct houses of Newport, RI. The shingled houses were suited for their location and adapted to the natural landscape, with stone for walls and cedar shingles stained in natural colors. The forms were similar to the gambrel colonials, shingled and gabled, and reminiscent of turreted lighthouse structures dotting the coastline. House plans reached out in many directions, with one side overlooking a cliff, and another, a gazebo reaching toward a wooded knoll; all turrets and towers covered in the undulating sculptural material of shingles. Large rooms with delicate interior detailing evoked the charm and sweetness of an imagined early colonial ear, and generous porches, verandas and cross ventilation from open windows all created a summer atmosphere. The hall, which included a staircase, had become a central place, a room where the family actually lived. In some ways these great houses were stage sets recreating a past that didnít exist, but they were effective in soothing the souls of tired men in search of tranquility.

Little Orchard House, Colonial Revival Style

Colonial Revival

In the 1890ís, the Shingle style, which had been the domain of the wealthy, was beginning to give way to a more accessible Colonial Revival style, with architectural forms taken from the Federal period with highly refined detailing. Clapboards were replacing shingles and the buildings were painted light colors. There was also a tendency to seek a more formalized architecture as life and entertainment became more structured. The houses grew in size and became more rigid. Elaborate interiors featured huge balconies, colonnaded entrances, and large ornate staircases, and where the hall was a center for both entertaining and home life. Many buildings were built out of brick, a first step in moving away from the forms that integrated with the environment. But despite its large scale, in the center one can find the hall with its fireplace.


The Depression called an end to this elaborate life on Cape Ann, and in the years of WWII, little building took place. After the war life resumed in an approximation of what it had been before, but technology and attitudes had undergone profound changes. New materials such as plywood and sheetrock, and construction forms for modular housing brought forth the new architectural forms of the modern style. Large estates were broken up into new housing lots with new structures and modular homes or had roofs and extraneous portions removed. New homes and schools made older buildings seem obsolete and useless and there was a turning away from many of the qualities of home that the early builders had striven for so many years to provide.

Towns became bedroom suburbs instead of centers of employments and this had a disastrous effect of on housing. When the qualities of life that represent a home are no longer built into a home, when the fireplaces are removed and architecture is a place to hang your hat for the night, then the spirit and soul begin to be lacking. The pervasive concept of urban renewal did its damage as many original structures that had been an integral part of place began to disappear.

But, there has been a strong resurgence of interest in the restoration of old buildings. Many new owners of large old homes try to retain the best elements of former architecture while adapting them to modern lifestyles.

The resulting synthesis of old and new manifests itself in our renovated houses and with it, at the heart of the house, the kitchen, hearth and family room. It is the concept of the hall, no longer symbolic but at the core of life in the home that is revitalized in our new or renovated homes.

It is significant that in the restoration, preservation and adaptive reuse of new homes--cottages big and small--that fit the traditional New England landscape, there has been a desire to preserve a sense of place.

Stephen Holt's relationship with Manchester architecture goes back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the famed local contracting firm of Roberts and Hoare, founded by his great-grandfather, which built many of the beautiful mansions and structures in this town. Stephen, known as a devoted and distinguished preservation architect, is principal of Stephen Roberts Holt Architects of Manchester and has been featured in Progressive Architecture, House and Garden and the Boston Globe Magazine. He lives on Bridge Street with his wife and family.