- Abbott Lowell Cummings, 1923–2017
Abbott Lowell Cummings, the first president of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, died on May 29, 2017, in Elaine Center at Hadley, Massachusetts. He was ninety-four. Instrumental in guiding the VAF during its formative years, he was best known outside our organization as the leading authority on seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century First Period architecture in the American northeast. He will long be remembered as the author of The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625–1725, which won the Alice Davis Hitchcock Award from the Society of Architectural Historians.1 Scholar, preservationist, and educator, he had a profound influence on many VAF members and others in the field of early American architecture, especially in his career as an outstanding teacher at Boston University, Yale University, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he mentored dozens of young scholars. As I was one of his first acolytes, Abbott asked me many years ago to memorialize his life and scholarship at the end of his long and distinguished career.
Born in St. Albans, Vermont, on March 14, 1923, the son of a Congregational minister and sometimes supporter of Norman Thomas, Abbott spent much of his youth living with his beloved paternal grandmother in Southington, Connecticut. This old Yankee helped form his love of genealogy and an appreciation of New England's past. It was she, too, who gave him a membership in the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) at age fifteen.
The budding art historian was educated at Hoosac School in New York (1936–1941), Oberlin College (BA 1945, MA 1946), and Ohio State (PhD 1950), then one of the few universities offering advanced degrees in American architectural history. He quickly learned discretion in speaking of his research after Professor Henry Russell Hitchcock published Cummings's new discoveries on the design and building of the Greek Revival Ohio state capitol in 1948, without credit.
From 1948 to 1951, Abbott taught at Antioch College, while finishing his critical study of Federal-era architectural pattern books by New England builder Asher Benjamin. He drew upon this early interest in Benjamin in later research and publications focused on design in nineteenth-century New England. Following his stint at Antioch, he served as assistant curator for the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 1955, when he was hired as assistant director of SPNEA (now Historic New England) and editor of its journal, Old-Time New England.
We met in 1962, when I was an Oberlin sophomore in a summer program at Historic Deerfield, and Abbott was leading a fast-paced tour of Boston's buildings (known as the "Death March") for the group. Given our mutual history at Oberlin he encouraged me to seek out his old professor, Clarence Ward, and urge him to give me a class on American architecture. This set me on my own career in architectural preservation.
At Oberlin in September 1946, Abbott's master's thesis, "Documentary Histories of Seventeenth Century Houses in Massachusetts Bay" observed that stylistic consistency over the seventeenth century and a time lag for adopting new [End Page 1] design ideas "are confusing to the historian in his attempt to establish a system of dating for the houses of the seventeenth century." He carefully sifted through the documentary evidence of seventy houses in the Commonwealth (many of them no longer standing) with detailed notes on the condition and plan development for those still extant. This was followed—in typical Abbott Cummings fashion—by an appendix of ten building contracts and similar documents, and a full secondary bibliography.
I mention this first exploration of what would become his favorite topic to show how long ago his work on Framed Houses actually began. Over the next thirty-four years Abbott continued his research about what really happened to the (mostly) surviving houses and what changes in structure or style occurred. This was complimented by his work at the American Wing, where he documented all of the New England period rooms that George Francis Dow helped install in the 1920s.
Joining the SPNEA in 1955, Abbott was allowed one day a month for personal...