Wilson Eyre

Architect, United States
In 1901, Wilson Eyre’s interest in domestic architecture and interior furnishings led
him to help found the magazine House and Garden, a journal that was the mouthpiece for the Arts and
Crafts movement in Philadelphia. Espousing the beauty of well-integrated gardens and
homes, the magazine was coedited and illustrated by Eyre until the magazine changed
hands in 1905. By then, Eyre was a noted specialist in the design of country houses in
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Pennsylvania, and his commissions took him as far afield as New Hampshire, Louisiana,
Delaware, and Michigan, leading him to establish a second office in New York City.
In 1912 he joined the firm of Gilbert McIlvaine (1880–1939) as a principal designer.
However, his architectural practice waned during the 1920s and 1930s, ultimately
collapsing with McIlvaine’s death in 1939. By the time of Eyre’s own death five years
later, he had designed nearly 350 buildings, most of them domestic and suburban in
nature but also including a pair of hospitals, a museum, several churches and college
buildings, one office building, and a miscellany of lesser-scaled commercial and retail
establishments.
Although Eyre’s work primarily reflected his English-inspired eclectic taste, he
mastered an architectural expression that would be eclipsed by modernism, which might
explain his relative obscurity at the end of the century. In retrospect, his unwillingness to
embrace the latest modern style is not surprising, as its proponents made problematic just
the sort of vague historicity that typified Eyre’s architectural vocabulary.
Eyre sought to forge a truly American or, in many of his Philadelphia projects, a truly
Pennsylvanian architectural expression out of an architectural tradition dominated by
Europe and England. In this regard, he can be compared with contemporary California
architects, such as Bernard Maybeck (1862–1957), Irving Gill (1870–1936), and Charles
(1868–1957) and Henry (1870–1954) Greene, who sought regional styles of building.
Eyre’s country houses often featured asymmetrical massing in picturesque arrangements
with a blend of traditional and original forms and details. Large buildings allowed Eyre to
fully exercise his architectural eye, although he decried the excessive use of ornament as
well as the slavish copying of period styles. In rural or suburban settings, Eyre strove to
recall a rusticated protoEnglish aesthetic without resorting to re-creating outright Tudor,
Jacobean, or Elizabethan houses.
Eyre’s typically designed his houses based on a system of zones: one that comprised
of dining room, parlor(s), bedrooms of the homeowners, and a servants’ zone consisting
of kitchen, pantry, servants’ quarters, and other functions of utility. Eyre often
manipulated form to visually distinguish one function from the other, pushing out or
pulling in walls in an effort to articulate zones as wings or multistory masses. Consistent
window head and/or sill heights, as well as a continuous eave height, were elements used
to horizontally wrap both zones together in an integrated composition. This approach to
design was more evident in his suburban commissions than in his urban houses, as the
former afforded the opportunity to conceive buildings as freestanding objects surrounded
by and shaping an equally malleable garden space.
The Charles Lang Freer House (Detroit, 1890), a major commission, comprised a
three-story mass capped by a dominating hip roof with gables and two prominent ashlar
chimneys protruding above. This overall form abutted a two-story wing of spaces that
included the kitchen, servants’ dining room, shed, and stable, a lesser form also
punctuated by gables, chimneys, and the rounded masonry arch of the shed. The “served”
wing was organized in plan around a stand-alone fireplace located within the central
stairway hall, a space at the culmination of a carefully designed arrival sequence. The
fireplace with its woodcarved mantle was situated as a freestanding object in the center of
the great hall (an unusual design move for Eyre, who usually articulated such elements as
part of the wall plane), partly obscuring the stairway wrapping around the hall. Eyre was
a careful designer of furnishings as well as of the larger planning and articulation of
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building forms, and his clients looked to their architect for exquisite detailing and a
commitment to highquality materials and craftsmanship.
In the Conklin House (Huntington, Long Island, 1905–10) the three-story central mass
was flanked symmetrically by two lesser wings, one containing servant spaces and the
other a study and a music room; the upper floors were dedicated to bedroom spaces and a
playroom. The central space is a double-height living room with a stair gallery, with
quartered white oakpaneled walls and ceiling stained a dark greenish brown. Five
carefully placed paintings taken from a European monastery were intended by architect
and owner to accompany the heavy timber aesthetic of the box beams overhead and their
accompanying knee braces. However, the focal point of this central space was a pipeorgan
panel arranged in a triptych-like composition at the far end of the space. The
intended effect was to impart a refined sense of the antique.
Eyre’s attempts to create fine details within nostalgic and tastefully proportioned
masses has placed him in the company of other contemporary Philadelphia architects,
such as Walter Cope (1860–1902), John Stewardson (1858–96), and Frank Miles Day
(1861–1918). High standards of construction remained a hallmark of Eyre’s work, and
this extended well beyond his own drawing board and onto those of the artists and
artisans whom he enlisted in many of his commissions. He associated closely with a
number of American artists, including Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966) and Alexander
S.Calder (1898–1976), and he took great effort to meld an artist’s work or a collected art
object into his own so that the overall aesthetic effect was perceived harmoniously.

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