Utopian Arts & Crafts Communities

Four Arts & Crafts communities in the U.S.

Onetime worker’s cottages, each of which housed two families, still stand in the Borough of Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.

Rose Valley
Media, Pennsylvania
Home to the awe-inspiring Schoenhaus, William Lightfoot Price’s Rose Valley took root in 1901, when the architect purchased an 80-acre tract of land west of Philadelphia. Unlike Hubbard, who conceived the Roycroft campus primarily as a business venture, Price was driven by an idealistic vision of a utopian community where Arts & Crafts principles would take center stage. During its initial years, Rose Valley was home to furniture and pottery studios and a printing press, producing handcrafted items stamped with the community’s official seal, a blooming rose overlapped with a “V” and encircled with a belt. This commercial side of the community lasted only a few years, but as a social and architectural experiment, it flourished. The houses within Rose Valley were designed by Price with an eye toward democracy of dwelling—he envisioned a community in which “the tiniest cottages may be built side by side with a more spacious neighbor.” He remodeled some homes that already existed on the land and built others new, filling them with the work of regional artisans like Samuel Yellin and Henry Chapman Mercer. The community members who inhabited these homes regularly gathered for creative pursuits, staging concerts, dances, and plays at the Guild Hall. The Rose Valley residents successfully petitioned to have the community designated as an official borough in 1923.

Aurora, New York

The stable of copper work, furniture, and hand-bound books produced by the eponymous Roycrofters at the turn of the century is among the cream of the crop for today’s Arts & Crafts collectors, making Elbert Hubbard’s community unarguably the most famous among America’s Arts & Crafts colonies. Hubbard, a shrewd businessman who amassed his wealth selling soap in the late 1800s, initially founded Roycroft as a small-scale printing press, inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. As Hubbard’s books grew in popularity, visitors began arriving in droves. An inn (still in operation today) was built to house them, and Hubbard brought in skilled craftsmen to create furnishings for it. Soon, Roycroft became a full-fledged campus devoted to the Arts & Crafts, encompassing more than a dozen buildings and employing 500-plus workers. The community lasted until the late 1930s (surviving Hubbard’s 1915 death aboard the Lusitania), turning out such Arts & Crafts luminaries as Dard Hunter, Jerome Connor, and Alexis Fournier. Over the past two decades, the campus has been restored to its former glory and is now open for tours.

Woodstock, New York

After absorbing the philosophies of John Ruskin as a student at Oxford, wealthy Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead emigrated to the U.S. and, in 1902, set about creating his own vision of a utopian Arts & Crafts community in New York’s Catskills. Byrdcliffe (an amalgam of Whitehead’s middle name and that of his wife, socialite Jane Byrd McCall) was completed in 1903 under the direction of Stanford art professor Bolton Coit Brown, and its 1,200 acres comprised metalworking and woodworking shops, art and pottery studios, a dairy barn, living quarters, and a dance hall. Despite Whitehead’s best intentions, the community lasted only a few years as a self-sustaining utopia—by 1905, both of his partners, Brown and sociologist Hervey White, had jumped ship over disagreements about how the community should be run. However, to this day, Byrdcliffe remains a retreat for artists (Bob Dylan lived in one of the colony’s houses during the ’60s and early ’70s). A grant from the National Trust currently funds efforts to preserve Byrdcliffe’s distinctive chalet-style buildings; structural repairs to White Pines (the Whiteheads’ original residence) were completed in 2005.

New Clairvaux
Montague, Massachusetts

What sets New Clairvaux apart from other Arts & Crafts communities of the period is its religious affiliations, evident in its name, which was adapted from the 12th-century monastic community headed by Saint Bernard. Founded in 1902 by Harvard-educated Unitarian minister Edward Pearson Pressey, New Clairvaux featured a series of guilds clustered around a public green, dedicated to everything from education to the dramatic arts to textile- and furniture-making. A Village Shop was devoted to selling the works of New Clairvaux’s artisans in order to sustain the community financially; community members also farmed the land to provide food. At the heart of the New Clairvaux community were the socialist ideals espoused by Pressey—voluntary cooperation, self-sufficiency, and a dedication to the simple life. With only 21 members at its peak, the community of New Clairvaux was short-lived, and had essentially dissolved by 1909.

Tags: | Online Exclusive arts & crafts Clare M. Alexander OHJ January/February 2010 Old-House Journal

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