Reviving the Colonial Revivalist

Charles S. Keefe at his drafting board in Kingston, February 1905 (Friends of Historic Kingston)

At the end of Kingston, New York: The Architectural Guide, author William Rhoads devotes a chapter to local architects, including four who worked in the Colonial Revival style: Charles Keefe, Myron Teller, Harry Halverson and Gerard Betz. Keefe, who had a practice in New York City, was the most prominent and, as it happens, of special interest to Rhoads. Back in 1975, Rhoads’ wife, Sally, discovered a cache of Keefe’s papers at a Stone Ridge antique store. The couple subsequently purchased the trove, and the seed of a book was born, which has now come to fruition. Titled Charles S. Keefe, 1876-1946: Colonial Revival Architect in Kingston and New York, the comprehensive 268-page volume, published by Black Dome Press, provides a fascinating glimpse into American architectural practice in the first half of the 20th century. It includes many of Keefe’s charming sketches and etchings, as well as detailed appendices listing Keefe’s clients, publications, staff, renderers of his designs and even Christmas-card recipients. Keefe is now officially back on the architectural historical map.

Rhoads will be autographing copies on the book launch on Saturday, May 5 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Friends of Historic Kingston Gallery, which will be accompanied by the opening of a new exhibit of Keefe’s architectural drawings and prints. Full of character, with a loose-but-assured line, they include street scenes of down-at-heel commercial buildings in lower Manhattan and a depiction of the historic Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.

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Patterson house, North Salem, NY (American Home)

Keefe was born in Kingston in 1876 and had a successful career in the ’teens and 1920s designing guest and caretakers’ cottages, garages, stables and even kennels on sumptuous private estates, as well as houses and Colonial Revival redos of existing homes in tony Darien, Connecticut and other upper-class Northeastern communities. Many of his designs were published in architectural and shelter magazines, in some cases winning awards; he also authored a book, The American House, which was published in 1922 and featured his illustrations of houses by various architects representing popular contemporary styles.

In 1911, he designed the house on Lucas Avenue, on the outskirts of Kingston, where he and his wife, Grace, resided until their deaths, regularly traveling from New York City back to Kingston in the 1920s. At the onset of the Depression, he was forced to close his New York office, and thereafter worked from a room in his Kingston home. While Keefe is “typical of dozens of architects across the country of his generation, he had ambition and got his work published more than most of those people in highly regarded architectural journals and popular household magazines,” said Rhoads. “He got his name out.” Furthermore, his legacy has survived: perhaps the most unusual aspect of his story. “It’s very uncommon for an architect’s papers to be preserved after their death, especially for an architect who is not really, really famous,” Rhoads said.

Rhoads credits Keefe’s widow, Grace, for preserving them. In her 1954 will, she instructed the executors to publish a book “consisting of the photographs and plans of the houses” designed by her late husband. Upon her death in 1971, the estate lacked the money to do so, and much of Keefe’s letters, illustrations, photos, plans and other material was bought by Robert H. Palmatier, owner of Thumbprint Antiques in Stone Ridge, where they were discovered by Rhoads’ wife (the couple have since donated them to the Friends of Historic Kingston).

The Keefe documents could not have fallen into better hands: The architect was the perfect subject for Rhoads, given that the professor emeritus of Art History at SUNY-New Paltz is an expert on the Colonial Revival style, having written his PhD dissertation on the topic while he was a graduate student at Princeton University. Following the publication of his second architectural guide, Ulster County, New York: The Architectural History and Guide, in 2011, Rhoads spent the next five years researching and writing the Keefe book.

The foreword was written by architectural scholar Richard Guy Wilson, who notes that Rhoads has resurrected an architect, otherwise fated to be forgotten, as a major figure in the Colonial Revival style. “The real impact of [Keefe’s] work is seen in smaller towns and through the many publications in which he was involved,” writes Wilson. He also provides a context, noting that the Colonial Revival style was sparked by a budding historic-preservation movement and, more specifically, the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 and its patriotic celebration of American history. Rhoads said that his own interest in the style dates from when he was a child growing up in Harrisburg and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and was curious as to why his parents “were fans of old Colonial things.”

Keefe’s Irish Catholic father had emigrated to Kingston from Vermont and was employed at a hardware supply store on Wall Street; his mother was descended from an old Hudson Valley Dutch family. He had attended – but never graduated from – the Kingston Academy (at that time the public high school) and was listed as “architect” in the 1898 Kingston City Directory. In the first years of the 20th century, he was employed as a draftsman by Myron Teller (famous for “Tellerizing” – adding cozy dormers, built-in cabinets and forged iron hardware to 18th-century stone houses, making them look more “Colonial” than they probably ever did). A photograph of Keefe from that time shows a thoughtful, spiffily dressed young man seated at his drafting board. In 1907, following his marriage to Grace de la Montanye, a fellow student at the Kingston Academy (she subsequently attended a training school for teachers and was a member of the women’s Olympian Club), he departed for New York City, where he was hired by the architectural firm Burnett and Hopkins.

It was a coup: Alfred Hopkins had trained at the distinguished École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the firm had an established niche designing farm and country buildings for wealthy estates owned by the likes of banker Otto Kahn and railroad baron Frederick Vanderbilt. In 1910 Hopkins paid for his protégé to take an extended tour of Europe. As instructed, Keefe wrote down his observations in frequent letters to Hopkins while touring the architectural landmarks of England, France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, describing the latter country as “the mainstream when it comes to architecture” even as he objected that Italy “is rather dirty to my mind (and nose too). The men over here piss in the most public way I ever saw.” (Those comments were edited out by Hopkins when he typed up Keefe’s notes for distribution around the office.)

At that time, “Riding horses and having the most up-to-date dairy farm was the thing” for the very rich, Rhoads said. “John Russell Pope and Delano and Aldrich, who are now very famous in the architectural hierarchy, were doing the great houses, and they would let little Charles Keefe do the employees’ quarters.” He noted that in those days, many budding architects did not attend architectural school: “You could train as a draftsman in the office, which is what he did first in Kingston, before hooking up with Hopkins,” Rhoads said. Keefe’s success was no doubt aided by “a certain amount of charm,” as evident in the humorous asides in his letters to colleagues and clients. Keefe was a bibliophile, and “he seems to have connected [with his clients] on subjects such as dogs,” Rhoads noted.

Bellows House bow window and hollyhocks, New Canaan, CT (American Architect)

In 1920 he left Hopkins and started his own firm, designing houses in the gated Darien community of Tokeneke and elsewhere in the upper-class Connecticut, New York and New Jersey suburbs and in New England and the Hudson Valley, with a concentration in his native city. In the late 1930s, he designed alterations and additions to Lowell Thomas’ house in the upscale community of Quaker Hill in Pawling, which earned a mention in House & Garden. Through Thomas’ connection, Keefe also did work for Thomas E. Dewey, future governor of New York and Republican candidate for president, making alterations to the main house on a working farm that Dewey had purchased in Quaker Hill.

His other clients included mining and oil executives, investment bankers, people who’d gotten rich off their investments in Standard Oil and Woolworth’s and professionals. He did designs for industrialist E. Hope Norton, who developed the Guayaquil & Quito Railway in Ecuador and was a founder of Tokeneke. Not surprisingly, the architect was politically conservative, a registered Republican who hated the New Deal – though poignantly, days before he died, in July 1946, he had planned to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt to discuss a rehab school for delinquent boys for which she had raised the funds.

Keefe was, however, atypical in his employment and support of women. A letter of recommendation that he wrote in 1920 on behalf of one of his female employees, which is reprinted in one of the Appendices, shows the deep, professional respect he had for her abilities, as well as the significant responsibility with which she was entrusted. A decade later, in responding to a trained woman architect seeking work as a draftsman in his office, he wrote that, while he unfortunately had no opening and “some offices will not consider a woman in the drafting room, I have no such prejudices. I had a young woman in such a capacity but was obliged to drop her on account of business conditions.” He then generously went on to recommend the types of architects and places where she was most likely to find work.

Keefe initially hoped to design banks and prisons – a type of work he had done while working for Hopkins – before finding his niche with residences. He did, however, design two civic buildings in Kingston, both located near City Hall: the Knights of Columbus building, whose large arched central window on the façade is a classical grace note, and the American Legion Memorial Building on O’Reilly Street, noteworthy for its two-story, four-column front portico. Designed in 1926, it was meant to serve as a place where welfare work was done for veterans, Rhoads comments that the building was “designed primarily as a Prohibition-era clubhouse.” Keefe was himself a veteran – he had served in the Spanish-American War.

While Keefe’s house designs occasionally incorporated Tudor elements, such as stone walls and casement windows, his most consistent model was the Cape Cod: a style he admired on numerous vacations that he and Grace took on the Cape (Colonial New England inspired him, rather than the Dutch tradition of his native Hudson Valley). His exteriors were typically clad in cypress shingles – either left to weather or painted white – and had cedar-shingle roofs. There was always a brick fireplace, a porch and, in some cases, a breezeway connecting the house to the garage. Sometimes he’d design a simple pedimented porch at the front entrance, framed by two built-in benches: a cottage touch. He also extended his houses horizontally, adding windows, a garage and perhaps a garden house. For one client, William Thompson Rice – a resident of Pittsfield, Massachusetts who ran his family’s silk-sewing-thread firm and was a member of the New York Social Register and treasurer of the local polo club – he even designed an “old New England radio cabinet” built out of pine, complete with wrought-iron hinges; the basement was to be transformed into an old tavern with the addition of an ingle nook, built-in seats and paneling.

Keefe’s commission for the Crane Museum – a transformation of an 1844 stone building on the grounds of Crane & Co., manufacturer of paper for US currency, located in the Berkshires – reflected the trend among businesses in the 1920s to preserve and celebrate American history through their patronage of museums (the most prominent of which was the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan). He added a portal window over the front entrance, columned doorways and shutters to the former storage building and installed wooden ceiling beams (actually steel girders cased in wood), an oak plank floor and a fireplace to the interior; the building survives as the Crane Museum of Papermaking.

Keefe left thousands of drawings, everything from tiny tracing-paper scraps to detailed perspective drawings. “He actually described himself as an artist, as well as an architect,” Rhoads noted. Indeed, the compelling composition of his drawings and etchings, their storybook swells of stylized clouds and the droll, subtle hues of his watercolors are delightful, conveying a character that transcends the dryness of architectural rendering.

 While the Depression “knocked him out, he did persevere and, unlike some architects who had to close up shop completely, he continued to make ends meet,” said Rhoads, noting that he worked right up until his death at age 70, after complications from a fall suffered when he was dining in a restaurant in Manchester, Vermont during a construction supervision trip.

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While a number of Keefe’s houses elsewhere have been torn down – new homeowners in upper-crust towns like Darien have replaced the modestly proportioned traditional houses on their properties with ostentatious monstrosities – fortunately in Kingston they have survived. Which are Rhoads’ favorites? “In terms of driving along the street, the Stanley Matthews house [located on Lounsbury Place] appeals to me and others,” he said. “It’s a little more Tudor than Colonial.” The Friends of Historic Kingston are publishing a self-guided driving tour of 15 Keefe buildings, so you can check out Keefe’s architecture for yourself – and appreciate the sensitivity, livability and intimate charm of his designs.

A book launch for Charles S. Keefe, 1876-1946: Colonial Revival Architect in Kingston and New York will be held at the Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK) Gallery at the corner of Wall and Main Streets in Kingston on Saturday, May 5, with a book-signing by author William Rhoads from 2 to 4 p.m. The accompanying exhibit, “Charles Keefe: Colonial Revival Architect, Kingston and New York,” will have its opening on May 4 and 5 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and remain open thereafter on Fridays and Saturdays through October. For more information, visit www.fhk.org or call (845) 339-0720.

Charles S. Keefe book-signing with William Rhoads, Saturday, May 5, 2-4 p.m., Friends of Historic Kingston Gallery, Wall/Main Streets, Kingston; (845) 339-0720, www.fhk.org.

Proposed Charles Inslee house, Newton, NJ, 1927-28 (Friends of Historic Kingston)