About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

ABBOTT LOWELL CUMMINGS, MENTOR TO MANY




Abbott Lowell Cummings

Students of New England architecture, preservationist and lovers of early Massachusetts houses were saddened recently to learn of the death of Abbott Lowell Cummings, a man who had a great influence on so many people especially in my circle of preservationist friends.

After relocating in Newburyport, MA in 1971 just as urban renewal was getting off the ground, we soon found ourselves in close contact with others, like us, who had been drawn to Newburyport for its collection of decaying 18th and 19th century houses that had been languishing for years, shabby, run down but with mouth watering features and historic integrity just waiting to be rescued.

From time to time I would hear someone say something about " Abbott says....."  Who was Abbott?

I soon found out that Abbott Cummings was the undisputed expert on early houses and also Federal period houses inspired by Asher Benjamin of which Newburyport had many.

In 1979 he published his great book, "Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay", the bible for early houses then and still the best reference book out there.  An amazing book!

As time went on and I knew he would be speaking somewhere I attended.  One memorable talk was one that he gave in the late 1980s at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society in Boston (NEHGS) at one of their "Come Home to New England"  summer programs.  The subject was "The Homes of Our Ancestors".  Tapes of his talk were sold and I played mine over and over in the car soaking up what he had said as I drove around.

Another memorable event was when my son, Bob, and I took a tour with Abbott through the Gedney house in Salem, an early mostly shell of a 17th century house of four rooms.  The tour took hours!  I left the house with my brain on overload, dizzy from what I had absorbed or tried to absorb.  How could there be so much to learn in an empty house?


Gedney House, c 1665

Interior of the Gedney House, Salem, Ma

It was there that I first heard Abbott talk about dendrochronology as he pointed out the tree rings in a girt above a doorway.  That was long before dendro became available in New England.

In 2007 I was to be involved in a rare opening of the 1710 White-Ellery house in Gloucester.  It is open on a regular basis these days but prior to this event had been closed up for many years.  I wrote to Abbott and asked him if he would come and perhaps say a few words about the house.  Much to my joy he accepted the invitation.

White Ellery new claps and cornice.JPG
White-Ellery House, Gloucester, MA  1710

He had previously been in the house in the 1950s with Alfred Mansfield Brooks, president of the Cape Ann Historical Association.  Not only did he come but he had the notes that he had originally taken when viewing the house nearly fifty years before.  He  spoke in front of a large crowd, too many to fit in the house, the rest of us listening through the open windows.

I was fortunate to visit him several times after he retired to Deerfield and discuss features that had left me puzzled.  Those visits were truly memorable events.

Lunch with Abbott Cummings in Deerfield, MA

In 1979 I bought "Framed Houses" and used it until it was shabby and falling apart but thanks to eBay I found another first edition online.  Just as I had done with the first one I asked Abbott to sign it. When he did he commented that I was the first to have worn on my original book and replaced it for him to sign again just as he had with the first one probably 30 years before.

He was 94 years old when he died and left legions of followers who relied on him as the ultimate expert.

The following is an obituary written by he long-time associate, Richard Candee.  It is perhaps the longest obituary I have ever read but there is no way to abbreviate his work and tribute to his life.

Here is the link which is probably more efficient than copying the long obituary but I hope you will read it and appreciate the legacy of this remarkable man to those of us who love old houses.  It was written by his long time associate, Richard Candee.

https://www.antiquesandthearts.com/abbott-lowell-cummings-94/

Abbott Cumming's scholarship and influence will always be remembered by those who knew and respected him...and there are many.

Pru

Three old timers.  Abbott Cummings,  Elizabeth Hough, benefactor of the
Sargent House Museum in Gloucester and Harold Bell, then president 
of the Cape Ann Historical Association, now Cape Ann Museum.   All
three made contributions to preservation and all now passed on. 
Pru Fish Photo  1990s


2 comments:

  1. Hello Prudence, I am sorry to hear about the death of Abbott Lowell Cummings. I knew him from when I took his course at Yale about Federal Architecture--he seemed to know everything about Federal architectural as well as Colonial. His standards were always high and he was very available to help students. A while ago I mentioned Cummings on my blog concerning his relationship with his Vassar grandmother. In response, he sent me information about his family, together with a copy of some memories his grandmother had written down--a testament to how seriously early Vassar students took education, family, and civic responsibilities.

    http://roadtoparnassus.blogspot.com/2012/02/astronomical-coincidence-at-old-vassar.html

    --Jim

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  2. What a small world. I also enjoyed reading your blog...all very interesting. How lucky you were to have had a class with Abbott. I would have loved to have had that class. Deep as I have been into first period houses I prefer Federals. Having sold real estate in Ipswich for many years first period houses, of which Ipswich has many, caught my attention. I just added two photos of Abbott that I had forgotten when I posted.

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