Research in History of Art & Architecture

 

Architecture and Morality in Antebellum New Bedford

 

By Kayla Rausch

Does architecture manifest social and moral principles? Can we equate ethics with aesthetics? How can historical architectural styles reveal the values of societies in which they were built? My name is Kayla Rausch, a third-year Art History major, and I am the Fall 2021/Spring 2022 recipient of the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! Student Fellowship. Under the supervision of my advisor, Dr. Pamela Karimi, I have been developing my research project entitled Architecture and Morality in Antebellum New Bedford. Because it was home to some of the most affluent in antebellum America, New Bedford, MA, is an ideal location for studying the moral and ethical dimensions of stylistic preferences in American architecture.

My project examines how local architecture was emblematic of the esteemed values upheld by influential and affluent citizens of New Bedford during its Whaling boom in the pre-Civil War era. Amidst such prosperous conditions, the Society of Friends or Quakers—who had fled England to escape religious persecution during the 1600s— embraced simplicity and rejected excess ornamentation in their architecture. Contrasting the opulent Greek and Gothic-revival or the Second Empire styles, which were built and owned by other prosperous New Bedford whaling captions and businesspeople, New Bedford Quakers’ preference for modesty demonstrated that, even within the same society, there were differing ideas of morality and taste.

Examining how the Quakers’ values (which are visually depicted through their architecture) starkly contrasted the elitist ideals promoted through the surrounding structures, I embarked on a tour of the New Bedford Friends Meetinghouse and conducted interviews with experts and members of the Society of Friends. I learned from them how simplicity and transparency are at the heart of their values. Additionally, I have studied how Quakers have long been strong advocates of social activism and committed to racial equality as quintessential components of their faith. Specifically, Quakers played a major role in the abolitionist movement in New England. Though not all Quakers publicly participated in the abolitionist movement, they helped create a safe haven for runaway slaves who came to Massachusetts from the southern states. Quakers also advocated for gender equality, encouraging women to participate in businesses while their men were away and busy with whaling. My research aims to demonstrate how many of these values were manifested in both public and private buildings built and owned by Quakers.

In addition to extensive fieldwork, I have made numerous visits to the New Bedford Free Public Library to investigate nineteenth century society and Quaker history. The library has also afforded me an examination of mainstream nineteenth-century materials, such as architectural pattern books, popular magazines, and early twentieth century New Bedford city atlases. In order to foster a society centered upon the distinguished tastes of the wealthy, many nineteenth century publications worked to promote sophisticated European tastes. These included popular periodicals, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and architectural pattern books, such as Asher Benjamin’s The Architect. These materials were all popular in antebellum New England and largely accessible to the New Bedford population.

 

By comparing and contrasting a wide range of published materials, I have examined which moral values were predominantly promoted and to what end. Given the significant role the Quakers played in all aspects of life in Antebellum New Bedford, I have further explored the reasons behind the marginalization of the Quaker aesthetic preferences in the mainstream and canonical discourse of American architecture.

I have presented my work to the fellowship committee and have been invited by the Director of Fine Arts at the New Bedford Public Schools to deliver a talk about my work to younger students.

As mentioned above, this project was awarded the 2022 New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! Fellowship. In addition, I was a recipient of the Winter/Spring 2022 Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) award. This grant has provided me the opportunity to conduct research about domestic and Quaker architecture of greater New England at the Boston Public Library as an extension of my project through the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! Fellowship. According to my mentor, Professor Karimi, “Kayla’s project is a great example of the high quality of research that undergraduate students at UMass Dartmouth undertake.” I soon plan to publish my work to an undergraduate journal. I also hope to go to graduate school to further study architectural and art history.

 

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