For circus tycoon John Ringling, Baum based a Sarasota, FL, mansion on Venetian and Sevillian precedents.

Heraldic symbols recur throughout a Port Chester, NY, house's woodwork and stained glass.

JULY 2008 » book review

Bronx Virtuoso

The Work of Dwight James Baum
edited by William Morrison
Acanthus Press, New York, NY; 2008
232 pp.; over 400 b/w photographs & drawings; $69
ISBN 978-0-926494-48-0

Reviewed by Eve M. Kahn

Harvey Wiley Corbett was one of the early-20th century's most vocal big-picture Modernists. Not just a prolific Art Deco architect specializing in skyscrapers, he also served on planning committees and co-authored reports calling for drastically reinvented cities. He envisaged ziggurats of towers hundreds of stories tall, connected by helipads and mid-air pedestrian bridges, but at times he confessed that he didn't quite believe such urban renewal would actually produce healthy places to live. In fact, when asked to describe ideal residential architecture, he surprisingly praised a staunch traditionalist architect who built almost nothing more than three stories tall: Dwight James Baum (1886-1939).

Corbett even wrote an outright sentimental foreword to a 1927 monograph about Baum, explaining that well-designed homes like Baum's works could shape children's lifelong tastes in architecture. "Hence the domestic architect is in a way your most important artist," Corbett opined. Of all his era's history-inspired domestic designers, Corbett added, Baum was the most versatile, possessing "the force of will and the adventurous spirit to roam through all styles and all periods and make himself master of them all.[…]He has had the spirit and the gusto to tackle Colonial, Georgian, Italian, Tudor, etc., and to emerge in every case with banners flying."

Since that rapturous essay appeared, however, virtually nothing but a few scholarly articles have been published about Baum. Vintage copies of the gilt-lettered monograph, with nearly 200 plates measuring a sumptuous 17 by 13 inches, now fetch over $1,000. Curiosity has meanwhile kept building about Baum. His major landmarks – including a 1925 Venetian mansion now part of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL, and 1920s Mediterranean and Colonial neighborhoods in the upscale Fieldston and Riverdale sections of the Bronx – have become popular attractions on the architecture-tourism trail. Acanthus Press, as always sensing unmet market demand, has stepped in to offer insights about Baum. But not, alas, with the company's usual depth and flair.

Longtime Acanthus author William Morrison, a Philadelphia-based historian, has "edited" the 1927 volume – that is, expanded it with images of later works plus a new biographical essay by Ronald McCarty, a curator at the Ringling. McCarty reveals that Baum was a farm boy from upstate New York and a shoe salesman's son who somehow vaulted from a Syracuse University architecture degree in 1909 to a marriage to a Syracuse heiress by 1912 and a solo New York City practice by 1915. In a 25-year career, he designed nearly 200 buildings in a dozen states while also writing and editing for Good Housekeeping magazine. Three-quarters of his buildings were homes, mostly charming affordable cottages, along with a few estates like the Ringling. He also applied his virtuosity to the likes of hotels, churches, colleges, hospitals, office buildings, restaurants and clubhouses. No matter how large the budget, he never went overboard with ornament, and on tight budgets he provided gracious touches; his coziest houses have dignified entry porticoes, deep porches under balustraded decks and plentiful latticework for ivy.

McCarty's six-page text, however, leaves some basic questions tantalizingly unanswered – nor does he simply explain that much remains to be researched. How many staffers did Baum have and how did he manage them and win over clients? What books were in his library and how did his work evolve? How do his articles for Good Housekeeping relate to his buildings? Did his children remember him fondly? How have critics evaluated him over the decades: has he been scorned as hopelessly fusty, or do his gable planes and deep overhangs win him any points as a proto-Modernist?

The bulk of the book is undated photos of about 70 structures, organized into chapters by style: Mediterranean, English, Georgian, Colonial and Dutch Colonial. Floor or site plans appear for about half of the works. There are no profiles of patrons, chronologies, design comparisons or analyses, no descriptions of massing, materials or circulation paths. There's no index, either, and the "catalog of works" at the back offers few street addresses, no dates and no indication of which buildings survive.

Despite such fairly dire flaws, this book still fills gaps in the literature. It includes a dozen of Baum's measured drawings, revealing how he guided imaginative craftspeople to carve out gargoyles, swag reliefs, fence finials or entrance fanlights. And almost all of the photos are crisply reproduced, so you can make out and draw inspiration from fine points: raised pegs that cast lively shadows on half-timbering, Greek key patterns in portico latticework, sidelight windowpanes with scalloped rims or whimsical shutter cutouts shaped like songbirds. Even without juicy text for guidance, it's still possible to harvest design ideas from Baum.  

 

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