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Discover New England's Coastal Architecture With Photographer Bret Morgan

Abby Dupes | March 12, 2021 | People Travel

Photographer Bret Morgan explores the style and nostalgia of the summer vacation.

Mallinckrodt Cottage, Jamestown, R.I. PHOTO BY BREET MORGAN
Mallinckrodt Cottage, Jamestown, R.I.

The Shingle style, an iconic American architecture genre, has truly stood the test of time with houses dotted along the New England coast. In his latest book, photographer Bret Morgan, author of Summer Houses by the Sea: The Shingle Style (Rizzoli), focuses his lens on the defining coastal homes of our region. We sat down with Morgan to get his take on this classic architectural design and his idea of the perfect summer escape.

Mountaintop House, Northeast Harbor, Me. PHOTO BY BREET MORGAN
Mountaintop House, Northeast Harbor, Me.

Why do you think the Shingle style maintained its appeal in New England? In an 1886 essay in Century magazine, the architectural critic Mariana Van Rensselaer praised a recently completed house on Boston’s North Shore as seeming “almost as much a part of nature’s first intentions as do the rocks and trees themselves.” Shingle-style houses have long been prized for their tendency to mellow into their natural settings, and for their suitability to a life of leisure lived largely outdoors.

Are there modern elements that blend well with these traditional styles? A fundamental characteristic of the Shingle style was the concept of spatial flow—one room opens broadly to the next, and one level looks to others above or below. This was a radical departure in domestic design, in which a house was customarily planned as a hierarchical arrangement of boxy rooms, stacked on separate floors. The open-plan houses that are popular in New England today echo the spatial innovations of such eminent late-19th century architects as William Ralph Emerson of Boston and John Calvin Stevens of Portland.

How did you become enamored of the Shingle style? As a freshman at Brown University, I first encountered Vincent Scully’s book The Shingle Style & The Stick Style. It elevated this largely forgotten episode of architectural history from obscurity, gave it a name and made it a fountain of inspiration for contemporary architects. Many of the buildings illustrated in Scully’s book were conveniently dotted along the nearby shores of the Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay; they became the focus of my fledgling efforts to study and document the Shingle style.

Tell me about your first experience photographing the style. On one of my early expeditions, I explored McKim, Mead and White’s epochal Newport Casino and then walked down Bellevue Avenue to their equally celebrated Isaac Bell house, only to find it near ruin after decades of neglect. I would later return to photograph it just after it was acquired by the Preservation Society of Newport County, and, most recently, to photograph it for [my new book], after it had undergone a painstaking restoration.

Do you have a favorite New England getaway spot? I always look forward to documenting more of the architectural treasures of Rhode Island and the rugged coast of Maine.

What are the elements of a perfect New England getaway? In my life as a photographer, a memorable day in New England revolves around the opportunity to shoot a thoughtfully designed structure in a striking setting. Every so often, such a day is made unforgettable by cheery homeowners, an affectionate dog, a porch with a stunning view and a cocktail at sunset.

Photography by: Bret Morgan