Saturday, April 30, 2011

H.M. Francis, architect of Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Fig. 1: Henry Martyn Francis
For the past year I have been researching H.M. Francis (Fig. 1) (1836-1908), an architect who designed many homes and commercial buildings in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. The Fitchburg Historical Society bequeathed a very large amount of blueprints, drawings and other materials from a descendant of Francis in the 1970s. For a long time, these documents were kept in the Society's attic before volunteers began to ask to work with them, identify them, and understand what was in the collection. I spent the summer of 2010 at the Society creating an inventory of buildings designed by H.M. Francis and his firm, H.M. Francis & Sons. Other Society volunteers had started similar inventories and I was able to use their drafts to cross-reference with mine. They relied heavily on buildings that still stood at the time they were drafting, e.g. many drafts had a check-column of buildings still standing in the year 1997, 1985, etc. The other volunteers were also able to make use of a very large building survey from the 1970s that Fitchburg had created. This survey included pictures and information about hundreds of buildings still standing in the 1970s, not just pertinent to H.M. Francis. A newer draft of the survey was created in 1996 with notes of what buildings had been demolished since the previous edition.

Fig. 2: A screenshot of the inventory
I started my inventory (Fig. 2) by going through the entire lot of plans and drawings, keeping track of every name and every date I could find on the physical documents. This approach took much longer than expected, as the plans were wholly disorganized and many were in incredibly rough shape. Since H.M. Francis is a very beloved figure amongst historians and artists in Fitchburg, I was able to go through several archival boxes of information that had been assembled by past volunteers.

Fig. 3: Cover of the 1880 Fitchburg City Directory
Some of the information they had gathered were advertisements for the architectural firm found in the Fitchburg City Directories (Fig. 3). The city directory being a predecessor to today's Yellow Pages. Other documents included in the archives were photocopies of Francis's obituary, as well as his first son Frederick's (1870-1919). I had been told by the curator of the Society that Frederick was a very smart man. He graduated near the top of his class at M.I.T. and was a very skilled artist. Through I was able to track down a passport application for Frederick (Fig. 4). I think he spent about six months to a year in Europe, possibly as an artist's apprentice or maybe just visiting. Amongst the architectural drawings at the Society was a small collection of Frederick's drawings from abroad. Many were drawings of arches and facades of European buildings. A few were pictures of statues and sculptures he may have seen while visiting museums and major cities. As it turns out, Frederick  also served in World War I (his obituary says he was in Washington doing "war work" and unfortunately, suffered a nervous breakdown. According to his obituary, Frederick committed suicide in 1919.

Fig. 4: Frederick Francis's passport application, dated June 1895.
Another peculiar artifact in the archival boxes was a passport for Albert Francis (1876-1946), H.M.'s second son. I had been told that along with his brother Frederick, Albert was an architect himself, though not of the same prestige as his older brother. After Frederick's death, Albert continued the firm and designed many garages and alterations to already existing Francis designs. Albert passed away in 1946. The peculiarity of Albert's passport was two-fold. First, the entire section of entry-and-exit stamps had been torn out. All that remained was the beginning pages that detailed Albert's identity, place of birth, address, etc. The second odd feature was that Albert's occupation was listed as "Motion Picture Producer." I was told by the curator that many volunteers and Society members have scratched their heads over the years trying to solve the mystery of when Albert shed his title of Architect and adopted his new guise as Motion Picture Producer. I hope to spend more time digging through the Society's archives to try and find answers to these small mysteries.

I'm hoping to redo the inventory this summer and add more information to it. I've been going through many Internet resources to find pictures of existing Francis buildings and digitized drawings of ones that no longer stand. I've made many good contacts along this journey and hope to have a much more detailed, accessible resource by the end of the summer.

Introduction/First Post

My name is Matt and I am a History student attending Fitchburg State University.

This blog will be a journal for my research.
I'll also post links to other historians working on similar projects and the occasional news story.

You can contact me at goguen [dot] matthew [at] gmail [dot] com.

I hope you enjoy it.