Kenneth Dalzell: A Maplewood Architect Rediscovered

Feb 1, 2009

How much do the style of a house and its neighbors impact the way Maplewood looks and feels? What may seem to be an intangible quality – the effect of block upon block of solid, well-built yet varied houses evoking traditional styles of previous centuries, surrounded by hundred-year-old shade trees – is, in fact, quickly sensed by homeowners and visitors alike.

This is the town that architect Kenneth Whitney Dalzell helped to create between 1911 and the 1930’s, building on the local culture of simple farmhouses of the late 18th and early 19th century and incorporating both the technology and changing family needs of the early 20th century. The development of Maplewood as a suburb was no accident, but the implementation of a philosophy gaining favor in the early years of the century that families would do well to move from the congested and dirty cities to the fresh air and spaciousness of the small towns that surrounded cities like New York.

Although jobs remained centered in the cities, railroad and trolley lines made the idea of commuting to work possible. Federal and state government tax and banking policies supported and facilitated the idea that a home of one’s own was more than a convenience of space, but, as Edward Hammel wrote in the introduction to Dalzell’s book Homes of Moderate Size, “there is no doubt that the home owner is a more valuable citizen and a more contented dweller in the land than one who is not.”

The American Home

The solution to the problem of crowding in small city apartments, he proposed, was in “the partial unhousing of the city and the development of the suburban districts….Here land values are lower, yet…greatly superior from the standpoint of human habitation to the built-up sections of the city proper.”

Here, Hammel concluded (and Dalzell clearly agreed) “is provided an opportunity to safeguard and perpetuate that great institution – the American Home.”

Kenneth Dalzell, whose life and work was explored in an exhibit at the Durand-Hedden House in 2009, designed and built hundreds of houses in Maplewood between 1911 and the 1930s, as well as the Maplewood Country Club and the Maplewood “Little” Club and stores in Maplewood Village and on Springfield Avenue.

Dalzell’s house designs fulfilled the desire of people in the first third of the 20th century for convenient, comfortable homes in traditional styles based on historical precedents. Dalzell was able to accommodate these trends while creating a variety of appealing buildings that continue to enhance our community and function well for the families who live in them almost a century later.

He lived in a house of his own design on Walton Road for a time, and designed and built a house for his family in Short Hills to which they moved in 1923.

Positioning himself as “a pioneer of small house planning,” he published Homes of Moderate Size, his first book, in 1921, illustrated with some 40 homes of various sizes (most of them built in Maplewood) in traditional styles based on Colonial, English and Mediterranean prototypes.

A Collaborative Effort

The discovery of his book in the Maplewood Memorial Library led to a major research project that was a collaborative effort of Durand-Hedden, Preservation Maplewood and the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission in cooperation with the Maplewood Building Department.

The fruits of that research include photos of about 40 Maplewood houses as designed by Dalzell and as they appear today. In addition, the group tracked down close to 300 houses in town that were designed by this prolific architect and builder.

Creating Comfort and Familiarity

Drawing inspiration from early towns and villages in America, but also in England and Italy, most of the homes built in Maplewood and other suburbs were designed in a variety of historical revival styles, an architectural tradition that made use of stylistic elements from older periods and applied them to modern houses.

These houses had all the latest conveniences and modern technology to make life comfortable for their inhabitants, but they drew on design details from a previous time for their particular associations. These houses tended to fall into two types -- either a classical revival style that used early American precedents or a more picturesque type, with details and massing from Norman and Tudor periods in England or the Mediterranean. Dalzell used both of these traditions in his work, which can be seen throughout Maplewood.

Colonial Revival: American Roots

Like many architects of the period, Dalzell most commonly used the Colonial Revival style, which follows the classical tradition and is rooted in America’s past. It has been Americans’ most popular design source from the time of the American Centennial in 1876 to today. Its use suggests a “real,” true American style for the home and neighborhood (and by extension to the homeowner) with its references to the earliest American house designs.

Design details common to this style include an emphasis on the central entranceway, which is often enhanced by special windows or pediments and framing around the front door. The home’s windows tend to be double-hung with small, individual panes, representing the type of windows that would have been used in the eighteenth century. These houses lend themselves to endless variations, from a grand Georgian to a modest Cape Cod, and often have a simple, symmetrical silhouette.

The Picturesque Style: European Influence

Dalzell also worked with what he referred to as English and Italian Revival styles, both part of the picturesque architectural tradition. His houses based on English precedents ranged from cozy Cotswold cottages to grand English manor houses, but they all showed a more rambling, less-symmetrical aspect than his Colonial Revival styles. These houses are usually faced with masonry (stone, brick or stucco), and often have steeply-pitched roofs with prominent chimneys. Their windows tend to have either leaded glass or casement windows, while bay windows and oriels are common.

Dalzell’s Italianate designs are part of what is called the Mediterranean Revival style, usually implying stucco-covered walls and low-pitched tiled roofs, suggestive of houses in countries around the Mediterranean. Window and door openings are usually round-headed and are often fronted by wrought iron railings or small balconies.

Artistic Benefit to the Community

In all his house designs, Dalzell worked to achieve an “artistic” effect for the benefit of the homeowners as well as the entire community. Those who live here today can be grateful that architects such as Dalzell and other community leaders and residents cared about such ideas and executed them so well.

“I don’t believe there is anyone who has a greater interest in Maplewood than I have….I have shown a great deal of consideration in trying to make a better community, rather than trying to see just how much money I can make out of it.”

Kenneth W. Dalzell, The Maplewood Record, Sept. 7, 1923

Virginia Kurshan contributed to this article.

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