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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

J.H. Hammatt Billings by Anthony M. Sammarco

In the Milton Cemetery there is a large granite monument with a bronze laurel wreath that commemorates the grave of nineteenth century architect Charles Howland Hammatt Billings (1818-1874,) the son of Ebenezer and Mary Davenport Billings who kept the Blue Hill Tavern on Canton Avenue in Milton in the early nineteenth century. The tavern had been built in 1681 by Roger Billings, but in the early 1820’s it had become an “elegant tavern, boarding house, and fruit gardens, kept by Ebenezer Billings, which is one of the most delightful summer retreats in this neighborhood.”

Hammatt Billings, as he was to be known in his professional life, was apprenticed about 1830 to the noted wood engraver Abel Bowen with whom he remained until 1837 when he joined the architectural office of Ammi Burnham Young who was then in the process of designing the Boston Custom House. With his training as an engraver, Billings was to become a capable designer and trained architect, so when he opened his own architectural office at 460 Washington Street in Boston (now the site of the Registry of Motor Vehicles in the Liberty Tree Building at Washington and Essex Streets) in 1843 he was well rounded in the various aspects of architectural design. Self-proclaimed as a “Designer and Architect,” Billings often worked with his brother Joseph Billings, who was an engineer. This partnership, a loose one at best, would lead Hammatt Billings to design houses, churches, clubhouses, commercial blocks and libraries throughout New England. His style of architecture, which might best be described as the “classically picturesque,” would gain him the commission to design the Boston Museum on Tremont Street in Boston. Designed as an exhibition hall and theatre with monumental Corinthian columns supporting the galleries, the Boston Museum was an early example of the Renaissance Revival in Boston, with a dressed granite fa├žade and arched windows. Billings later went on to design the campus of Wellesley College between 1869 and his death in 1874. Using a picturesque approach to the overall campus design, he had serpentine roads leading to impressive buildings that were ranged around a lake. A talented and gifted architect, it was said of him that “he expressed rather than led his generation” in architectural design.

However, his “Monument to the Pilgrim Forefathers,” begun in 1859, was possibly his best known design. An 83 foot granite base supported a to foot colossal figure of “Faith,” which held a book in one hand and pointed towards the heavens with the other. This monument was thought to be the forerunner of Bartholdi’s State of Liberty, but “Faith” was not finished until twenty five years after Billings’ death, after having been reduced in size and reworked and altered by other artists. However, Hammatt Billings’ grave in Milton proudly proclaims that he was the “Architect to the Monument to Our Pilgrim Forefathers.”

Surprisingly, as an architect Hammatt Billings had shown great talent, but he never really achieved fame. However, in the designing ad illustration of books, which he learned through his apprenticeship with Abel Bowen, he became mildly famous. In 1847 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Billings “the best illustrator of books we have yet in this country.” This was noteworthy praise, as Billings had illustrated Mother Goose for Grown Folks, which was written by Milton author Adeline D. Train Whitney. His illustrations were thought so good that he was commissioned to create “the original likenesses of Tom, Little Eva, Topsy, Legree, and other characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” His career as an illustrator, like that of his career as an architect, was “breathtakingly varied.” He was associated with Gleason’s as well as Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, Boston newsweeklies, of which he was one of numerous illustrators, including Winslow Homer, who made pictorial illustrations. Though not one who forged ahead in architectural design and went on to become well known, Hammatt Billings is one who contributed to the rich fabric of Boston life in the mid 19th century and who gave “visible form to the personal, civil, patriotic, and other public sentiments pervasive at the time in Boston and beyond” and is once again remembered with pride.

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