In 1856, the year that thirty-year-old Thomas Alexander Tefft embarked on an educational and architectural tour of Europe—from which he would not return alive—Massachusetts bard John Greenleaf Whittier published his famous poem “Maud Muller,” containing these memorable lines: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” In some sense, Whittier wrote Tefft’s epitaph. Thomas Alexander Tefft was a very important Rhode Island architect, despite his youthfulness and very brief career. Had he lived long, say the critics, he would have been a major American architect.
Tefft was born in rural Richmond, Rhode Island on Aug. 2, 1826, outside of the small village of Wood River Junction. He was the fourth child of William C. and Sarah Tefft. He experienced poor health as a child, unable to exert himself physically. Because of his condition, he developed an early interest in books. At the age of 10, he enrolled at a school kept by Elisha Baggs. During his later adolescence, Tefft taught at a local schoolhouse.
Young Thomas was brilliant and had a talent for drawing. These attributes were discovered by school agent Henry Barnard when he was conducting his statewide survey of public education in 1843 and 1844. Acting on Barnard’s advice, Tefft moved to Providence in 1845 and enrolled at Brown University (probably with Barnard’s sponsorship) in 1847. During his four collegiate years, he worked as a draftsman for Tallman & Bucklin. He might have selected this architectural firm because it was the largest in the city, but as Barnard’s protégé he probably selected it because of the recent work the company had done in constructing ten primary schools, six grammar schools and the first Providence high school (1843) in accordance with plans set in motion in 1840–41 by school committee chairman Thomas Wilson Dorr.
Tefft made his mark immediately. While only a twenty-one-year-old freshman at Brown, he designed (with James Bucklin’s guidance) one of the architectural marvels of mid-nineteenth-century Providence: The Union Passenger Depot of the Providence-Worcester Railroad Company. At the time of its completion in 1848, on filled land once part of Providence’s saltwater cove, it was the largest train station in the country, spanning 625 feet in length. As late as 1885, this Romanesque structure was selected in an architectural survey as one of the twenty best-designed buildings in the United States. This massive building (destroyed by fire in 1896) embodied the two principal architectural interests that occupied Tefft until his untimely death: the introduction of ornamental brick architecture to the United States and the employment of a building style based on the tenth- and eleventh century round-arched Romanesque architecture of Italy and Germany, a form of construction then being revived in Berlin and Munich.
While still in college, Tefft also designed such significant surviving structures as Lawrence Hall at Williams College in Massachusetts, containing America’s first central library plan, and the Cannelon Cotton Mill in Indiana (1849), which strongly resembles several unattributed Rhode Island mills that display similar flexible massing, brick construction and the decorative style of Lombard Romanesque architecture.
After graduation in 1851, Tefft set out on his own, acquiring a large architectural library and preparing several hundred drawings and building designs for existing commissions or prospective use (now on deposit at Brown’s John Hay Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society). Those commissions included public schools (the Barnard connection), railroad stations (inspired by his Providence masterpiece), large fireproof mills (in accordance with insurance standards pioneered by Zachariah Allen), large commercial buildings, churches, and banks. His main source of steady income, however, was the design of elaborate College Hill and Newport residences with carriage houses, built of brownstone and red brick with an Italianate or Renaissance Revival motif.
Among Tefft’s surviving works from the early 1850s are the original Central Congregational Church at 226 Benefit Street (1853–56), now part of the Rhode Island School of Design complex; the Tully Bowen House (1853) at 389 Benefit Street; the Robert Lippitt House (1854) at 193 Hope Street; and several other East Side homes.
Not content with the stunning success he had achieved in his four years with Tallman & Bucklin and his six years of private practice, Tefft set out for Europe in December 1856 to study Romanesque architecture firsthand, to learn European methods of architectural education and to meet with noted European architects. He began in England, where he studied the works of Christopher Wren. He also met and was entertained in the home of noted architect Charles Barry.
While on his grand tour, he became interested in the application of the decimal theory to a gold-based currency to be made universal, and he read his paper on this topic before the British Association for the Promotion of Social Science. He also engaged in other intellectual activities during his travels, including the publication of a series of articles on architecture for The Canyon, a professional journal. Several of his letters on European social and political affairs were printed in the New York Times.
In December 1859, Tefft fell ill with a fever in Florence at the home of his friend, the sculptor Hiram Powers. He died there on Dec. 12, 1959. Tefft was first buried in the English Cemetery in Florence. In February 1860 his body was shipped back to Rhode Island, where it was re-interred in Swan Point Cemetery.
It was Tefft’s goal to return to American brimming with information and ideas regarding the teaching and practice of architecture. He returned in a coffin. One can only speculate on what Tefft’s lofty achievements and legacy might have been had he survived his European journey.
Thomas Alexander Tefft was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2002.
For additional reading:
Thomas Alexander Tefft: American Architecture in Transition, by Brown University Department of Art, Feb. 3, 1988.
Memoir of Thomas Alexander Tefft: The Architect and Monetarian, by Edwin Martin Stone, Kessinger Publishing, Sep. 10, 2012.