An Enduring Legacy: Peabody & Stearns

If H.H. Richardson and McKim, Mead & White hadn’t been their contemporaries, the prolific Boston architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns arguably would be more famous. It may also be that they designed fewer public buildings and many of those no longer stand. The partners are celebrated for their brilliant designs for residences and resort architecture—including Pierre Lorillard’s The Breakers, in Newport, Rhode Island, and, in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Kragsyde, the stunning seaside home of George Nixon Black, which was razed in 1929.
peabody & stearns

Robert Swain Peabody (1845–1917) and John Goddard Stearns Jr. (1843–1917) were active partners in their firm for 45 years, securing over a thousand commissions. These ranged from libraries, town halls, and banks to hotels, yacht clubs, and country houses. They built 70 houses in Boston’s Back Bay alone. Their body of work made them one of the foremost architectural firms of that heady era.

peabody & stearns architecture

Their residential designs were built throughout the United States, primarily on the East Coast: New England, New Jersey, Georgia. Clients also came from West Virginia, Missouri, and Colorado.  Of the 80-plus resort homes that were built, about 50 remain. They designed in many idioms: Queen Anne Revival, Shingle Style, and Romanesque; Tudor; Colonial Revival and Neoclassical; even Scandinavian and rustic styles. In the manner of the times, commissions extended beyond the country house to carriage, gate, and boat houses. 

Charles McKim’s Boston Public Library still stands as a monument, as does Richardson’s Trinity Church. But Peabody & Stearns’ Boston and Providence Railroad station is long gone and most of their other large commssions have been lost or greatly altered. Their residential designs remain a source of inspiration for architects today. 

“Perhaps the partners’ legacy lies as much in the building of the next generation of architects as it does on the bricks and mortar of Boston’s Back Bay,” writes Annie Robinson. Architects and draftsmen who trained with  Peabody & Stearns include Arthur Little, Henry Ives Cobb, Edmund Wheelwright, and William Barry.

Further Reading:

peabody & stearns

PEABODY & STEARNS  Country Houses and Seaside Cottages, by Annie Robinson (Norton, 2010) 

The firm’s country and resort houses are surveyed in a groundbreaking history of 80+ commissions built from Connecticut to Maine—in Newport, the Berkshires, and Cape Cod—along with 15 more outside of New England. Queen Anne Revival and art movement influences are evident in the archival photographs, plans, and drawings. This book remains the definitive catalog.

THE HOUSE AT LOBSTER COVE, by Jane Goodrich (Benna, 2017)

Now a collector’s item, this historical novel was written by the woman who with her husband rebuilt the iconic house Kragsyde, on Swan’s Island, Maine. Deeply moving, her rich tapestry is a masterpiece.

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