Roycroft Renaissance

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The village of East Aurora, in New York, eighteen miles southeast of Buffalo, has everything we look for in a small town—a wide main street, Victorian houses on well-tended lawns, a classic five-and-ten-cent store, an Art Deco movie theater, a diner where, when you order a BLT on rye bread, the waitress asks, “Store bought or homemade?” There’s even the home of a U.S. President, Millard Fillmore.

At the turn of the century, East Aurora drew visitors for a different reason. Between 1895 and 1915 the village was home to Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters, a community of mostly local people he had trained in printing, bookbinding, metalworking, and other crafts. A charismatic onetime soap salesman, Hubbard had traveled to England, visited William Morris and the Kelmscott Press, and returned home to champion Morris’s views about the virtues of the handmade. The Arts and Crafts style, which Hubbard espoused, fell from favor during the nineteen thirties, but in the past twenty years its auction prices have begun a dramatic climb. The austere, rectilinear furniture still looks modern, and it works as well in urban lofts or Western cabins as it does in the tasteful interiors Morris envisaged. Last summer, when word reached our office that the Roycroft Inn had just reopened after a major restoration, I packed my bag, curious to see what remains of America’s Kelmscott.

As you drive into East Aurora, the shoe-repair shop and the veterinary hospital on Main Street declare themselves with Arts and Crafts lettering. If you pass by the Town Hall, you’ll find medieval-looking metalwork on the doors. Across the street the doors of the Roycroft Inn are also emblazoned with metalwork and carved with a vintage Hubbard motto: “The love you liberate in your work is the love you keep.” With its (mostly reproduction) Roycroft and Stickley furnishings and a firstrate chef, the inn is successfully drawing pilgrims again, just as Hubbard did with the force of his personality.

Hubbard, who wore his hair long, favored Byronic black ties, and loved to ride, settled in East Aurora in 1895 because this was horse country. He had sold his shares in a soap business to become a writer, and when editors in New York City rejected his work, calling it, as Hubbard told the story, “too plain, too blunt, sometimes indelicate—it would give offense, subscribers would cancel, et cetera, et cetera…,” he started his own magazine, The Philistine . Following its success he launched a larger-format publication he called The Fra , short for Fra Elbertus, suggesting his tongue-in-cheek view of himself as a preacher giving a monthly sermon to his flock. As a writer, Hubbard is best remembered for the series of short biographies he called “Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great” and the famous motivational essay honoring loyalty and resourcefulness “A Message to Garcia.” (I dug up a copy, expecting pomposity, and found it hilarious: “You, reader, put this matter to a test: You are sitting now in your office — six clerks are within call. Summon any one and make this request: ‘Please look in the encyclopedia and make a brief memorandum for me concerning the life of Correggio.’ Will the clerk quietly say ‘Yes, sir,’ and go do the task? On your life he will not. He will look at you out of a fishy eye and ask one or more of the following questions: Who was he? Which encyclopedia? Was I hired for that? Don’t you mean Bismarck? What’s the matter with Charlie doing it?”) Hubbard sold some nine million reprints of this essay in his lifetime, many of them to company presidents who distributed them to their employees. Hubbard’s publishing efforts made him a wealthy man, and he used his profits to support his Arts and Crafts community.

Since so many of Hubbard’s writings celebrated his merry band of workers making art in East Aurora, readers began taking the train to see the Roycroft complex firsthand and to attend the lectures he presented for the edification of his employees. Hubbard slowly bought or built some fourteen structures centered on South Grove Street. At first he put up guests in his house, but in 1903 he combined the Print Shop and a workers’ dormitory into the Roycroft Inn.

The inn’s most impressive architectural feature is the long porch connecting the two buildings, which Hubbard, who loved classical-sounding words, called the Peristyle. He named each room after someone he admired, including Morris, John Ruskin, and Thomas Edison. Today, the inn’s hallways are decorated with attractive pages from The Fra —pages adorned with articles by and about Hubbard, photographs of Hubbard, aphorisms by Hubbard. One thinks of Martha Stewart. Many of the rooms originally had sleeping porches, and the restored inn maintains that feel—the porches are enclosed now, but the wooden Venetian blinds on the windows give you a sense of fresh air and informality.