Roycroft Renaissance

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The room where you check in is one of the places where Hubbard lectured his flock and where Clarence Darrow and Carl Sandburg once debated the merits of communism versus socialism. Even if you’re not staying at the inn, you can get a tour just by asking at the desk. I was delighted to discover that my guide was Mrs. Elbert Hubbard III. After she took me through the dining room, where waiters wear black, flowing ties, and pointed out a few of the original furnishings, including a lovely stained-glass window in a rose motif, she asked whether I had any questions. I asked her about Alice Hubbard, Elbert’s wife, who, I had read, had exercised enormous authority over the day-to-day workings of the Roycroft. My guide gently reminded me that she was related by marriage not to Alice but to Bertha, Elbert’s first wife, who divorced him when she discovered he had fathered a child by Alice.

After the inn, Arts and Crafts admirers will want to see the Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Museum, on Oakwood Avenue, and the Roycroft Shops, at the end of a path called the Appian Way. The museum, set up in a Craftsman-style house (not Hubbard’s own) is open in the afternoon on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday six months of the year and has a collection of printed books and Roycroft artifacts. The dining room, with its beamed ceiling, oak table and chairs, and chestnut sideboard, is the handsomest in the house. “Lift that chair,” the curator, Geneviève Steffen, suggested as we stepped in. I complied, expecting the heft of one of mine at home. This one felt more like a jeep.

Furniture making wasn’t the Roycroft’s strongest suit, it turns out. When the carpenters Hubbard had hired to build additions on his Print Shop finished their work, he set them at making tables and chairs. With no real designer to guide them, they turned out stolid, foursquare stuff with little in the way of stylistic refinement. The best pieces went to furnish the inn; more-ordinary designs were sold through Hubbard’s catalogues. One large commission kept the shop going in later years: the Roycroft produced much of the furniture and lighting fixtures for the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville, North Carolina.

At the Roycroft Shops, housed in an ivy-covered stone cottage that once served as the Copper Shop, you’ll find a selection of the decorative accessories that made up a large part of the Roycroft output. There, original and reproduction lamps, books, paintings, pottery, china, and jewelry are displayed in the sort of artful environment, complete with New Age music on the CD player, that may make you think about redecorating at home. Kitty Turgeon-Rust, who runs the shop and edits a newsletter called The Craftsman Homeowner , took me in hand. “What went wrong with the Arts and Crafts style the last time around,” she explained, “was that people put all the big, heavy furniture in a small room. They forgot to add the color with it —the wallpaper, textiles, art glass, and pottery.” A decorating service at the shop helps customers choose wallpaper and fabric (William Morris designs produced by Bradbury & Bradbury, in San Francisco, and Sanderson, in London) or paint colors (from Sherwin Williams’s “Roycroft Palette”). Turgeon-Rust was forthright about the many reproductions and reissues filling the store. Each one is designed to be just a little bit different from the original, she explained, to guard against fraud. “If Elbert Hubbard were around today,” she said, “he’d have a VCR, he’d have a computer, and if reproductions were selling, you can bet he’d have them too.”

Hubbard’s detractors faulted him for the endless selfpromotion he churned out in the course of advertising Roycroft wares, but he knew what worked. Handmade goods cost more than machine-made ones, and Hubbard was selling to a middle class every bit as price conscious as we are now. “The cheap article, I will admit, ministers to a certain grade of intellect,” went a typical Hubbard pitch. “But if the man grows, there will surely come a time when, instead of a great many cheap things, he will want a few good things. Our motto is, NOT HOW CHEAP BUT HOW GOOD .”

In fact, not everything the Roycroft shops produced was good. Hubbard attracted a few superb designers who turned out great work; those who had no training when they arrived learned their craft but never became masters at it. Many historians, however, credit Hubbard with creating a market later captured by more-sophisticated designers and architects like Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright may well have crossed paths with Hubbard in Buffalo, and some see in the architect’s romantic dress and adoring students at Taliesin echoes of the Fra of East Aurora.

From the gift shop Turgeon-Rust took me to the old furniture workshop, which now houses a pottery and a couple of independent antiques dealers. Although many craftspeople live and work around East Aurora, pottery is the only craft actually being done on the Roycroft campus today. Travelers can buy tiles and decorative vases in traditional designs and glazes. From there we went to the building Hubbard called the Chapel, now East Aurora’s Town Hall, where Roycrofters assembled to hear concerts, lectures, and debates. The young Carl Sandburg gave a talk on Walt Whitman here and left town convinced that “when future generations weigh in the balance the life of Elbert Hubbard, they will pronounce him one of the greatest men the world ever saw.”