October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
A turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts village draws a new generation of pilgrims
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.
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.”
From an upstairs window we could see most of the Roycroft campus—the printing building, the power plant, the foundry, the leather shop, and bindery —a collection of structures that in 1973 won a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. “All the original buildings are here except the tea house and the garden,” Turgeon-Rust said. “Of course, you have to use your imagination. Where the parking lots are now was all lawn, with peahens and peacocks strutting around.”
Elbert Hubbard was not entirely beloved in East Aurora in his lifetime. His biographer Freeman Champney concludes that the experience of meeting him was like “having been brushed and shaken by some elemental force and being variously bemused, grateful, annoyed, and furious.” But walking around the little arts community he built, I rather got to like Elbert Hubbard. He made a lot of money and chose to spend it creating a place where seekers could come to improve themselves. Judging by the comments they left in guest books at the inn—”a bright oasis in the desert of humdrum,” “a solid woven fabric of deliberate purpose”—they found what they came for. And when Elbert and Alice Hubbard went down aboard the Lusitania in 1915, some forty thousand Americans sent condolences to his son. Elbert Hubbard II managed to keep the Roycroft enterprise going until the Depression hit, selling some of the smaller goods out of “Roycroft Corners” set up in department stores. But in 1938 the shop closed its doors.
Today in East Aurora there is talk of raising money to replace the lawn and of getting more storekeepers on Main Street to put up signs in Arts and Crafts lettering. But I’m not sorry I saw East Aurora before its renaissance is complete, when imagination is still called for and when the tasks that remain seem as pleasurable as choosing a shade of paint or a sample of wallpaper.