Robert Boucheron – Cottage for a Clergyman

“Northampton, Massachusetts, 1842.”

Dear Architect,

As I turn the pages of your volume on cottage residences, I search for one that is neat and simple, which yet has some quality that sets it above the general run, a dwelling adapted to the needs of a poor shepherd, a country clergyman. For such is my condition.

Many of your house designs are charming, and all would serve the comfort and convenience of a tradesman. Not one of your delightful cottages, however, includes a private study, my sine qua non. A library holds a place of honor in your larger houses, but the cost of these puts them beyond my hope of possession. From necessity, I must restrict myself to the smallest possible outlay. Yet a modest residence may have beauty in its character. For a few thousand dollars of construction expense, how can I provide for domestic needs and still satisfy an aesthetic desire?

My wife Evelyn and I may be given a bit of land by a prosperous well-wisher. The land is a barren half-acre, a nearly level lot that fronts south on a road that runs east and west. To the west is a prospect of the Berkshire Hills. We want to place the rooms most often used on that side. The rooms required on the first floor are a parlor, dining room, kitchen, pantry, sitting room, and the indispensable study. Upstairs we must have at least five bedrooms: one for the marriage chamber, and two for a growing brood of children, as well as one for a manservant and one for the maids. My wife Evelyn is firm on this point. And as you must know from the practice of architecture, in the home a woman’s word is law.

We want to place the house on the east side of the lot, so the garden which Evelyn says will flourish may occupy the favored western exposure. Her dream is to plant a vegetable plot, a few fruit trees, a vine for grapes, and a bed of herbs—a veritable farm to supply the kitchen with fresh produce, and incidentally to save the expense of buying in the market. Please see my drawing of the first floor plan, with the area labeled “Garden.” No artist, I am painfully aware of my shortcomings, and I request your aid to correct the drawing. Please overlook the blots.

Evelyn remarks that I should have used pencil instead of ink. Of course, if you find the plan unworkable, feel free to abandon it and start afresh.

The main difficulty is to bring the kitchen closer to the dining room without losing the sitting room. Is the pantry big enough? Should it be on the north, the shady side? Then there is the problem of inserting a back stair with access to the cellar and to the servants’ bedrooms, which ought to be over the kitchen. I did not know how to draw the second floor, or how the whole structure should be roofed.

To my mind’s eye I summon an external form that is trim without being unduly plain. While avoiding all that is showy and pretentious, such as bargeboards and gingerbread, and keeping strict economy in mind, how can we achieve an effect? What architectural style is best suited to a cottage? I do not say humble abode, lowly dwelling, farmhouse, or homestead. That is precisely the wrong idea. I would rather convey an impression of rightness, the inevitability of good taste.

In this rural district, few people build for soundness of construction or with any sense of comeliness. Rustic and picturesque effects are seen, to be sure. It is fair to say they occur by accident and not by any intention of the builder. The local farmers are plain folk and proud of their plainness, as Evelyn observes. As I struggle to build for my family, I hope also to set an example to the district. My neighbors may benefit from this lesson in wood and stone, as to the manner in which a pleasant and attractive home may be erected.

A drawing from your hand, as I intend to carry it out, will influence their rustic minds. It will promote refinement and moral elevation. If it happens to say something about the position of its occupant, the place of a Christian minister in society, so much the better. I may be poor, at the mercy of my flock for a stipend, but I am not a wretch.

Evelyn, who leans over my shoulder as I write, will have last word. Is it at all possible to include a bath? Preferably near the bedrooms, with a drain to the kitchen below.

Now she has gone. You see how a private study is an absolute necessity.




Author’s Statement on Beauty

As I recall, I drift at sea in a fog. I pull on the oars of reading and research and somehow strike land. I have to leave the boat, jump in the water, get cold and wet, and flounder. As I stumble up the beach, I find I was not even close to where I thought I was. This is one type of story. But I want to get it right from the start. I want to guide the reader who strays into home waters, pilot her safe past shoals I learned through trial and error. The reader ought to be able to trust me. That would be lovely.

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK) and The Short Story (UK). His plays were performed in 2016 in Concord, NC and Detroit, MI. More at: