ARCHITECTURE IN EASTON: Surviving the Sixties Styles
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
New architectural styles introduced in the 1960s nationwide included New Formalism and Brutalism.
New Formalism buildings include Classical elements, rigid symmetrical elevations and rich materials such as marble. This style was primarily used for civic, cultural or institutional buildings — think of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., designed by the architect Edward Durell Stone.
Brutalism evolved from early 20th-century Modernist architecture. The Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, christened this style Brutalism (in French “Breton Brut” is raw concrete) because buildings in this style were characterized by a large-scale use of poured concrete whose rigid geometry resulted in a massive, blocky appearance. Think of New York City’s original Whitney Museum, which caused an uproar when it was built.
According “The End of 1960’s Architecture,” a police officer responded to a visitor asking her for directions to Orange County’s Government Center by saying, “Just look for the ugliest building in town.” To me, that is the last (and certainly the funniest) word on Brutalism.
Mercifully, these styles did not make it to the Eastern Shore in general, nor did they arrive in Talbot County or Easton in particular. Isolated from the western shore by geography and transportation challenges until the rise and fall of the railroad, steamboats and the Bay Bridge spans, Easton’s rich heritage of Victorian, Colonial, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Bungalow Craftsman, Period and many other styles of houses were built over two centuries and lovingly maintained along the residential streets that formed the nucleus of what is now downtown Easton’s Historic District.
The commercial areas maintained their rich variety of architectural character as well as the Colonial style of the Third Haven Meeting House and the Courthouse, the Georgian style of the Tidewater Inn, and the Beaux Arts style of the current home of Bank of America.
What was later described in an article published in The Baltimore American as “the closest, most spontaneous restoration of a town anywhere outside of the colonial capital of Virginia” was a movement that began in the late 1930s by government officials who chose to remodel the Town buildings on Harrison Street in the Colonial style. Members who were active in both The Talbot County Garden Club and the newly formed Historical Society of Talbot County joined the effort. They approached two downtown merchants who planned to remodel their establishments and persuaded them to use Colonial design guidelines instead of the prevalent Modern style for their projects. Architectural consultation was even offered to any property owner in the blocks surrounding the courthouse, paired with special interest loans from the Easton National Bank for Colonial inspired designs.
I spent a long but absorbing afternoon researching this article in the Maryland Room of the Talbot Free Library. I am indebted to the guidance of Becky Riti, Maryland Room Librarian, for her patience with my many requests for files. I love history and discovered many intriguing stories from the 1960s about Talbot County.
An article from The Star Democrat dated March 3, 1962, intrigued me as an architect with its description of a product named “Insta-Soff.” Two Talbot County inventors, Philip Anderson of the Anderson Lumber Company and Russell T. Miles of the Sheet Metal Company, combined their creative talents to invent an aluminum cornice for buildings. This product eliminated the labor-intensive installation of several components, including roof rafter ends, fascia, gutters, etc. to build up the cornice profile. Each section of this product snapped in place with minimum effort and time. The first installation was for a ranch-style home.
A May 24, 1960 issue of The Star Democrat included an article about the historical marker erected in front of the Courthouse to celebrate the “Talbot Resolves.” During a meeting of some of Talbot County patriots, words of the “Talbot Resolves,” written two years before Jefferson’s famous Declaration, voiced their commitment to “acts as friends of liberty and to the general interests of mankind” that was the first stand for liberty in the world.
In the June 10, 1960 issue of The Star Democrat, an article appeared about the new Colonial-style one-story offices of the Maryland Credit Financial Corporation. The brick building was sited near the top of a slight hill with two ponds and landscaping as a buffer to Bay Street. Today, the building houses Talbot County offices, mostly hidden behind the newer office buildings closer to Bay Street.
Talbot County celebrated its Tercentenary birthday in 1962, and 33 civic, service and social organizations were testament to the county’s steady growth based upon sound planning principles.
It is gratifying to know if today a visitor inquired where the Talbot County Courthouse was, a police officer could proudly point to the beautiful building that escaped remodeling in either the New Formalism or Brutalism styles of the 1960s. That same visitor would enjoy a stroll along Easton’s streets with their human scale of buildings and delightful streetscapes that showcase a variety of architectural styles. It is no surprise that Easton has consistently been ranked in the top ten of best small communities in the U.S. with nary a Brutalist building in sight.