In the months before attending “Publishers’ Bookbindings, 1830-1910,” a Rare Book School course I took at the University of Virginia in July 2006, I trolled the stacks of the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library, looking for good examples of grained, stamped, and embossed bookcloths. During one of those prowls to immerse myself in this fascinating new world, I spotted a book bound in black cloth with an embossed design of silvery checks. It was Early Homes of Ohio, written in 1936 by Ihna Frary. Although the book’s appearance hooked me, its content reeled me in for sure.
Frary (1873-1965) put the training he received at the Cleveland School of Art to work as an interior designer in Cleveland. From 1921 to 1945, he served as the Cleveland Museum of Art’s membership and publicity secretary. He described some of his experiences there in At Large in Marble Halls (ca. 1959).
Frary enjoyed driving around Ohio on weekends, holidays and vacations, stopping to photograph old houses and doorways. Before long, he had created a comprehensive pictorial record of these rapidly disappearing architectural creations. His curiosity about their designs and quality workmanship led him to undertake the difficult task of searching for information about Ohio’s early designers and builders. He shared his photographs and research in an illustrated lecture called “Early Homes of Ohio,” which he gave over 100 times in 10 years. The lecture was so persistently popular that he decided to put it in book form.
Early Homes of Ohio still makes a good glovebox guide for drives around Ohio. The book traces Frary’s journeys to historic stopping places along the National Road, such as the Red Brick Tavern in Lafayette, halfway between Columbus and Springfield. Built in 1837, Ohio’s second-oldest stagecoach stop was patronized by Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison and Henry Clay. You can still eat there today.
Frary’s photos of baseboards and stairway risers painted with leaves and flowers at the Headley Inn, four miles west of Zanesville, are reminiscent of my own staircase, which was pictured in “Custom Motifs: Painted Designs Popular for Walls, Steps, Ceramics,” my article in the April 18, 2003 issue of Business First’s special publication, HomeFront.
The book also describes Ohio’s early places of worship, such as Atwater Congregational Church and my favorite, the Kirtland Temple.
But the highlight of the book just might be Frary’s photos of building details like arched doorways, porticos supported by columns, windows, semi-elliptical fan lights, oval sunbursts, and fireplaces with mantels and cast-iron facings.
Frary presents a convincing case that early Ohio builders consulted Asher Benjamin’s The Architect; or Practical House Carpenter (1830) to create these architectural details. This influential text by the taste-making American architect described methods for designing columns, balusters, windows, cornices, base mouldings, keystones, doors, and staircases. Builders modified and adapted Benjamin’s suggestions to suit themselves and the requirements of the construction project.
Since these builders were craftsmen, not trained architects, their work wasn’t always successful. “The clumsy attempts at classic pilasters, columns, mouldings, and cornices often produced curious effects that would scarcely pass muster in a school of architecture or a Beaux-Arts competition,” Frary wrote. “They were crude, the details often painfully misunderstood, yet in them we recognize a sincerity that wins our admiration. Those pioneer builders were creating a vernacular in architecture possessing vitality and spontaneity that is often missing in highly sophisticated creations. We may smile at the clumsy results, but we must admire the simple but direct thinking which they represent.”
According to “Seeing Ohio First,” an article he wrote for the August 1928 issue of The Hallegram, a publication for employees of Cleveland’s Halle Brothers department store, Frary was an early advocate of the “staycation.”
“Many are finding that our own State of Ohio is a most desirable vacation ground,” Frary wrote of a five-week motor trip he took through Ohio. “Its early history is rich in romance and any vacationist who will take the trouble to read up his history or familiarize himself with America’s early architecture will find in his state an interesting browsing ground.”
“The photographer will find endless material to practice on; the rivers, lakes and hills provide natural beauty, and the old houses, inns and churches afford most attractive architectural subjects for the camera,” Frary continued in this article.
Ohio in Homespun and Calico (1942) is another staycation planning resource. Inside this brown-and-beige-checked clothbound book, Frary describes pioneer life in Ohio, such as husking bees, quilting parties and county fairs; the furniture that resourceful pioneers made from slabs of split logs and saplings; handwoven coverlets with cleverly named patterns like Road to California; and stenciled wall decorations, silhouettes and portraits by itinerant painters.
“We who live in Ohio today should look back with pride and gratitude to the men and women pioneers who came to this western frontier and, at the cost of inconceivable privation and suffering, transformed the wilderness into a land of plenty,” Frary wrote at the book’s beginning. “They were a hardy lot, these pioneers, and while their manners might not have graced a drawing room, and they may have lacked the polish found in the social centers of the East, they possessed those more needed assets: muscle, endurance, bravery, and resourcefulness.”
Frary illustrated his text with photos of punched tin candle lanterns, combination rush light holders, and log cabins, most notably at Schoenbrunn, the German Moravian mission village on the Tuscarawas River. In the “Ohio: Centuries of Change” exhibit gallery at the Ohio History Center, you can see artifacts from Ohio’s pioneer days like those Frary described. My latest favorite discovery there is this redware harvest ring, circa 1820-1850, which pioneer farmers filled with water and carried on their shoulders, freeing both hands to work in the fields.
Virginia staycationers might like to track down a copy of Thomas Jefferson, Architect and Builder (1931), the result of a vacation Frary took to visit and photograph Jefferson’s architectural creations. Besides capturing Monticello’s exterior from every angle, Frary took photos of the home’s unique interior details I never tire of seeing, such as the clock in the hall where strings of cannon balls serve as weights and the days of the week are indicated on a scale, and the doors between the drawing room and the hall which operate by a mechanism that opens or closes both when one is moved.
At the University of Virginia, Frary recorded its famous arcade from in front of the room where Edgar Allan Poe lived when he was a student there. He also took photographs of the pavilions housing faculty and their families, including Pavilion IX, where William Holmes McGuffey, the author of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, lived when he taught at the university as its Professor of Moral Philosophy from 1845 until his death in 1873. In the midst of a summer spent inventorying hundreds of McGuffey Readers at Miami University’s Walter Havighurst Special Collections, I made a pilgrimage during that week at Rare Book School not only to Pavilion IX, but also to McGuffey’s grave in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
Frary also visited Poplar Forest, the home near Lynchburg where “Jefferson was forced to flee at times to avoid the hordes of friends, admirers and curious visitors who overran Monticello and literally ate him out of house and home,” he wrote. After spending so much time there during my Sweet Briar College days, I can see why Jefferson loved this place. Here’s how it looked on my first visit there in 1987.
The Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library collections also include the I.T. Frary Photograph Collection (P 112) and the Ihna Thayer Frary Papers (MSS 203), which include correspondence regarding Frary’s photography, writing, tours and lectures; notebooks of his trips to Virginia in 1931 and 1933; and his diaries, which he began keeping when he was 14 years old.