One man, Ezra Lunt Phillips, changed the face of Gloucester. There is no doubt about it.
My acquaintance with the legacy of Ezra Phillips began about 1987. At a yard sale, I discovered a photograph reprinted from a glass plate negative. It was labeled “Ezra Phillips in his new car”.
My friend was curious and said, “Who do you suppose that is?” to which I replied that I knew exactly who he was …the architect of the very house on Edgemore Rd that was built at the turn of the 20th century and in 1987 being restored. It was called Balmaha. Then I realized what Ezra Phillips was looking at. It was Balmaha under construction. This is the very same beautiful house that in 1987 was in the midst of being restored by Susan and Rick Richter. I had seen the original plans with his name on them. In this photo he is visiting the work site, surveying the progress. Copies of the photo were given to the Richters, their brokers, the new owners and others.
Ezra’s father was a flour dealer. His business was on the right-hand corner of what is now Main St. and Duncan St.
By the early 1890s, Ezra had opened an architecture office at 4 Pleasant St. and was still boarding at home but by 1896 he owned the property on Gloucester Avenue that was to be his home for the rest of his life. The address changed several times but it was always the same house.
His wife’s name was Grace and they had two children, Elizabeth and Nathan.
Ezra Phillips, throughout his life, contributed more than his architecture to the community. He was very active at Trinity Congregational Church and the YMCA.
In addition to volunteer organizations he was an officer or board member of many institutions including vice president of the Gloucester Safe Deposit and Trust Co., the Cape Ann Savings Bank, treasurer of the Cape Ann Anchor Works, the Russia Cement Co., the Gloucester Coal and Lumber Co. the Rockport Granite Co. and a charter member of the Rotary. Where did he find the time to design all the beautiful buildings?
By 1902, after living for many years on Washington Square, his father, Nathan, and mother, Maria, moved to 159 Washington St. at the corner of Derby. This is a lovely house but it is not known if their son had a hand in renovations. They also had a summer home at Agamenticus Heights (Wolf Hill area) overlooking the Russia Cement Company. (LePage’s) with which the family was involved.
Nathan Phillips passed away in 1905 but his widow continued on living in the large house on the corner of Derby St.
By 1926 Timothy Holloran had joined the architectural firm which then became known as Phillips and Holloran. They continued as partners at least through 1935. Ezra Phillips died in 1937. Timothy Holloran continued on alone.
Timothy Holloran’s son, Robert Holloran, joined his father after graduating from Wentworth Institute. Eventually, Robert went to work in Boston at Shepley Bullfinch, the prestigious firm founded by Henry Hobson Richardson.
But during all these years there was a miracle in the making. Ezra Phillips had never thrown away a set of plans and neither had his partner Timothy Holloran. They were carefully kept and after the death of Timothy this treasure trove, like a big pot of gold, descended to Robert Holloran who thoughtfully preserved them.
Robert Holloran died at a very old age in 2008 and in 2011 the plans were given to the Cape Ann Museum. Here is what is so astonishing. There were more than 300 plans mostly for local buildings! Is it hard to get your head around this? There are existing plans for 300 of some of the best and most beautiful and important buildings on Cape Ann. These plans span the period from about 1890 until the middle of the 20th century.
Municipal buildings include renovations to the former town-house, now known as the American Legion building in preparation for the returning veterans of WW1.
There were renovations to Central Grammar by Phillips, originally designed by another architect and native son, Tristram Griffin of Riverdale whose practice was in Malden.
Phillips designed at least one hotel, the Tavern, located on the Boulevard, replacing the Surfside.
In short, any building of any consequence renovated or built during that more than half a century can often be credited to Phillips or to Phillips & Holloran after they became partners.
But how about the countless houses for which they were responsible? Do you recognize these landmark houses?
When all is said and done we now have concrete evidence of the magnitude of the work of Ezra Phillips and continuing with the firm of Phillips & Holloran. Imagine three hundred plus sets of drawings documenting the development of this city for more than half a century. What a wealth of information is stored in those tightly rolled-up sets of plans; plans that thankfully have found a permanent home at the Museum. What a legacy for Gloucester!
Ezra Phillips’ funeral took place at Trinity Church on Middle Street. Rev. Dwight Cart conducted the service in the place where Phillips had long been a deacon. He was assisted by the former pastor, Rev. Dr. Albert A. Madsen and Rev. Edmund A. Burnham, pastor of the Essex Congregational Church.
It is fitting that Rev. Cart quoted from Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr., “The Chambered Nautilus” beginning with “Build thee more stately mansions. O my Soul”.
He went on to describe the life of Ezra Phillips as “well designed with nothing cheap and shoddy in its building. A life founded upon faith, built upon quiet service enhanced by joy and humor, active, alert, community-minded, true to friendship, honest and sincere. One who loved many things, and served many interests tirelessly, but whose first love was still his last…his home, and those who have made these walls live by the constancy of their service and affection.
His was a life well lived.
But that’s not all. Here is an example of how he is still contributing eighty years after his death.
The Sawyer Free Library is in the midst of discussions concerning the expansion of the library or complete replacement. One of the sections of the library, the stacks section, was built in 1913. Its future is up in the air. The building committee turned to the Cape Ann Museum, and of course, it was almost predictable that they would have the plans for the “fireproof” building. In ascertaining its value this new information about its fireproof construction adds another element in the evaluation and worth of the building. Fireproof! Who knew?
After the plans arrived in Gloucester at the museum, I had the pleasure of trying to track down his descendants, none of whom were here in Gloucester. After making calls to places and people in Vermont and in New York I finally found his grandson in Northbridge, MA. Although in his eighties, William Christopherson was still very active.
When I reached him I asked him if he had any heirlooms, keepsakes or trinkets that had come down to him from his grandfather. He told me that he had one thing that belonged to Ezra. I should have been sitting down when he said, “I have his last automobile”. One could predict after looking at the early photo of Ezra in front of Balmaha that he would have a special car. It had a name of which I had never heard. It was from the late 1920s and a rare and expensive automobile. His grandson was perhaps seven or eight years old when Ezra died but he begged his mother to keep the car. She did keep the car and can you believe that it is in perfect condition and still on the road! I don’t think it gets driven much but the fact that he still has it makes me smile. I can picture it in the driveway on Gloucester Ave. Now if I could only remember the name.
We must remember Ezra Phillips for his contributions to his hometown and for all he accomplished in and for the City of Gloucester. We must also pay attention to endangered buildings that with a little research might prove to be attributed to the firm of Phillips or Phillips and Holloran and reconsider their worth.
Few of us have realized that in almost any neighborhood in the City of Gloucester one could look around and see the fruit of the three hundred sets of plans designed by him and his partner if only we knew which ones they are. But thanks to the museum, there is now a master list and they can be identified.
Ezra Phillips changed the face of this City, one building at a time.
Prudence Fish, of Lanesville, is a published author and expert on antique New England houses. Read Prudence Fish’s blog, Antique Houses of Gloucester and Beyond.