William Morgan: The Aldriches: Powerful politicians and architects


At the northeast corner of Providence's Swan Point Cemetery, overlooking the Seekonk River, is a tasteful necropolis holding the final resting places of several generations of what was once one of Rhode Island's richest and most influential families, indeed one with great national influence.

Nelson Aldrich, by Andres Zorn, 1913.jpg

Nelson W. Aldrich, 1913, by Andres Zorn

-- Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery

The patriarch was Nelson W. Aldrich, a very powerful U.S. senator who served from 1881-1911. Indeed, his nickname  became the “general manager of the United States’’. This was back when Rhode Island itself was wealthy and powerful. This Republican Party chieftain extended his influence as the father-in-law of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and was thus the grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, the New York governor and vice president, and  Nelson’s four brothers, all of whom were prominent public figures.

Amidst the politically connected Aldriches are two plain gravestones marking the resting place of the senator's son, William Truman Aldrich (1880-1966), and his grandson, Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (1911-1986). These men were architects, successful designers who worked in different styles.



In its obituary,  The New York Times described the MIT-trained William as "an architect and yachtsman." Even more important than his schooling at "Tech" were his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. Founded by Louis XIV, The École provided the ultimate education for classical architects; its name became synonymous for designers who could create public buildings worthy of a Roman emperor or a Renaissance palazzo for a Gilded Age plutocrat.

Before starting his own firm in Boston, William Aldrich worked for one of the leading Beaux-Arts firms, Carrère & Hastings, whose best-known monument in the style is the New York Public Library. Aldrich was something of a society architect (his connections to the Rockefellers no doubt helped him secure commissions), and he became a master of a restrained and historically informed interpretation of English Georgian. Typical of his pre-Depression compositions was the original museum for the Rhode Island School of Design and the Temple of Music at Roger Williams Park, both in Providence.



William T. Aldrich designed "Broadhollow," in Brookville, Long Island, c.1926. This was built for Winthrop William Aldrich, the head of the Chase Bank and ambassador to the Court of Saint James (i.e., to Britain).

 The architectural landscape had changed considerably when William Aldrich's son Nelson established a practice in Boston following World War II. Nelson's program of study at Harvard was directed by Walter Gropius, who had earlier founded the revolutionary Bauhaus in Germany. Gropius announced his arrival at Harvard by taking a hammer to the plaster casts of classical sculpture that students were required to draw in earlier days. The very term Beaux-Arts became pejorative, synonymous with a supposedly stultifying, conservative aesthetic. (Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term Bozo to derisively refer to those trained at the École.)

Nelson Aldrich embraced the International style of the Bauhaus, with its flat roofs, industrial fenestration and lack of superfluous ornament. His firm, Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty, was in demand for academic buildings on such campuses as Amherst, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Dartmouth, his cousin Nelson Rockefeller's alma mater. The firm is perhaps best known for their part in the design of one of the most controversial modern buildings anywhere, the Boston City Hall.



Boston City Hall, 1968, Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, with Campbell, Aldrich, and Nulty.



Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty, Weiss Science Tower, Rockefeller University, New York, 1974.

Nelson Aldrich's embrace of the raw concrete variant of modernism called Brutalism pretty much occurred after the death of his father, but their different architectural philosophies apparently caused much strain between the two. One suspects that there were other reasons for what the writer, son and namesake of the younger architect claims was a 30-year estrangement. Nevertheless, the two architects are now together for eternity.



William Morgan has taught the history of American architecture and is the author of the The Abrams Guide to American House Styles, among other books.