Does architecture manifest social and moral principles? Can we equate ethics with aesthetics? How can historical architectural styles reveal the values of societies in which they were built? Kayla Rausch, a third-year Art History major, is the Fall 2021/Spring 2022 recipient of the prestigious New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! Student Fellowship. Under the supervision of her advisor, Dr. Pamela Karimi, Kayla has been developing her research project entitled Architecture and Morality in Antebellum New Bedford. Because it was home to some of the most affluent in antebellum America, New Bedford, MA, is an ideal location for studying the moral and ethical dimensions of stylistic preferences in American architecture.
Kayla’s project examines how local architecture was emblematic of the esteemed values upheld by influential and affluent citizens of New Bedford during its Whaling boom in the pre-Civil War era. Amidst such prosperous conditions, the Society of Friends or Quakers—who had fled England to escape religious persecution during the 1600s— embraced simplicity and rejected excess ornamentation in their architecture. Contrasting the opulent Greek and Gothic-revival or the Second Empire styles, which were built and owned by other prosperous New Bedford whaling captions and businesspeople, New Bedford Quakers’ preference for modesty demonstrated that even within the same society there were differing ideas of morality and taste.
Examining how the Quakers’ values (which are visually depicted through their architecture) starkly contrasted the elitist ideals promoted through the surrounding structures, Kayla embarked on a tour of the New Bedford Friends Meetinghouse and conducted interviews with experts and members of the Society of Friends. She has explored how simplicity and transparency are at the heart of their values. Additionally, Kayla has studied how Quakers have long been strong advocates of social activism and committed to racial equality as quintessential components of their faith. Specifically, Quakers played a major role in the abolitionist movement in New England. Though not all Quakers publicly participated in the abolitionist movement, they helped create a safe haven for runaway slaves who came to Massachusetts from the southern states. Quakers also advocated gender equality, encouraging women to participate in businesses while their men were away and busy with whaling. Kayla’s research aims to demonstrate how many of these values were manifested in both public and private buildings built and owned by Quakers.
In addition to extensive fieldwork, Kayla has made numerous visits to the New Bedford Free Public Library to investigate nineteenth century society and Quaker history. The library has also afforded her an examination of the mainstream nineteenth-century materials such as architectural pattern books, popular magazines, and early twentieth century New Bedford city atlases. In order to foster a society centered upon the distinguished tastes of the wealthy, many nineteenth century publications worked to promote sophisticated European tastes. These included popular periodicals, such as Godey's Lady's Book and architectural pattern books, such as Asher Benjamin’s The Architect. These materials were all popular in antebellum New England and largely accessible to the New Bedford population.
By comparing and contrasting a wide range of published materials, Kayla examines which moral values were predominantly promoted and to what end. Given the significant role the Quakers played in all aspects of life in Antebellum New Bedford, Kayla further explores the reasons behind the marginalization of the Quaker aesthetic preferences in the mainstream and canonical discourse of American architecture.
Kayla has already presented her work to the fellowship committee and has been invited by the Director of Fine Arts at the New Bedford Public Schools to deliver a talk about her work to younger students.
In addition, Kayla was a recipient of the Winter/Spring 2022 Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) award. This grant has provided Kayla the opportunity to conduct research about domestic and Quaker architecture of greater New England at the Boston Public Library as an extension of her project through the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! Fellowship. According to her mentor, Professor Karimi, “Kayla’s project is a great example of the high quality of research that undergraduate students at UMass Dartmouth undertake.” Dedicated and hardworking, Kayla plans to publish her work. She also hopes to go to graduate school to further examine American architecture and its connection to moral values.