By Sam Shupe
Ph.D. Candidate, American & New England Studies, Boston University
While being a highly accomplished and respected architect and artist, Portland, Maine’s John Calvin Stevens knew when to forsake his desk chair for a bicycle seat. On more than one occasion in the 1880s and 1890s, Stevens was documented leaving his work at the drafting table to spend the afternoon riding his bicycle. Trading his comfortable and quiet office for the dusty hustle of piloting a high-wheeled (and later a “safety”) bicycle through Portland’s unpaved nineteenth-century roads may seem simply like playing hooky from his responsibilities as an architect. However, for Stevens, bicycling was an extension of his work outdoors, where his handlebars became his drafting and painting tools and the streets his canvas.
The genesis of Stevens’ professional life in the 1880s coincides with his developing love of the bicycle. The earliest known reference to Stevens riding a bicycle is in 1882. A cabinet photograph from that year depicts a bearded Stevens at the age of 27, proudly leaning on his high-wheeled bicycle. Riding his beloved two-wheeled machine everywhere within ten miles of Portland for both business and pleasure, he argued that “it is the best way in the world to travel.” In 1883, just a year after the photograph was taken, Stevens joined the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), a nation-wide bicycle club, as well as the local Portland Wheel Club (PWC), which was affiliated with the LAW. The following year, in 1884, Stevens set out to develop his own architectural firm. Just two years later, Stevens became president of the PWC and was well on his way to establishing what would become the most influential architectural firm in Portland and much of Maine.
Through his role as president of the PWC, Stevens repeatedly combined his passions for bicycling and art. The PWC, although primarily a recreational club, also focused its efforts on social gatherings. In the late 1880s, the club hosted annual balls, often described by local newspapers as the social event of the week. On several occasions Stevens drew advertisements and bicycle-themed dance cards for the events. These illustrations serve as an early example of the architect’s ability to lend his architectural and artistic abilities to his bicycling.
In 1889, Stevens, along with fellow architect Albert Winslow Cobb, published Examples of Domestic Architecture, an architectural style book that gained the two men national recognition. Stevens provided a majority of the sketches in the book, most of which contain no human figures. However, of the handful of sketches that do contain people, three are bicyclists holding or riding their two-wheeled machines. Despite the book being the most serious and widely viewed architectural publication of Stevens’ career, he was unable to fully suppress his love of the bicycle, allowing it to subtly emerge in his professional life.
Less inconspicuously, Stevens allowed his love of bicycles and architectural pursuits to fuse seamlessly together on the smoothly paved roads of France. In the summer of 1892 with just over twenty other architects from around the country, Stevens set out on a fifty-day architectural sketching tour of France by bicycle. The tour, which Stevens himself conceived and organized, was the first of its kind. The artistic pursuits of an architectural sketching tour had never before been combined with the efficient and leisurely pursuit of bicycle touring. As a result, Stevens deserves the title of a true pioneer of art, architecture, and bicycling.
Late in his life in October of 1936, Stevens was interviewed by the Lewiston Journal for an article looking to assess the state of modern art. At 81 years-old, Stevens’ bicycle touring days were behind him and the automobile had replaced the bicycle on the busy streets of Portland. Lambasting modern artists that were moving too quickly in their work, Stevens attributed the poor trend directly to cars and fast driving. To Stevens, the automobile of the early twentieth century did not possess the fluid relationship with art that the nineteenth century bicycle had. If he were alive today, Stevens might still be disappointed by the car-centric realities of modern life. However, he might also be pleased to find Portlanders still riding bicycles for business and pleasure in his much loved city. To those who have yet to learn how to ride a bicycle, Stevens would undoubtedly encourage them to, in his own words, “acquire the art.”
Work by John Calvin Stevens can be seen in our current exhibition “Portland Society of Art and Winslow Homer’s Legacy in Maine,” on view through February 3, 2012. The exhibition examines, for the first time, the artistic relationship between the painter Winslow Homer, his close friend the architect John Calvin Stevens, and the early years of the Portland Society of Art.