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Abbott Lowell Cummings, 94, preservationist and scholar of early New England architecture

Dr. Cummings wrote “The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725.”
Dr. Cummings wrote “The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725.”

Abbott Lowell Cummings wrote the book on New England’s first houses, and it wasn’t a simple task. He was in his 20s when he began his research and in his 50s by the time “The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725” was published. In 1979, his work received the Laurence L. Winship Book Award at the Globe’s annual book festival.

“I worked 30 years on my book,” he told the Globe upon hearing that “Framed Houses,” which included more than 300 illustrations, would be honored. “I’ll concede 30 years is a long time to work on a book, but I started this research for my master’s thesis in college.”


Though he focused on the homes that the earliest settlers from England built in Massachusetts, Dr. Cummings saw in their work the foundation of a larger part of US history.

“This was the beginning of our American technology,” he said in the 1979 interview. “The Puritans brought very sophisticated building techniques to this continent. Those houses were a lot more complicated than you realize.”

For decades, Dr. Cummings had belonged to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which for a time he led as its director. His health had been declining when he died May 29 in the Elaine Center at Hadley. He was 94 and had lived in South Deerfield.

“He was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met,” said Peter Lynch, who for years was a trustee and treasurer of the preservation society, which is now called Historic New England.

When Dr. Cummings discussed an ancient house, “he could convince you ‘this was relevant,’ ‘this was important,’ ” said Lynch, a legendary money manager who formerly guided the Fidelity Magellan Fund through its rapid period of growth. Dr. Cummings was persuasive “not just in hyperbole, but in matter of fact, and he would give you reasons why something was important, not just a list of adjectives and adverbs,” Lynch added. “He’d say, ‘This house is important for these 12 reasons.’ ”


A former university professor, Dr. Cummings could captivate any crowd. “He was one of the best speakers – to one person or a group of three or a group of 75. There wasn’t a subject he wasn’t fun on,” Lynch recalled. “He would have been a great actor, I think. His whole personality was just outstanding. He was Mr. Enthusiastic.”

In one of several tributes posted online, Historic New England curator emeritus Richard C. Nylander said Dr. Cummings “was many things, but above all, he was a mentor and teacher to both young and old. He was full of knowledge, which he selflessly shared, and he was always open to new ideas. His enthusiasm was contagious, not just for architecture, for which he is most well-known, but for anything that piqued his interest.”

Donald Friary, a longtime friend and the president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, said Dr. Cummings “was a very accomplished scholar with high standards of evidence, of research, and of writing,” someone whose work “had a profound influence on a whole generation of students and scholars.”

Dr. Cummings taught at Antioch College in Ohio while finishing his doctoral work, and later was the Charles F. Montgomery professor of American decorative arts at Yale University for about eight years, beginning in 1984.


“He was very effective as a teacher,” Friary said. “He could really get people excited, and therefore had a large following of students in whose careers and lives he made a great difference.”

The oldest of three siblings, Abbott Lowell Cummings was born in born in St. Albans, Vt. His father, the Rev. Stanley Cummings, and his mother, Louise, subsequently lived in Bennington, Vt., where his father was pastor of the Second Congregational Church.

While attending the Hoosac School in Hoosick, N.Y., Dr. Cummings spent winters with his parents in Bennington and summers in Southington, Conn., with his paternal grandmother, Lucretia Amelia Stow Cummings.

“At a personal level, my grandmother had as much influence as anyone on my life,” he said in an interview with Antiques and the Arts Weekly when the Winterthur Museum in Delaware honored his work with a Henry Francis du Pont Award in 1998. “She was a scientist by training, a Vassar graduate who had studied astronomy. She drilled into me the need to be very factual.”

At Oberlin College in Ohio, he studied American art and architectural history, graduating in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree. The following year, he received a master’s from Oberlin and wrote his thesis on the history of 17th-century houses in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That research formed the basis for his 1979 book “The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725.”

In the book, Dr. Cummings wrote that “the story of architecture in New England throughout the 17th century is one of change and Americanization.” The Winship award the book garnered was named for a former editor of the Globe. At the 1979 awards ceremony, William O. Taylor, who at the time was the Globe’s publisher, called the book “a fine scholarly work, painstakingly researched, an important contribution to the history and culture of New England.”


Dr. Cummings graduated in 1950 from Ohio State University with a doctorate, but always considered his former Oberlin professor Clarence Ward, a historian and museum director, to be his mentor. “I wanted to model myself on him,” he told Antiques and the Arts Weekly. “He was an excellent lecturer. He inspired you to pick a subject and do something with it.”

After teaching at Antioch, Dr. Cummings moved to New York City, where he worked for four years as an assistant curator in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. In 1955, he was hired as the assistant director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which has operated historic house museums in the region. He became director in 1970, and also taught at Boston University.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Dr. Cummings began teaching a course in New England architectural history at Yale. That led to his appointment as a professor of decorative arts, and he taught there until retiring in 1992. “It never really occurred to me that I wouldn’t teach,” he said of his career.

Dr. Cummings, whose closest survivors are nieces and nephews, had lived in his later years with his sister’s family. A service was held in July, and a second memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 12 in Old West Church in Boston.


“Abbott was a major personality, very funny and magnetic. We all knew him that way, as a great raconteur,” said Friary, who formerly lived near Dr. Cummings. “For us, he was a neighbor, a great dinner guest, and someone whom we could rely on for good scholarship, but also for good conversation.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.