Remembering Frazier Peters — And Mollie Donovan

A fascinating exhibit opened Sunday at the Westport Historical Society.

Called “Frazier Forman Peters:  At Home With Stone,” it honors the man who is arguably Westport’s most famous architect.

Frazier Forman Peters

Peters — also a builder, teacher and writer — was born in 1895 to a New York Episcopalian clergy family.  He graduated from Columbia University as a chemical engineer, but quickly grew disgruntled with the industry,

He came to Westport in 1919, hoping to work the land as a farmer.  The rocky soil intrigued him, and he soon found his calling as a designer and builder of stone houses.

Peters’ homes can be found from Virginia to Maine — but most are in Connecticut.  Between 1924 and 1936 he designed and built over 36 stone houses Westport.  His designs are revered for their unique fieldstone wall construction method, as well as their spatial organization and sensitive placement in relation to the natural environment.

Susan Farewell wrote:

Were Frazier Peters to build houses today, he’d be receiving all sorts of accolades for being an architect on the leading edge of environmentally-conscious, energy-efficient, sustainable design and construction.

The thick fieldstone walls (as much as 16 inches) typical of a Peters stone house make them energy-efficient; the stones effectively hold the heat in winter and keep the interiors cools in summer….

He segregated rooms by giving each one a separate identity, and through the use of step-downs, varied building materials, and interesting transitions. He was also taken by how beautifully European stone structures aged and compared them to American-built frame houses that “droop and pout if they are not continually groomed and manicured.”

Another important component of Peters’ designs was the marriage of the house and its surroundings. He wrote a great deal about this and was especially enamored with the brooks, hillsides, and woods of Connecticut.

Adam Stolpen — who lives in a Frazier Peters house — adds:  “He was our first ‘green architect.  And he was completely self-taught.

“These are definitely not cookie-cutter McMansions.  They are homes meant to be lived in.  And each one has a bit of whimsy.”

A Frazier Forman Peters house on Charcoal Hill. (Photo by Alan Goldfinger/Westport News)

The exhibit includes photographs of his houses; artifacts, and a model of stone construction method and materials.

But it would not have come about had it not been for a modern Westporter with an affinity for history — and a connection to Frazier Peters homes.

A few years ago, longtime town volunteer Mollie Donovan wanted a plaque for her son’s family.  Dan and Nicole Donovan had just bought a Peters house near Charcoal Hill — one of Peters’ favorite areas.

Most homes with a historic plaque are at least 100 years old.  But Bob Weingarten — the WHS member in charge of authorizing plaques — realized that the style, beauty, and placement of the Donovans’ house warranted one.

His interest in Peters was piqued.  He searched for other houses.  Each time he found — and verified — one, he sent a note to the WHS (and Mollie).

After a dozen, she decided Peters should be honored too — with an exhibit.

Frazier Forman Peters died in 1963.  Mollie Donovan passed away last April.

But — thanks to both of them — an intriguing, informative exhibition lives on.

So do Frazier Peters’ houses.  According to Bob Weingarten, of the 36 houses he’s found that were designed and built by Peters, only 1 has been demolished.

In today’s Westport, that might be Frazier Peters’ most enduring legacy of all.

(The Westport Historical Society exhibition runs through December 31.  Click here for details.)

Another Frazier Forman Peters house view. (Photo by Alan Goldfinger/Westport News)

8 responses to “Remembering Frazier Peters — And Mollie Donovan

  1. These houses are the rare keepers. They are absolutely, genuinely beautiful country homes.

  2. Thanks to Mollie’s vision, we have another stellar exhibit on display at WHS. Frazier’s homes remind us of English cottages with their beautiful detail and old-fashioned warmth as they nestle into the landscape. We proudly display these homes which add to Westport’s character and charm. We’ll continue to celebrate this exhibit with guest speakers and entertaining events so stay tuned for more on Frazier Forman Peters.
    Susan Gold, Executive Director
    The Westport Historical Society

  3. I think you would get an argument from Barlow Cutler Watten, whose father, Charles Cutler designed the Westport Bank building and a number of homes in Westport

  4. The Dude Abides

    I certainly love the houses (as my former in-laws owned one in Darien) but not so wild about the pretentiousness that seems to follow their design. They are homes and not museums after all.

  5. There is nothing ‘pretentious’ about these homes. Their exhibition of appreciation for nature & landscape is anything but pretentious.

  6. Thanks for quoting me in this piece, Dan. It’s wonderful that the Westport Historical Society is showcasing his work. As a travel writer, I spend a lot of time visiting major museums and attractions around the world, but it’s often the small community historical societies and galleries that have the most meaningful exhibits. This really puts the spotlight on these houses that you’d expect to see in Europe. Sadly, they are so outnumbered and some have been torn down. Thanks for your part in writing about it.