Architectural Missionary: Fred Charlton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 1887-1918 by Steven C. Brisson

New Book Highlights U.P.’s Most Prominent Architect

Fred Charlton is not a household name in the U.P. or even in Marquette where he lived, yet he deserves to be as well known as Peter White, John M. Longyear, Louis G. Kaufman, and many other notable U.P. figures. Perhaps more than any other man, Charlton was responsible for creating beautiful late Victorian and early twentieth structures in Upper Michigan, ranging from churches, courthouses, and commercial buildings to palatial residences, company cottages, and theaters. His styles ranged from Richardsonian and Romanesque to English Gothic, Classical, and Colonial. No list of famous U.P. buildings can possibly omit several structures he built from the Marquette County Court House and Longyear Mansion to Cliffs Cottage in Ishpeming, Newberry State Mental Hospital, and the original buildings of what are now Michigan Tech and NMU. All are buildings well known to Yoopers, and they have Charlton to thank for them.

Steven C. Brisson has done a commendable job in writing Architectural Missionary: Fred Charlton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 1887-1918 and it will be the definitive work on Charlton for generations to come. He begins by discussing Charlton’s early life in England, family background, and what inspired him to come to the United States and become an architect. In the second chapter, he discusses how Charlton worked for other architects before setting up his own firm in Marquette. In the process, we get a better understanding of architect training in the late Victorian period and how Charlton was on the cusp between carpenters and contractors who built buildings and called themselves architects and those professionally educated as such. We also get an understanding of the pressures architects endured in trying to obtain commissions, compete with other architects who were often from outside the area, and satisfy clients as well as work with landscapers (including Frederick Law Olmstead and Warren H. Manning), interior designers, and other colleagues, including the first women in these fields. In several places, Brisson quotes from Charlton’s letters to his colleague Charles Van Iderstine where the stresses of his job and his sense of humor come through, making him likeable and human.

Brisson discusses different architectural styles that Charlton employed during his thirty-year career from the late 1880s until the end of World War I, and how changing tastes influenced the styles he used as well as the tastes and needs of his clients. Beautiful, artistic designs Charlton made were sometimes rejected due to cost and a more utilitarian desire, while in other cases, he was allowed to let his imagination have full rein, such as with Marquette’s Froebel-Howard School. At the same time, he was apparently a good businessman who was always practical. Brisson notes that while lack of documentation makes it impossible to know exact numbers, of the 284 identified works of Charlton, 97 are known to still exist and 78 to have been destroyed. Destruction of buildings was sometimes due to uncontrollable events like fires, but at other times, the result of changing tastes and needs. However, that so many of the buildings he designed or had a hand in designing are still in use, including the Marquette County Court House and the Marquette Branch Prison, speaks to the practicality of his designs.

Brisson tirelessly surveys all the buildings he could identify as Charlton’s, although a detailed discussion of each building would be impossible. He devotes one chapter to what he considers Charlton’s three signature works, the Marquette County Court House, the Longyear Mansion (both the original structure and the remodeled one after it was moved from Marquette to Brookline, Massachusetts), and the Newberry State Mental Hospital. Brisson goes into full detail about each structure from initial plans through completion and its successive history to the present day.

Many other buildings are surveyed by type of structure, and photographs are included of most, as well as floor plans and watercolor paintings Charlton did of many proposed buildings. Brisson documents his sources, and the endnotes are worth reading for additional information. A few errors exist, but they are fairly minor—misspelling Heman Ely’s first name and naming Morgan W. Jopling as Peter White’s son-in-law rather than grandson—but these are far outweighed by the tremendous information that will leave every reader feeling enriched in their knowledge of the U.P.’s cityscapes. A complete list in the back of the book clarifies the locations of all the known buildings by Charlton, including which still exist, which have been destroyed, and which architectural style(s) they were.

As an enthusiast, though not an expert, on Victorian architecture, and a longtime Marquette resident and local historian, I feel that this book has greatly increased my understanding of architecture in my hometown. While I have long known about Charlton and even written a bit about him in my own books, the depth of Brisson’s research astounded me, and it makes me want to tour the U.P. to see every building Charlton ever designed; many of the buildings just in Marquette I did not know were the result of his skills. The list in the book’s appendix is incredibly helpful in this regard, and I guarantee every resident in the U.P. knows and likely loves several buildings in their vicinity that Charlton created.

One final comment is worth making. Architectural Missionary is a larger size paperback—7 x 10—and 265 pages. It should probably be priced at about $25 to $30. However, the price is about $46.95 depending on where you purchase it. It appears overpriced, but given the information inside, it is worth every penny. For me, the discussion of the Longyear Mansion alone, the most thorough I have ever read, makes it invaluable. To my knowledge, the book has received little notice, but it deserves to be on the bookshelf of every U.P. history lover. We have Charlton—and some of his rival architects—to thank for how beautiful our cities look today. Even Hollywood would agree since Otto Preminger chose to film Anatomy of a Murder at Charlton’s Marquette County Court House.

— Tyler R. Tichelaar, award-winning author of My Marquette and Kawbawgam: The Chief, The Legend, The Man

Architectural Missionary: Fred Charlton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 1887-1918
Steven C. Brisson
Michigan State University Press (2021)
ISBN: 978-1-6116-397-0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.