Woman broke ground designing homes in Newton

1800s trailblazer among the first female architects

Architectural designer Laura Fitzmaurice is researching the legacy of Margaretta “Anna’’ Cobb, an early female architect who designed this house and others in Newton. Architectural designer Laura Fitzmaurice is researching the legacy of Margaretta “Anna’’ Cobb, an early female architect who designed this house and others in Newton. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Sarah Thomas
Globe Correspondent / March 24, 2011

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Architect Robert Fizek and his wife, Laura, have lived in Newton Highlands for the last 20 years, raising four children in their bright two-family Victorian.

But until Fizek needed to fix a window, he never realized he was living in a piece of unsung history.

“I was repairing a window when I discovered the name ‘A. Cobb’ written on a piece of trim in black crayon,’’ Fizek said. “I remember thinking, ‘Arthur? Andrew?’ But then a friend in Historic Newton told me about Annie.’’

That would be Margaretta “Anna’’ Cobb, one of the country’s early female architects.

To her contemporaries, Cobb was a trailblazer — a successful builder, innovative architect, and single mother at a time when few women were any one of those things, let alone all three. But to the Newton Highlands neighborhood that derives much of its character from her creations — almost all of which stand today — she’s known as Annie.

Her work might not be featured in any textbook — yet. But she’s earned the admiration of Fizek and other area design professionals, who are laboring to correct the historical record with a series of walking tours, lectures, and possibly a book about Cobb.

One of those professionals is Laura Fitzmaurice, an architectural designer who has spent the last year collecting more than 400 newspaper clippings and other material about Cobb. Fitzmaurice held a walking tour of Cobb’s homes last year.

On March 31 at 12:30 p.m., Fitzmaurice will give a lecture about Cobb in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. There has also been talk of having Annie’s face emblazoned on T-shirts that will be sold at a booth at this year’s Newton Highlands Village Day, Fitzmaurice said.

Fitzmaurice discovered Cobb a few years ago, when friends Nancy and Chris Criscitiello asked her to do a renovation to their kitchen.

“They have this beautiful home, and while I was working on it they started to tell me that it had been designed by a woman architect over a hundred years ago. That really fascinated me,’’ Fitzmaurice said. “I wanted to learn more.’’

Fitzmaurice obtained a research grant from the Boston Society of Architects and spent a year hunting down information. Slowly, the story of Annie Cobb’s life began to unfold.

Born in 1830, her maiden name was Raeburn — the name that graces Raeburn Terrace, where the Criscitiellos live. She married shipwright Sewall Chapman Cobb, and the couple moved to South Boston, where Annie learned the craft of building from her husband and began her career in 1852. She built houses on East Seventh Street and Telegraph Hill, some of which still stand.

“When Annie started her career, it was before there were such things as architectural programs in schools. You either became an apprentice to a craftsman, or worked as a draftsman for an established architect,’’ Fitzmaurice said. “She was entirely self-taught, and historians consider her the first female architect of this preprofessional period.’’

At the beginning, though, she was still building from others’ plans.

Cobb’s life changed in 1866. After her husband’s business failed, she separated from him, remaining in Boston to raise their daughter while he moved to Pensacola, Fla.

The couple reconciled in 1872, when Annie’s daughter married a Southerner. Cobb began spending the winters with her husband in Pensacola; he was elected mayor in 1867, and ran a successful fishing company.

Around 1874, the family moved from South Boston to Newton Highlands, which at that time was still mostly open land. Annie Cobb’s first house in the neighborhood was her own.

“The homes she built in Newton Highlands were the first homes she herself designed,’’ Fitzmaurice said. “She began to develop her own style, which was a unique take on the American domestic architectural style being developed at the time.’’

All told, Annie would build 16 homes in Newton Highlands, 15 of which still stand.

Cobb’s designs attracted some notice during her lifetime: She was one of two female architects to exhibit work at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. But after her death on Feb. 24, 1911, she was largely forgotten.

“Architectural history focuses mainly on big things — big office buildings, grand homes, things that were for the most part designed by big firms which exclusively employed men,’’ Fitzmaurice said.

“Finding this largely unknown architect, who helped shape such a nice neighborhood . . . it’s been really fun.’’

In the 1980s, Historic Newton did a survey of the city’s older homes, which began to uncover Cobb’s legacy. Since then, the city organization has sponsored a small exhibition at the Newton Free Library, as well as considering a larger display at its own Jackson Homestead and Museum.

“In a time when a woman’s role was in the home, Annie was building the homes,’’ said Melissa Westlake, Historic Newton’s curator of education. “She’s very inspiring.’’

Cobb’s significance is not lost on Fizek, an architect and active member of the Newton Highlands community. (Fizek led an effort several years ago to have the city acquire a 1924 Colonial that had been severely damaged by fire, and make the property part of the Crystal Lake beach complex.)

Cobb “wasn’t afraid to try different things, and she always made sure that there were ample and inviting living spaces,’’ Fizek said. “We love the moldings in our home, and the golden flecks of light we get from our stained-glass transom windows. The longer you live there, the more you feel her presence.’’

Perhaps, Fizek said, that’s what led his wife to track down Cobb’s grave, which is in Newton Cemetery.

“We used to take the kids there for picnics in the summer when they were growing up,’’ Fizek said. “And we would always walk by, and my wife would say, ‘Thank you, Annie.’ ’’

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