Roycroft, the utopian community near Buffalo, New York, was a major inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement; its distinctive design aesthetic is imitated to this day. As Melanie Haiken found, it may have inspired something altogether different: Scientology. Roycroft, like all utopias, eventually faded away — but it holds some important lessons for all of us.
“Life without Industry is Guilt. Industry without Art is Brutality.” The forbidding message, carved into a pair of imposing oak doors, offers the first inkling that Roycroft, an artisan community in East Aurora, New York, might have been more than the back-to-basics utopia it appears.
Picture the more than 500 Roycrofters who lived here during the community’s heyday sitting down to a collective meal in the rustic-beamed dining room, a row of heavy oak plaques swinging from chains above their heads. The mottos are cryptic: “Reciprocity. Mutuality. Moderation.” Some, like “Be Yourself,” feel like an eerie premonition of the sentiments so annoyingly ubiquitous during my 1970s California childhood, when the self-actualization movement, as it was un-ironically known, was in full swing. And then there’s my favorite, as enigmatic as it gets: “It Doesn’t Matter.”
Clearly, there was more going on here than craftsmanship, though Roycroft’s role as a preeminent center of Arts & Crafts design and architecture is the lure for the majority of visitors who make the 30-minute drive from nearby Buffalo. Founded in 1895 by followers of the John Ruskin and William Morris-inspired movement and mostly abandoned in the 1930s, Roycroft today has become something of a pilgrimage for fans of that era’s heavy wooden furniture, hammered copperware, and Medieval-inspired letterpress printing.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 after being abandoned and all but lost, the Roycroft Campus has undergone painstaking restoration, with the print shop, furniture shop, copper shop, and chapel now open to visitors, as well as the Roycroft Inn and Restaurant. Governed by their overarching motto—Head-Heart-Hand—and stamping many of their works with a Medieval-looking symbol hearkening back to the craft guilds of the middle ages, Roycrofters put craft and a simpler way of life back on the American radar, pushing against the industrial revolution–fueled tide towards convenience and machine-made goods.
Life without Industry is Guilt.
Industry without Art is Brutality.
I’m far less interested in the mortise-and-tenon joinery of Mission-style chairs and library tables than I am in its founder, Elbert Hubbard, a former salesman for Buffalo’s Larkin Soap Company, a man whose creative hucksterism paid off in financial success, the proceeds of which funded the founding of Roycroft. Said riches also underwrote Roycroft’s print shop, which published Hubbard’s paradoxical treatises propounding everything from enlightened labor and political reforms to worship of wealth and financial success. Happy to pillory almost any aspect of society, Hubbard was an acid-tongued satirist whose views and personal life were equally contradictory. He was a dandy who favored Stetson hats and oversized velvet bow ties but expounded on the virtues of austerity and hard work. He was a moralist who maintained two families within miles of each other, fathering daughters by his first and eventual second wife just months apart.
Wandering the dimly lit rooms, with their church-like arched mullioned windows, I’m mesmerized by the Roycroft leader’s pithy pronouncements, many of which read like dispatches from the world of those busy manifesting self-actualization in all its forms. “Use Your Friends By Being of Use to Them,” reads a slogan over one window; “Men Are Great Only as They Are Kind,” reads another.
Hubbard’s philosophy, which morphed over time from anarchy and an idealistic worker-led socialism to impassioned championship of free enterprise, established him firmly in the long chain of business and personal self-help messiahs from Spiritualism’s Madame Blavatsky to positive thinking pusher Norman Vincent Peale to Rhonda Byrne, whose The Secret borrowed from them all. A quick perusal of The Notebook of Elbert Hubbard, a posthumous compilation of his writings, wields gems like “Genius is only the power of making continuous efforts.” Hubbard’s best-known essay, Message to Garcia, a slightly disturbing ode to perseverance and obedience, remains on the reading lists of many business schools and military training programs today.
Even Roycroft’s signature font — designed, I’m told, by early resident Dard Hunter — looks strangely familiar until I realize it’s almost identical to that used by modern-day letterpress artist David Lance Goines in his iconic posters for Chez Panisse, Peet’s Coffee, and countless other California restaurants, businesses and institutions.
If all of these threads of interconnection weren’t enough to get my neck prickling, there’s one more — the name Hubbard, which links Roycroft’s founder with another self-proclaimed utopian leader, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Can it be a coincidence, I wonder, that the leader of what is arguably America’s most prominent and successful cult has the same name as the man who coined sayings like, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one?”
It’s no coincidence; whether the man born Lafayette Ronald Hubbard shortened his name to L. Ron to sound more like Elbert or not, he did claim descendancy of a type, with a story of being a nephew through adoption — though researchers attempting to document the connection haven’t been able to substantiate the story. What is known is that the connection was important enough to the later Hubbard that he dedicated the 9th printing of his book Dianetics to his supposed namesake. And that at various times he had groups of followers read and distribute A Message to Garcia — perhaps unsurprising given the essay’s emphasis on subjugating the individual to the will of the greater group.
If all of this gives me pause, it’s also strangely impressive. In his 59 years, Hubbard made Roycroft a self-sustaining enterprise, with its own bank, blacksmith shop, and farms. He wrote a 9-volume biographical series detailing the lives and thoughts of those he considered influential thinkers and artists. In later years he became a supporter of the suffragist movement, a cause espoused by his second wife, Alice Moore. In addition to editing two magazines, he became a sought-after lecturer and even a correspondent for the Hearst newspapers. It was in that role that Hubbard and his wife set sail for Europe on their last voyage — they died in the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.
As I take a final walk around the grounds, admiring the hand-set stone walls and unrestored buildings not yet open to visitors, I try to understand why I’ve felt so unnerved by Roycroft’s exhortations to hard work and communal action — values I do, after all, believe in and do my best to abide by. Perhaps it’s the sense that movements like this come and go, some disappearing with little trace, others sending out tendrils to take root anywhere they find fertile soil. And the realization that a legacy can stretch far beyond the original intent, its ideals inspiring generations of artists and designers while fueling the aspirations of leaders far less magnanimous than the original model.
It occurs to me that such ironies would please Hubbard, who might have written his own epitaph in one of his most popular sayings, often illustrated by a heavily burdened skeleton: “Do Not Take Life Too Seriously — You Will Never Get Out of it Alive.”
But there’s another epitaph, too, the final line on a bronze plaque placed outside the Roycroft chapel a year after the Hubbards’ deaths at sea: “They lived and died fearlessly.” This, I think, is the meaning I’ll take away from this infuriatingly inconsistent man and his clan who set themselves apart to live and work differently, changing the rules as they went along. It seems a fitting one for these times when one global problem seems to pile on top of another: fearlessness may be the value we most need to reclaim.