Born: July 31, 1854, De Kalb, Illinois. Married: Laura Alice Cheney, October 8, 1879, De Kalb, Illinois. Died: February 17, 1915, Knoxville, Tennessee.
George Barber was born July 31, 1854, to Lyman and Cornelia Barrett Barber in DeKalb, Illinois. After the early and unexpected death of his father, his mother moved the family to Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1860. Barber lived with his sister, Olive and her husband William Barrett in Marmaton, eight miles west of Fort Scott. There he worked and earned some extra money to help his mother.
Barber’s education was sporadic and interrupted with unrest due to the Civil War. Despite his lack of much formal education, he developed an early interest in rock collecting and horticulture. This interest became a job in 1878 when Barber purchased the deed to the farm adjacent to his sisters and began an ornamental nursery business. Yet, surviving tax records list his formal occupation as “carpenter.”
Barber slowly began an interest in building design. One of his first drawings, titled “Civil Architecture, 1873,” was sketched in a notebook elements and brief description of architecture. Barber joined his older brother, Manley Dewitt Barber, a respected house carpenter to form Barber and Boardman, Contractors and Builders, in De Kalb. He became acting contractor for the firm and he received a commission for the Congregational Church in De Kalb. He also published a mail order catalogue of designs, Cottage Souvenir. He married Laura Alice Cheney, October 8, 1879, in De Kalb.
Though Barber found success with his brother, he suffered from health issues in the Illinois climate. In 1888 the Barbers and their newborn child moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he published his second catalogue, containing 59 building designs. Barber’s designs gained national acclaim increasing demand, which allowed him to expand his Tennessee practice.
The national attention overwhelmed Barber resulting in local building delays on his larger commissions. Barber focused instead on the mail order business, which had grown to Japan, China, and the Philippines. Growing up in Kansas, Barber knew all too well the importance of the mail order catalogue in the lives of small town and rural settlers. He provided the necessary pictures, designs, and cost information to piquéthe interest of perspective customers. The firm employed 30 draftsmen and 20 secretaries in generating contracts and dealing with thousands of clients nationally and internationally. Barber’s mail order business produced 800 designs and sold around 20,000 sets of plans in a period of 20 years.
The mail order business ended in 1908 as demand for Barber’s designs grew. The designs were targeted at wealthy middle-class bankers, professionals, planters, and industrialists. The designs included Queen Anne style with elements of Colonial Revival and eventually full Colonial Revival styles. He set the standard for the American ideal of comfort, picturesque, and artistic. Popular elements included Queen Anne style weatherboards, novelty siding, fish-scale shingles, brackets, and gable ornaments. He added Romanesque elements such as an engaged tower or turret, an oriel window, an open circular pavilion, and an ornate chimney. At the beginning of the 19th century American consumers wanted charming American Colonial styles as well as the Georgian and Classical Colonial. Barber also included a scant few Mission and Craftsman style bungalows.
Some examples of Barber’s work in DeKalb include: Foursquare Congregational Church, William G. Earle House (202 Fisk Ave.), 403 N. Fifth Street, and 346 Linden Place.
George Barber died February 17, 1915 at the age of 61 and was buried in Knoxville, Tennessee.