Barber began designing houses in his native DeKalb, Illinois, in the late 1880's, before permanently moving his base to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1888. His first widely-circulated catalog, Cottage Souvenir No. 2, contained designs and floor plans for fifty-nine houses, mostly in the Queen Anne style, as well as Barber's architectural philosophy and tips for homebuilders. Later catalogs contained more Colonial designs. By the time his catalog business ended in 1908, Barber had sold upwards of 20,000 plans.
Barber was the father of Charles I. Barber (1887–1962), who went on to become a successful architect in his own right, and designed a number of notable buildings in the Knoxville area during the first half of the 20th century. BarberMcMurry, an architectural firm cofounded by Charles Barber in 1915, still operates in Knoxville.
Early life and careerDuring this period, he learned architecture through mail-order books, namely George Palliser's American Cottage Homes and technical books published by A.J. Bicknell and Company. In 1884, Barber patented a nail-holding attachment for hammers.
By the mid-1880's, Barber was back in DeKalb, where he produced his first architectural designs working for his brother's construction firm, Barber and Boardman, Contractors and Builders. In 1887 or early 1888, Barber published The Cottage Souvenir, crudely produced on punched card stock and tied together with a piece of yarn, which contained 14 house plans (a revised edition published shortly afterward contained 18). The earliest buildings constructed from Barber's designs include the Charles E. Bradt House (1887) and the Congregational Church (1888), both in DeKalb. The Bradt house was featured in the March 1888 issue of Carpentry and Building.
Catalog businessParkridge). He designed over a dozen houses for this suburb, including his own house, which still stands at 1635 Washington Avenue, and the W.O. Haworth and F.E. McArthur houses, which also still stand on Washington Avenue, and appeared in some of Barber's catalogs.
In 1890, Barber published The Cottage Souvenir No. 2, which contained 59 house plans, as well as plans for 2 barns, a chapel, a church, 2 storefronts, and several pavilions. This catalog and its subsequent revisions led to an explosion in orders for Barber's firm. Barber houses built during this period include the Jeremiah Nunan House in Jacksonville, Oregon, the Donnelly House in Mount Dora, Florida, and the J. Hawkins Hart House in Henderson, Kentucky, all of which still stand and are listed on the National Register. He also remained active on a local level in Knoxville, with the Romanesque-inspired Isaac Ziegler House on 4th Avenue, and a house built for his printer, S.B. Newman, which still stands in Old North Knoxville.
Around 1895, Barber parted ways with White and formed a new firm with a new partner, Thomas Kluttz. That year, Barber began publishing a magazine, American Homes, which advertised the firm's latest house plans, offered tips on landscaping and interior design, and published a multi-part history of architecture by Louisville architect Charles Hite-Smith. In 1896, the growing firm moved into the Barber-designed French and Roberts Building on Gay Street, with the firm's thirty draftsmen and twenty secretaries occupying an entire floor.
Later careerIn the late 1890's and early 1900's, Barber designed a number of elaborate mansions for affluent businessmen, including the home of Carroll Lathrop Post (brother of C. W. Post) in Battle Creek, Michigan, the home of tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the home of People's Bank president N.E. Graham in East Brady, Pennsylvania, and one of his grandest designs, the $40,000 "Mount Athos" for Barboursville, Virginia, tycoon Walter G. Newman.
In the early 1900's, Barber began to phase out his mail-order business and with the help of his brother, Manley, focused on Knoxville-area building projects. He later worked with architects R. F. Graf and John Ryno. The publication of American Homes was moved to New York in 1902, though Barber remained a regular contributor for several years afterward. The catalog business was suspended in 1908. Barber died on February 17, 1915, and is interred with his family in Knoxville's Greenwood Cemetery.
In discussing his architectural philosophy, Barber argued that Nature has "faithfully and accurately adhered to the Divine law of harmony," and that no place should adhere more closely to the fundamental principles of nature than one's house. Barber considered proportion the most important element in architecture, likening it to harmony in music, "without which all else is a failure." He described ornamentation as the next most important element, as it gives proportion expression. Lastly was "harmony of form," or the relationship of curved and straight lines to one another.
Romanesque elements. Barber houses constructed in this period are characterized by features such imposing turrets, projecting windows, verandas flanked by circular pavilions, and Syrian arches. In the latter half of the 1890's, Barber began to offer more plans in the Colonial Revival style. These were often characterized by projecting porticos supported by large columns, symmetrical facades, and flat decks with balustrades. Later Barber catalogs contained Bungalow and Craftsman styles, though few of these were built.
Some have suggested that Barber was the first to sell prefabricated houses in crates, but there is no evidence that he was actually engaged in manufacturing. While he occasionally supplied builders with manufactured windows, doors, staircases and other components, and that a number of millwork companies advertised in Barber's magazine, it is unclear whether entire houses were sold as kits by anyone prior to 1900.
Barber houses todayAt least four Barber houses— the Isaac Ziegler House, the Jeremiah Nunan House, the John Owings House (Laurens, South Carolina), and Roselawn (Natchitoches, Louisiana)— have been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Many extant Barber houses are still used as residences, while others house museums, bed and breakfasts, and office space. Barber houses have provided inspiration for Christmas cards, wall hangings, and at least one dollhouse model. While most of Barber's work was domestic, several notable non-domestic Barber-designed buildings survive. These include the Congregational Church (now DeKalb Foursquare Church) in DeKalb, Illinois, the Raper Building in Lexington, North Carolina, and Bartlett Hall at Maryville College.