A Field Guide to American Houses: by Virginia Savage McAlester

A Field Guide to American Houses: by Virginia Savage McAlester


Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Since its first print run in 1984, A Field Guide to American Houses has become known as the resource of record for stateside architecture. Intended as a reference book of identification, the meticulously researched textual sections bestow a sense of sociological commentary: this is a history of residential sprawl, an evolution of civil engineering, a pictorial timeline of how we’ve lived. Virginia Savage McAlester accomplishes this by taking a discerning look at all of the styles of boxes we build around ourselves.

There are four introductory chapters that familiarize readers with the basic guidelines to be discussed in-depth: the fashion, shape, anatomy and grouping of American houses. How does form follow function, and how has that changed over the centuries? What impact did industrialization have on neighborhood organization? Once she gets down to brass tacks, line illustrations are present on nearly every page, and the detail in these simple, clean drawings allows for the immediacy of visual comprehension. In one illustrated tutorial on sashes, McAlester dissects the components involved in installation, the eight different types of sash operation (casement, pivot, hopper, louver, etc.) and examples of common glazing patterns categorized by their relative popularities by century. That’s a lot to know about sashes – probably more than you’ll ever care to know – but true to its “field guide” designation, identification is a pretty simple task upon consultation of the graphic.

To that end, the book is generous in its illustrations and photographs (small gripe: all b&w), over 1,600 in all. The visual information balances out the expository text, which, while written with accessibility in mind, can still get knotty with architectural jargon, especially if one is not reading the book sequentially as a “master class” in home design. Field Guide focuses on more than 50 styles of houses, each section including numerous photos with captions that include location, build date, architect and a description of the feature(s) that make the structure worthy of mention. An example from the Federal Style section: “A high-style example with roof balustrade, cornice-line modillions and dentils, keystone lintels, and elaborate Palladian window and door surround.” Photo groupings are broken down even further into discrete subcategories – our “high-style example” was selected as part of a spread devoted to side-gabled roofs. If the fussy and formal vocabulary doesn’t stick, don’t worry: each section is prefaced with schematics of principal design features common to the style, and there is a comprehensive pictorial key located in the introductory pages that cross-references design elements with the style(s) most likely to incorporate them.

This revised edition includes quite a bit of commentary on recent trends in construction, as times and tastes (not to mention the housing market itself) have undoubtedly changed over the past 30 years. McAlester conveys a polite, fact-based disdain when discussing Millennium Mansions (aka McMansions) and “New Traditional” homes, which are dwellings that are reproductions of historical styles. McAlester posits that the rise of the internet and interest in revivalism resulted in “almost every earlier house style [being] built somewhere in the United States during the millennium housing boom.” Many pages are spent contrasting “well-detailed” reproductions from “simplified or poorly detailed” ones. There are plenty in the latter category, as builders look for high-impact, superficial results on a budget – and, legitimately, some construction elements may not be appropriate for today’s code enforcement. Even worse is when the two styles collide, as the grandiose scale of McMansions only exaggerates the inaccuracies and inexactitude found too often in mass marketed high-end housing. It’s weirdly entertaining to read as McAlester snubs her nose at vinyl as a construction material, and one can visualize her expression souring when she captions, “This [home] has a strong Millennium Mansion influence. Here the two front-facing gables with red-brick ‘wallpaper’ are an instant tip-off.” On my first reading I swore she’d written “rip-off.” I bet to her it’s the same difference.

Even if you just ogle at houses recreationally, this 800+ page work is worth the investment, especially as it’s affordably priced at $50 retail (a bargain for a well-illustrated book of this size and scope). Whether you’re in the market for a house, are curious about the architectural origins of your neighborhood, have designs on rehabbing or renovating a home, or simply consider the streets to be a living museum, this encyclopedic Field Guide will tell you all you need to know – and then some.

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