Every week I receive mail from readers who have questions about the style of their homes. They ask whether their porches used to have gingerbread trim, or why their doors are so narrow, or the significance of the brackets along the eaves. And, no matter how obscure the questions, I invariably find answers in A Field Guide to American Houses.
A Field Guide for Houses
A Field Guide to American Houses is aptly named. Just as some "field guides" identify species of birds or trees, this guide by Virginia and Lee McAlester provides everything you need to recognize housing styles in the USA. Thirty-nine fact-filled chapters describe the identifying features and historic significance of American dwellings. Hundreds of black and white photographs and detailed drawings illustrate building types ranging from Native American folk houses to geodesic domes.
How The House Guide Works
Here's how A Field Guide to American Houses works: In your travels through America, you notice an interesting building with a tile roof, wide overhanging eaves, and arched windows. First, you check the pictorial key at the front of the book. Thumbnail drawings of architectural details help you determine that the tile-roofed house may represent "Mission" style architecture. Turning to the chapter on Mission architecture, you find drawings that illustrate subtypes of the style and some typical elaborations. Two pages of text discuss the history and evolution of Mission architecture. Sixteen annotated photographs show a variety of Mission style homes in different parts of the country.
About the Authors
Mind you, A Field Guide to American Houses does not settle for easy or superficial answers. Author Virginia McAlester studied architecture at Radcliffe, attended Harvard Graduate School of Design, and served on the Administrative Committee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Author Lee McAlester is a geologist who has been involved in historic preservation projects in New England, Georgia, and the Southwest. While organizing and classifying American domestic architecture, the authors repeatedly emphasize that housing styles are fluid and that buildings are shaped by many historic and social influences.
A Guide to Ordinary Houses
Critics may complain that the McAlesters pay little attention to important figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright. However, A Field Guide to American Houses is a profoundly democratic book. Famous or trendy architects are granted no more attention than obscure or anonymous designers are. Primitive sod houses are described with the same sensitivity and detail as flamboyant Queen Annes. The underlying assumption is that every type of dwelling plays an important role in America's architectural history.
After all, volumes have been written about America's mansions and monuments. But fifteen years after its publication, the McAlesters' book remains the most comprehensive guide to everyday houses in the United States. It's a valuable and entertaining research tool for home-shoppers, homebuilders, and anyone who is fascinated by architectural history.
Me? I'm buying an extra copy for my car.
Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, Publisher
Thirty years and one divorce later, Virginia Savage McAlester has updated and revised the 1984 edition reviewed here. A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America's Domestic Architecture came out in December 2013. Learn more from these online articles:
- Virginia Savage McAlester: Leading the Ultimate House Tour by Michael Tortorello, The New York Times, December 24, 2013
- Virginia Savage McAlester wrote the book on Dallas homes, by Thomas Korosec, The Dallas Morning News, February 21, 2014