American Victorian House and Suburb

Fall 2000, J. Cohen
Tu 2:00-4:00, Carpenter B25
[course calendar] [classwork and external links]

Course description.

City 377 will be a seminar and workshop for research into the history of suburban places, with student projects to be presented in digital form on the web. The course will involve the history of architecture and of urbanism, research methods and resources for probing the history of place, the use of tools for creating web pages and digitizing images, and the design of informational experiences.

Our focus will be on the origins of a place that we have come to think we know only too well, and to take as an inevitable feature of our landscape and experience. One of the goals of this course will be to rediscover it in its youth in the light of its ambivalent modernity, as an early incarnation of our modern existence marked by industrial production, a consumer economy, national markets, corporate capital, mechanized commuting, international bourgeois culture, and class mobility. The late nineteenth century was an uncertain time, as traditional architectural imageries of social standing and cultural engagement were found less satisfactory for this emerging new place; traditional house forms became a foil for desired new ones. The new suburb was built up in unprecedentedly varied shapes, rich colors, and ever-present, willful allusions in the languages of earlier styles. It possessed a modernity expressed in anxiety and anachronism, a possibility of novel, unsettling departures from the old sometimes exercised and celebrated, but more often combined with intent familiarities. And it was played out against the backdrop of a city also transforming itself in sweeping ways, with new functions and old resorting themselves in these two landscapes in a dance of constant mutual redefinition.

This course begins with curiosity about a kind of place that we can visit today and find ways to reconstruct in time. We will think about its forms, its causes and agents, about the landscapes it succeeded, and those it conditioned. Among the course goals will be to develop facility in querying, reading, and researching place, and learning to be resourceful in seeking out both specific information and contextualizing materials that shed light on the questions we construct. To this end we will integrate reading on early suburbanization and on Victorian architecture in the U.S. and Britain with historical evidence, both documentary and physical, presented by the Philadelphia-area. We will seek to understand patterns of this region's landscape history, social history, economic history, and architectural history that intersect in these suburban communities. We will move from secondary to primary sources that document this phenomenon. Our understandings will be constantly challenged, informed, and tested by the detailed histories of particular suburban locations in this region. Finally, we will focus on presentation, using digital media and the Web as a means of assembling documents and interpretation, integrating images with text and offering interactive possibilties, to create engaging informational experiences that anticipate, incite, and reward the curiosity of others.

Class time will combine elements of lecture, seminar, computing workshop, studio with team projects, site visits, and student presentations. This will be more of a workshop, something project-based rather than primarily lecture-, reading-, and test-based, often putting more emphasis on active learning than passive absorption. It will involve both content and technology, but, ultimately, the medium wiil be treated as a secondary focus, an enabling but deferent vehicle for effective presentation of that content.

Participants should have some preparation in the history of architecture and urbanism, and will need no more than a basic facility with computer operating systems and software. Enrollment will be limited to 15 students.


Reading Responses 1, 2, and 3: (due 17 Sept., 8 Oct., 19 Nov.)

The reading assignments will be a little bit out of the ordinary in this course. Rather than my directing your reading in singular assigned texts, we will build toward a more independent conversance with published books and articles and ultimately with primary materials in a variety of fields that bear on our subject, ranging from suburban history itself to architectural history, economic history, social history, and beyond. You might start with some general framing chapters in well-known books, but proceed to read adventurously, pursuing intriguing footnotes and bibliographical mentions, finding and getting a taste of potentially helpful articles, then choosing some to read in full. Try to include some original writings from the time. You should also choose some readings that will be particulary helpful for the Philadelphia area, especially for the third set of readings.

It's not a hard rule, as sources vary greatly and I would not want you to choose things by their length, but in general, you should read at least 50 pages per week in these two or three week periods. For each batch, you'll compose some paragraphs of thoughtful responses to what should be a mix of readings from a few different sources, along with precise citations of what you have read. These should not be detailed recapitulations or rehashes of the readings. Don't try to summarize at length; rather, discuss intent, approach, framing notions, extrapolated 'moral of the story,' or your responses overall or to specific things that spurred your own thoughts.

In week two you'll learn to post these on the web for your classmates to see. Each time you will read the responses of at least three of your classmates as soon as they're posted, sending comments to their authors, and potentially taking cues for your own further reading.

RR1 should be started by 4 September and posted by 17 September.
RR2 should be started by 26 September and posted by 8 October.
RR3 should be started by 31 October and posted by 19 November.

Websites critique: (start by 19 September, due 26 September)

Working in pairs or individually, find and critique two websites about place historically, composing some comments on each that focus on how they deliver the content, which should be at least somewhat pertinent to our subject and materials. Create a website linking their URLs, and giving your responses, whether postivie or negative, and some of the lessons you draw from these.

This is a one-week exercise, for presentation in class on 26 September., but to be posted by 24 September. Before class, look at three critiques by classmates, and be prepared to discuss your responses in class on the 26th.

Website review of images of American Victorian architecture (start by 19 September, due 26 September, 10 October)

A website being put together under the aegis of the Society of Architecural Historians compiles digital images of American architecture that have appeared in multiple textbooks in current use. Look at the Victorian examples, starting with no. 80 in the second unit [] and continue into the third unit [], viewing all images and taking notes for discussion on points of curiosity or inquiry that arise. Be prepared for discussion of the earlier ones in class on 26 Sept., and the rest (to no. 141) by 10 Oct.

Project 1: Change (start by 10 October, due 29 October)

This first research project, the smaller of two, will focus on specific locations changing over time. We will pick some particular locations described and or illustrated in the late 19th century, either in one of Samuel F. Hotchkin's four books or in one of the 150-odd Wells & Hope photographs from the same period. Pick a handful of different sites and settle on two that you choose to treat in full.

We wish to discover, discuss, and present how each landscape changed over time, both before and after these moments of description in the late 19th century, using whatever resources we can to reconstruct that narrative and present the result as a website. The most predictable sources will be old atlases, which will show changing footprints and boundaries and infrastructure over the decades since the mid-19th century. Other sources of information will be more the results of resourcefulness and even luck, and may range from civic paperwork to personal interviews, newspaper advertisements to diaires. And don't forget to think about the things around your site and other forces that may have conditioned changes of use, but try to be specific rather than glibly citing national trends.

The presentation of the result may take various forms. Be imaginative, but don't focus on the 'gee-whiz' so much as what you find effective in delivering the story and the evidence (full rules of citation are in effect, but you will have to devise methods for doing so). You will likely want to scan images or take digital photos from maps and atlases, or from what is visible on the site today. For buildings mentioned by Hotchkin, you may wish to add your own commentary to his, extending it in time backward and forward as the result of your research. You may work in pairs on this, but with a different partner than on other assignments. Result to be posted on 29 October , reviewed on web by classmates, and presented in class on 31 October.

Project 2: Themes (start by 7 Nov, begin website by 14 Nov., due 28 Nov. for presentation, revised by 17 Dec.)

The second, and larger research project will be more focused on themes, especially themes that seem to run against the grain or fit between the cracks of most discussions of the suburbs and their architecture. This makes the project more challenging, but also more exciting, it is hoped, as we head out not simply to compile and digest the facts and summarize or apply conclusions in already published academic writings, but try to reach out more widely, resourcefully, and independently. The Philadelphia area in the Victorian period should be the locational and temporal foci of the project (except, perhaps, for topics k & l), and the research should explore real examples and information in pursuit of the thematic questions adopted.

A key will be to clearly define a question of real interest, devise a way to approach this, and stick with the key issues even as one is called by the sirens of much more available sources of information that do not quite get at the issue, or a near dearth of informative resources. Each project will have to identify a good question, refine it, and stick with it amid the tides of other streams of information and analysis; students will have research each imaginatively, and conceptualize an effective way to present the material as a website.

Below is a list of suggested themes. Consider them seriously, reframing or refining them, but you may also suggest others for consideration. By 7 November, adopt one as a reformulated question, and start to build your website. By 14 November you should post this for discussion in class, outlining a research strategy and the beginnings of a presentation format. I will look for additional progress and development on it each week before class.

Potential topics for research project 2

More general:

Developmental narratives about Victorian suburban evolution in different directions:

To be completed for classmate comment by 28 November. Final, revised version, taking into account feedback from classmates and instructor, by 17 December.


url=; last rev. = 3 Oct. 00; [course calendar]; Comments