City 255: American Architecture

29 March 2001
Midterm exam: some answers transcribed from your classmates exams that were among the better ones, either by being close to what I was hoping for, or presenting less expected views that I found well versed, thoughtful, and engaging.

I. Short Answer IDs (3 x 4 minutes each = 12 minutes):
Identify each as best you can (building name, place, date, architect if known), and then (and even if you draw a blank on the first part) very briefly address the question, why does this place take the form it does? What are the forces and motives at work here?

a. St. Luke's, Newport Parish Church, Isle of Wight County, VA, 1632-ca. 1675.

1a. This is an example of the "high" church. It is more associated with the Old World English aristocracy and feudalism system than [were meeting houses] in New England. This high church has a longitudinal procession ...

1a. ... Unlike the Quakers in [PA], the Virginians did not feel like they needed to separate themselves from the high British church -- therefore remaining synonymous in structure they appropriated the traditional longitudinal form.

1a. ... This church takes the long narrow from it does due to the emphasis of the high church [plan], as opposed to the more egalitarian Quakers. ... Taken from European styles, this church is built ... with a reminiscence of the Gothic and medieval styles seen in the arched window shape.

b. "The Woodlands," William Hamilton house, Philadelphia, PA, 1786-89.

1b. Shows many elements of classicism: pediments, Palladian windows, beginning to take neo-classical forms with pillars -- extremely symmetrical exterior. Major Federal influences such as elliptical rooms. Attenuated windows also. Beginning to react against strict rules of Palladianism but still rational.

1b. This house is a Federal [style] house, though still influenced by Palladian classicism. The Palladian influence comes through in the windows in front of the house, as well as in the portico and columns, which are not at attenuated and long as they might be in the fedral period. But the plan belies the degree to which the Adam influenced Federal style, with its variety of room shapes ... influenced the building.

c. Morse-Libby house, Portland, ME, 1859-63 (attributed to Henry Austin).

1c. Italianate -- cultured, up with fashion, picturesque, ... asymmetrical.
$$$ shown in decadence of style for style's sake and opulence of interior. New $ earned with unregulated industrialization. Nouveau riche demonstrating wealth to try to justify/prove social position by following past societies when similar events occurred -- i.e., Italy's commercial -driven Renaissance.

1c. An Italianate style villa, ... 1850s or thereabouts. Reflects shift away from symmetry and lightness to an almost baroque kind of ornateness. The building has an element of gildedness to it, as though it is wearing a fiction. [Accretional] in style, emulating mercantile landed gentry of Italy. The new look for a burgeoning upper-middle class as the nation begins to shift to an industrial economy. ...

II. Unknowns (3 x 5 minutes each = 15 minutes):
These are buildings that you probably haven't seen before. Try to identify each as best you can by comparing it to buildings that you know, developing the issues of likeness. Try to place each in a context of period, style, place, motive, or other key factors in its form.
a. "Blandfield," Robert Beverly house, Essex County,VA, ca. 1769-74.

2a. This house resembles Mount Airy's plan of a central Georgian-style building and symmetrical additional service buildings connected with passages. This plan was popular for the southern plantations because it connected the multiple buildings with different functions. ... Further evidence [of its date] is the Georgian center pedimented pavilion and axial symmetry. The influence is from English mansion houses popularized through the English publications.

2a. I would place this building as probably in the VA area or perhpas a country getaway outside of Philadelphia. ... The main house is very restrained. The two outer buildings are reminiscent of Mt. Airy in the same design style.

b. PA German houses, 18th century.

2b. This type of small house follows the form of German settler houses. The plan looks like a modified hall parlor plan. The kuche would serve as the main room for cooking, eating, and working. Thus the large hearth is located in the kuche. The stube, or stove room, is more of a parlor, and the kammer is a private chamber. German settlers brought this house plan over from Europe and constructed it in their new territory because it was familiar and functional. The house is built of [logs], so perhaps the wood use reflects the abundance of wood in America. ... The house shows how they took an older form and modified it for a new setting.

c. "Havod," A. Loudon Snowden house, Haverford Station, PA, 1881 (Willis Hale).

2c. This is a late Victorian Gothic home. It is spontaneous, intricate, and completely innovative -- a product of the era's yen for an 'American" style. Refuting all references to the past, all associative elements, it strove to be unique, and true to its essence. A high premium was places on 'architectural integrity.' Despite its asymmetry an obvious segmentation, there is a certain continuity of style, a fluidity which appeared later in an attempt to unify to some extent the general appearance of American [houses].

2c. The house looks to be a High Victorian house. This house looks to be true to its materials. The polychromed chimneys make use of the natural colors of the brick being used to build them. Wooden brackets that hold up the section of the roof are shown. The house isn't trying to hide any of its features.

III. Pairings (3, x 7 minutes each = 21 minutes):
Think about each pairing, and working from some aspect they share or ways that they differ, try to penetrate to a larger issue encountered in American architecture before 1890.

a. Parson Joseph Capen house, Topsfield, MA, 1683, plan.
vs. Monumental Church, Richmond, VA, 1812 (Robert Mills), plan.

3a. The Capen house is a reflection of the hall-parlor plan. Space is contained rigidly and developed around necessity. A vernacular form of singular yet communal living. The plan of the Monumental Church ... reflects an evolution of classical elementalism. A "high style," a shift to conscious design planning, of craft turning into art, of the deification of the architect. ...

3a. ... Mills designed the space to allow equal hearing & view ... Monumental Church was PLANNED. Mills contemplated ideal forms, historical precedent. Mills was an architect. Parson's house built in the 17th century was most likely built by the owner or by the town guy who built everyone's house. It is that way because it was standard.
The concept of ARCHITECTURE was not foremost in the yeoman's mind, while by the 19th century it was a subject of much debate. ...

b. Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA, 1818-24 (William Strickland).
vs. Cottage, from A. J. Downing, Architecture of County Houses (New York, 1850), view and plan.

3b. While Strickland strives to express Republican virtue & rationality through his [Greek Revival]/Parthenon-esque work the cottage seeks to express the high moral character of it owners through ... modesty and bucolic nostalgia. Both structures attempt to evoke certain ideas in their audience through association, but take drastically divergent approaches.

c. Memorial Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1870-78 (Ware & Van Brunt).
vs. Crane Memorial Library, Quincy, MA, 1880-83 (H. H. Richardson).

3c. These present opposites: Memorial Hall attempts to present the truth of each part above that of the whole, while Crane Library is concerned primarily with the whole. Memorial Hall attempts to present the building's truth: polychromy highlights the truth of the materials. Radically different volumes react against the classical illusion, its false nature, and the facade covering interior function. Conversely, Crane library is about sensual feeling -- parts are not segmented from each other as in the former but instead elide, breaking past barriers. Uniform bands of color tie the whole together in opposition to the polychromatic truth.

IV. Significance (3 x 2 minutes each = 6 minutes):
What does each of these mean in the context of early American architecture? Give an example for each.

a. Eclectic.

4a. Eclectic ... implies a certain amount of creativity and originality [, but] rather than adhering to one from or style, an eclectic building might combine three or four into something new. ...

4a. The pulling together of different styles and forms.

b. Vernacular.

4b. Unselfconscious architectural form -- almost created from a cultural blueprint. Common especially in early American architecture as people brought vernacular forms from the Old World. Still often remains although hidden beneath facades. Parson Capen house in Topsfield, MA is an example with its slightly asymmetrical hall-parlor vernacular from.

4b. The local style of architecture, common to the area. [Examples:] the houses of early Salem, MA.

c. Queen Anne.

4c. Originally a style brought over from England and which Americans quickly adapted into their own unique style -- called Shingle style. Queen Anne has many components, some square, some round, some hexagonal, but all with elision from one form to the next. Queen Anne style is often associated with a large wrap-around porch. Some famous architects who worked in Queen Anne include H. H. Richardson and McKim, Mead & White.

V. Short Essay (1, x 15 minutes = 15 minutes):
Choose ONE of these three questions. Think a bit before you start to answer, and try to draw on any of the things you've been looking at, texts, articles, videos, walks, class, dated-buildings seeking, to help construct a thoughtful response. Use examples where appropriate to clarify your point, but don't feel impelled to spit back everything you've absorbed that's remotely connected to the topic. These are meant to call for some synthesis, reshuffling, even skepticism.

A. Old values?:
Discussion of famous architecture often focuses on buildings of heroic originality and bold reflection of structural fact. From this perspective, which celebrates difference and material truth, an awful lot of the buildings we have been looking at could look like a plague of uninventive sameness and masquerading falseness.
- But from the perspective of their makers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, those seeming negatives must have represented some more positive realization. What kinds of important positive values would have been placed on such work to motivate their creation in these forms, i.e., what was seen as good in such sameness and falseness? What motives and goals were served by this kind of design? Have these values been superseded, or do the same and the false still serve some need?

5a. The same and the false, represented by such styles as the Georgian, Greek revival, neo-Palladian, Federal, etc., had many important functions.
Originally, reaching back to the origins of classicism in the early 18th century, conformity and falseness were about an association with a class, which was very much in power in Britain. Although it can be seen as a simple regurgitation of British architecture, it more symbolically represents the very American ideal of attainment -- the "American dream." Houses like the McPhedris-Warner house of the Arthur Allen house, early American examples of classicism, represented the notion of "making it" to positions of power, rising above circumstances.
Moving further chronologically, as well, this sameness and falseness represented the hopes of a young nation to amateur architects such as Jefferson. His Monticello, for instance, is an abiding declaration to the rational, the reasonable -- the wisdom of man to rule himself. It was a very important reaction against ornamentation, the Baroque, and its central thrust, symbolizing despotism. To these men, it heralded democracy.
Later too, this sameness and falseness was important in creating the image of a still young America. Greek styles, such as that of the 2nd bank of the US, allude, through iconical allusion to the great [civilization] of Greece -- its classical wisdom, philosophy, and rationalism, its proud civic history. In disseminating as far into the lower classes as it did, the Greek Revival was an extremely important tool in constructing a nationalist pride -- essential in any young nation with members so dispersed and from such disparate backgrounds that some form of unification is necessary.
... Conformity, hence, can be seen everywhere -- in clothing types, speech patterns, activities, organizations, etc. Architecture, likewise, frequently continues to play iconical and conformist roles in American society. Invention is distrusted by many. The white farmhouse w/its green shutters, individuated lawn, and little, white picket fence -- nothing radical -- continues to be at the heart of the "American dream" for most Americans.

5a. The question of varied truth is one that has plagued me since this class began. Every style claims its truth, its originality, and they rarely strike me that way. I think the reason lies in the philosophy--my mind balks hearing Ruskin argue that Classicism is ostentatious, it balks at seeing Gothic described as organic, and yet, there is an individual truth behind each of these.
There is a social truth behind all of the movements we looked at, from the Puritan New England yeoman communities up to the mish-mash of late Victorian cities.
The truth of originality in each is that in each instance they work toward an ideal--the contrived or cookie-cutter assumptions I make are based on my modern idea of originality. To start with the Puritan towns, there is something inherently original in creating a communal town; the sameness of buildings allowed a social cohesion impossible in other settings--in square churches and meeting houses, in central pastures, they were one-upping the tradition. So what I see as rigid copy cat behavior was about unity of function, social solidarity and the concrete expression of values.
In the eighteenth century I find myself gawking at pattern books, at endless Palladian ideals, at the copying of European traditions. But the truth and purity behind that movement was in the philosophy--Palladian harmony, the rationalism of the new world. So what the sameness was for that philosophy was embracing common goals. The fracture of Classicism into many varieties shows that people were not just mindlessly following the style, they chose it to represent themselves as individuals and as a nation. ...
So does deviance from these trends of "ideal" ruin these truths of similarity? Far from it. I feel as if the dialog of styles is what allows for any truth in architecture at all. People attach social import and function to these uniformities. When the Stones of Venice came out, it was not only lauding Gothic architecture of a certain style but also Catholicism, Socialism, and other values. That is where architects found the truth in the associations of style. Where the laymen found their truth was in their ability to choose style, expression, privacy over showiness, mass vs. decoration and so on. Every new truth requires the negation of the last. And so these rejections which come in the form of same and false are necessary for the evolution of architecture. Philip Johnson's class house couldn't be seen as "pure" if it wasn't arguing against the old truth that walls hold up roofs, or that houses are for privacy. In a way, I see that being acted out in every time period we've looked at. Whatever a style is first presented as, a few years later it will be seen as the antithesis of those values.

B. Beyond styles?:
A quick impression from your survey texts, our class lectures, or even the pattern found out on the streets might give one the impression that the history of American architecture is simply an exercise in chronological categorization by stylistic and technological indicators, i.e., 'style x reigned from xx-xx,' or the 'material x came into use in xx.'
- Why do these styles change? What motivates this marching in step? Why do individuals play into this? Why do you think the pace of change seems to quicken over our period from the 17th to the late 19th century? Do you see instances of non-adherence to this parade of dominant styles? What motivates those? Do you see forces and motves that underlie and determine this evolution? Describe them, using examples to explain how they work.

5b. Each generation (American or otherwise), at least in what we call 'modern' times, seems naturally to develop and to needs to express its own identity. Whether via hairstyle, fashion of clothes, popular lingo, furniture and decoration, modes of transport, or ... monumental architecture, there is a normal movement to distinguishing one's own generation from one's parent's.
There is also the not peculiarly American, but certainly dominant in America, need to express not only personal identity, but to suggest personal status. Obviously, this is also true for aristocratic Europeans, or the head of a local tribe, but in America, with the adolescent growing pains of a new republic, there was a correspondingly adolescent need to both distinguish ourselves as a nation, as members of a certain class (or aspiring to be), and as individuals..
But how does one start from scratch? One doesn't. The classical forms of Greeks were not only widely recognized referents in the Western world, they were associated (via the democratic ideals of Hellenism) with the developing American democracy. Instant validation! It's easy to see how Stuart and Revett's images would appeal to a young United States.
Change also falls on the heels of economic, social, and political developments. The so-called Industrial Age offered sudden increases in speed of transport, ability to mass produce previously hand-made elements, and rapid rises to wealth for a hearty group of American entrepreneurs--who suddenly both needed an "identity," not only one which would express their economic success, but one too which would provide some level of "comfort." In a fast changing world.
The mid-nineteenth century revivals of old forms in the Italianate villas and Gothic cottages may appear oddities in the midst of an increasingly mechanized age. Their connotations, however, were country (vs. city), comfort (vs. pell-mell manufacturing and urban activity), and a cloak of historical fabric which served almost as an antidote to the hurtling pace of the day.
Earlier Americans looked to English baronial manors for their historical comfort level--having come from perhaps no land and little money, these Georgian edifices helped to establish an instant personal "credibility."
Increases in the pace of architectural change came about as means of transmitting changes in style became more widespread. Pattern books (especially 1840s on) allowed mass transmission to the masses themselves. ... Also the publication of architectural journals and improvement in transport [abroad] in the late nineteenth century helped further to spread stylistic trends. The rise of professionally trained architects, in recognition of architecture as a profession/architects as arbiters of style, were also factors.
My favorite example of non-adherence would be Mr. Furness, who had a vision ... and wasn't about to let the inventiveness of the 1870s go for the next "let's-calm-down-and-get-unified-surfaces" movement, just because the mavens of style said it was the thing to do. Richardson combined his take on Romanesque elements with characteristic construction materials and function-expressive massings of forms in a personal enough way that he had a style named for him--but then again he died and so we don't know how non-adherent he would have remained. In essence he created his own trend. ...

C. Americanism?:
Many of the patterns of form and the succesive critiques we have discussed seem to have parallels abroad, to the point where one might ask if the history of American architecture might not simply be a reflection of European architecure with a certain time-delay built in. On the other hand, one might see a second history, less shaped by importation and academics' retrospective narratives, and more representative of the majority of the buildings erected in this country.
- Do you agree, do you see two separable narratives? How do they differ -- is the division between them a matter of time period, social class, geography, design roles? How do these histories relate to one another? Do they intersect? For the periods we have discussed so far, do you see aspects that make American architecure distinctive in some ways from its models? Do you see evidence of a self-conscious attempt to differ? What premises or causes account for departures from trans-Atlantic patterns?

5c. In many ways the patterns of American architecture are a reflection of European predecessors. To say that there was only a time delay, however, would be too severe. One major change in architecture resulted from the differing availability of building materials and differing indigenous building styles in America. In this we see the prevalence of wooden homes in the East, while they were more scarce in Europe. We also see the use of native building technologies -- using adobe in the Southwest. In addition, differences in land ownership cannot be overlooked in terms of their influence on architecture. In the US at the beginning, it was very easy to get land, particularly in contrast to Great Britain. Where the wealthy nobility inherited large tracts of land. Thus in Britain you would [less often] have nouveau riches building large manorial houses. And on the other hand, you would also not see the impermanence of early American architecture (which came about because people were moving around) in England where you kept whatever land you had (if any).
The community notions of the early New England colonies too set them apart from England, since that country is what they were fleeing. Their church from and community layout became something uniquely American.
But the tow narratives are also extremely intertwined. The reliance on pattern books from Britain is a huge indicator of this. And indeed, you would not have nouveau riche building manorial estates in the style they did if they were not emulating the nobility of England. So there was certainly an attempt to be part of Britain's narrative.
But as the US grew older things did begin to change. The way the American Greek Revival trickled down to the middle class is something that didn't happen in most other countries. In addition, as professional architects began to appear in the US a lot more national innovation was possible. ... But the dialogue between nations and their architectures has not terminated. In this I think that architecture parallels our relationships with other nations as a sort of early globalization. To say that there is no 'distinct' American architecture is unfair, particularly since the British themselves were borrowing from Palladio & other classical architects. ...

url =; last rev. 2 April 2001