Book Review: A Field Guide to American Houses

By Special Contributor posted 06-03-2014 15:39

By Daniel Tana, Lindsey Wallace and Margaret O'Neal

This past December saw the release of the updated edition of Virginia McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses, first published in 1984. We asked three preservation professionals here at the Trust--all fairly recent graduates of historic preservation programs--to give their thoughts on the new edition. What did they like? What, if anything, do they wish were different? Get their take below.

Daniel Tana, Legal

Many would agree that the original edition of A Field Guide to American Houses is essential reading for anyone interested in preservation in the United States. I am very fond of my old paperback version of the book because it got me through my historic preservation grad program. As an owner of both copies now (one for home, and one for work; always be prepared!), I still think that I might pick my old copy if forced to choose, but that’s not to say that the new edition doesn’t improve upon the old in various ways.

For starters, while many of the images in the new edition are the same images from the original, they are all much sharper and clearer. They are still in black and white, which is fine, but I would have loved to see one or two color photos for each style.

 Want a quick peek? | Courtesy of Daniel Tana
Plus, there are whole chapters of new information. In addition to greatly expanded sections on 20th-century housing types (which, admittedly, might not be appealing or useful to preservationists yet, but likely will be in the not-too-distant future), there is an excellent chapter on neighborhoods and the different development patterns seen in neighborhoods over time. A brief appendix toward the back of the new edition discusses 20th- and 21st-century construction approaches. Again, at first glance, this may not seem useful to someone interested in historic preservation, but reading about contemporary building techniques, gives me an even greater appreciation for the quality of materials and construction found in historic houses compared to new construction.

Yet, one of the main reasons that I prefer my old edition of the book is that the new edition, currently, is only available as a hardback. This may seem silly, but something about the well worn paper-covers of the old edition make it all the more inviting to crack open and flip through quickly when I’m looking for information, which makes it much more usable for me than the new version. Needless to say, I can’t wait for the paperback of the new version to be released!

Lindsey Wallace, Preservation Resources

I’m with Daniel—a paperback version of this Field Guide is far preferable to hardback. It is a Field Guide, after all! Patience, patience.

Paperback vs. hardcover? | Courtesy of Daniel Tana
No matter what version you use, Virginia McAlester’s Field Guide to American Houses is an essential tool for anyone studying or just interested in American architecture. Her updated Field Guide remains incredibly valuable to preservationists and architecture nerds for the same reasons the older version is--simple illustrations, clear details, useable information, and real-world example photographs. Instead of vastly changing this approach, she simply focuses on expanding the guide to include more post-1930 house styles, including the generously termed “Millennium Mansion.” This attention to 20th- and 21st-century styles helps establish a more comprehensive architectural context lacking in the previous edition and acknowledges the importance of studying all styles, even if the reader is not a fan (see Millennium Mansion). This new version also improves on the graphic attractiveness of the original, particularly with its jazzy new cover.

As Daniel mentioned, McAlester’s update also includes a chapter on neighborhoods that, though a brief overview, is a welcome addition to the text. No one could cover every nuance in the history of American neighborhoods in under 50 pages, but this chapter serves a useful purpose in more fully demonstrating these houses in real life-- not as stand-alone structures, but as homes that people live in.

While McAlester focused on expanding her timeline to present day, she did not reexamine her presentation of the earliest First Nations structures, which she places under the “Folk Houses – Native American” section. But her dilemma is clear--how would one go about describing in detail thousands of years of architecture in a guide book meant to be easily transportable? In some cases, there is little documentation and no extant examples of these First Nations structures. Still, she could create more detailed chapters by region, material, or even eras. Perhaps the next edition will expand upon this topic as this edition expanded upon neighborhoods and post-1930 house styles.

Margaret O’Neal, Preservation Green Lab

Having pulled the shortest stick, I’m left only to say that I second (and third!) the opinions of my wise-beyond-their-years colleagues.

A great addition to any library! | Courtesy of Daniel Tana 
The new chapter on neighborhoods, as both Daniel and Lindsey mentioned, adds an additional and important facet to the story of “houses built for American families” – part of the original book’s tagline. McAllister does an amazing job of tracing the growth of our cities from the 18th-century urban core through the McMansions of the late 20th century --in such a limited amount of text. I think the visuals from this chapter are far more valuable than the text and I definitely plan to reference them the next time I’m trying to tell the story of why our cities look like they do. This, for me, really showcases her ability to make an unbiased reference book on topics that can be rather political—such as urban sprawl, population shifts, and the changing landscape of our country—and is, in the end, why her work is so important.

All told, the major benefit of this expanded version is that it brings the text, which has become synonymous with the narrative of American architectural styles, into the 21st century. This alone makes it well worth its weight—literally—on your bookshelf. Whether you reference it frequently at work, once in awhile to sound smart, or just shelve it at home to impress your nerdy preservationist friends – this new version is a must-have. Just wait ‘til it comes out in paperback. Trust us.


Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.