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A Field Guide to American Houses

McAlester, Virginia and Lee McAlester. A Field Guide to American Houses, New York: Random House, 1984, Looking at American house: Style — The Fashions of American Houses. View on Amazon.

Domestic buildings are of two principal sorts: folk houses and styled houses. Folk houses are those designed without a conscious attempt to mimic current fashion. Many are built by their occupants or by non-professional builders, and all are relatively simple houses meant to provide basic shelter, with little concern for presenting a stylish face to the world. Most surviving American houses are not folk houses are not folk houses but are styled; that is, they were built with at least some attempt at being fashionable. As such, they show the influence of shapes, materials, detailing, or other features that make up an architectural style that was currently in vogue. The bulk of this book is organized by the changing chronology of these American architectural fashions or styles, for they provide the most effective framework for identifying and understanding American houses...

Stylistic Mixtures. Most American houses have been built in one of the many architectural styles outlined in the preceding sections. Some, however, do not fit neatly into one of these stylistic categories but, instead, have characteristics of two or more styles. Such houses may have been originally built as stylistic mixtures or may have resulted from later attempts to alter the style through remodeling.

Prior to about 1840, American architectural styles were rather widely separated by time or by location; that is, only one fashion usually prevailed in a region over a long interval of time. Most early stylistic mixtures occurred during the transitional periods when these persistent fashions were changing. Thus, some transitional houses in the English colonies share Georgian and Adam features, while others blend Adam with Greek Revival detailing. Similarly, Dutch, French, and Spanish Colonial buildings began to show Adam or Greek Revival detailing as Anglo influence increased with the expansion of the country. These originally built combinations of styles increased after about 1840 when pattern books, particularly A. J. Downing's influential Cottage Residences, Rural Architecture and Landscape Gardening, published in 1842, presented several choices of fashionable building styles. Downing, for example, advocated both Gothic and Italianate modes of design. As might be expected, some readers and builders avoided the choice by combining features of both. Another popular mixture of the romantic era added Italianate detailing to the previously dominant Greek Revival form.

Houses of the Victorian era seldom show such dramatically obvious mixtures of style. Most Victorian styles are closely interrelated and draw heavily on Medieval precedents for inspiration. Thus they naturally tend to blend into one another. Steeply pitched roofs and textured wall surfaces are common to most. Stick-style structural members are found on many Queen Anne houses; Richardsonian arches occur on Shingle-style shouses, wood-shingled walls may dominate on either Queen Anne or Shingle houses, and so on. Thus the separation of the Victorian styles sometimes becomes a matter of degree, whereas the dominant Greek-Gothic-Italianate modes of the preceding romantic era were unmistakably different.