If you’re still scratching your head for the holiday gift for the preservationist on your list, here’s a quick run-down of the architectural dictionaries and other books I find most helpful and which you might want to add to your library.
A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia McAlester
This is a much-anticipated2013 revision of the much-loved and well-worn “McAlester and McAlester” guide published in 1993. If you’re interested in American architecture, this book should be on your shelf. Like the original guide, the book breaks down each major architectural style and shows you in drawings and photos what distinguishes each style. Unlike some architectural dictionaries, it spreads its love all over the country, not just the East and West Coasts, and there are even several Mississippi examples. The 2013 revision, now available in paperback, delves more deeply into the post-World War II era and has a helpful essay on the evolution of American residential neighborhoods.
The Elements of Style, by Stephen Calloway and Elizabeth Cromley (1996)
A visual feast for anyone who loves design–not just of architecture but also furniture and other related designed objects. Divided into periods, with beautiful images illustrating each aspect of style for that period, including doors, windows, mantels, etc. I don’t have the most recent edition, published in 2005, which gets into the Post-Modern period in more detail than earlier editions. I bought this new at Lemuria Books in Jackson, which has an excellent architecture section, and a pretty-much full Mississippi architecture section.
Dictionary of Building Preservation, by Ward Bucher, ed. (1996)
My go-to book for definitions of any and every word I might encounter in architecture or preservation. If I could get one wish granted, it would be that more entries would include an illustration. I got my copy from the huge used book sale that the Welty Library here in Jackson put on a few years ago. On the one hand, I was happy and astonished to get so many architectural books for my library at a dollar a pop; on the other hand, it was more than a little disturbing to see how many classic and still very relevant architectural works they were cleaning off their shelves.
Historic Architecture Sourcebook, by Cyril M. Harris, ed. (1977)
An oldy but a goody. I recently bought this one from abebooks.com and found that it had been discarded by the Dartmouth College Library, so I guess all the libraries are throwing out their paper books. It’s quickly become one of my favorites, possibly surpassing the newer Dictionary of Building Preservation, mainly because it is so thoroughly illustrated with beautiful and annotated line drawings. I won’t say that every entry is illustrated, but it sure seems like more are illustrated than the DBP. I also own a later book by Harris, American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (1998), also good, but seemingly less illustrated and therefore outshined, for me at least, by the Sourcebook. Possibly I’m just biased since my Sourcebook is hardcover while my American Architecture is paperback.
This hand-sized book is meant to accompany a visitor who is using Nikolaus Pevsner’s amazing guidebooks Buildings of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. As such, it’s not really meant to be a comprehensive dictionary and it is heavy on Medieval and Renaissance buildings, which we don’t have in Mississippi (or so they say). It does have a few beautiful photographs and some line drawings, but it is pretty light on illustrations, which means its main use for me is to check how a particular term is or was used in a British context. Meaning I don’t use this book very often, but isn’t that cover gorgeous? A website that extends this book a bit is Looking at Buildings: Created by the Pevsner Architectural Guides.
An Illustrated Glossary of Early Southern Architecture and Landscape, by Carl R. Lounsbury, ed.
Another more specialized dictionary/glossary, this one clearly meant for a more scholarly audience, with chronological usage notes for many of the entries. If you’ve ever wondered what function a “breastsummer” or a “prize post” filled in a building, this is the place to find out. The “Southern” of the title is Eastern seaboard and heavy on Colonial and Early Republic structures, but it’s a valuable resource for understanding how an architectural term was originally used and to see how it has evolved.
A central problem with architectural dictionaries is that usually you’re searching for the right word to describe a feature that’s in front of you, not, as in regular dictionaries, looking up a word you’ve seen to discover its meaning. The following books attempt to solve this problem with a more visual approach, to varying degrees of success.
This book is divided up into various themes arranged alphabetically, such as “Ceiling” and “Masonry” and within that theme, it’s all line drawings of various parts of a building or construction material or style, with architectural terms and definitions out to the side. This was the first such “visual dictionary” I got, so I’ve used it quite a bit, and I think it’s strength lies especially in post-WWII architecture and engineering systems. This isn’t a bad thing, since the weakness of most of these other books is in that period, and I’m always looking for help in describing these huge sprawling buildings of the Modern era. Strangely, though, I do find myself using the index in the back of the book at least as much as finding what I need to find through the visual illustrations.
How to Read Churches: A crash course in ecclesiastical architecture, by Denis R. McNamara (2011)
My most recent acquisition, I hope this book will help those of us who didn’t grow up in churches with naves, altars, screens, or apses talk to those high-church friends who did. It’s helpfully divided into styles and floor plans, and also breaks down the various materials and spaces that make up churches, and includes drawings to illustrate each point. Unlike many architectural dictionaries, this one is clearly meant to travel, small enough to carry around, and although not quite tiny enough to put in a regular-size pocket, you can whip it out when you need to figure out why the guide keeps talking about the “choir” when no one is singing, and then nod knowingly the rest of the tour.
I’ve only just bought this book, although I see it’s been out for over 15 years. This book, primarily arranged by styles, seems like a blending of the approach of McAlester and McAlester, who took a purely stylistic approach, with more of a visual dictionary approach. McAlester starts each chapters, such as “Queen Anne” or “Craftsman,” with a textual history and explanation of the style, while Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture jumps straight to line drawings of “typical” examples of each style, with sidebars of text about the style. The line drawings are well-done, but I think the index could have used more beefing up (for instance, there’s a nice image of a cartouche on p.154, but “cartouche” is not in the index, so I’m not sure someone would be able to find it other than through serendipity). The book does come farther into the late 20th century than does the original McAlester and it has some very helpful drawings of construction details such as “Anatomy of a Brick Veneer” and “Anatomy of a Balloon Frame.”
Dictionary of Architecture and Construction 4th Edition by Cyril M. Harris (2006)
This has been the go-to resource for the MissPres Word of the Week Series. Cyril Harris was the author of several architectural dictionaries including some books mentioned earlier on this list. This book is probably the densest tome on the list topping out at 600,000,000,000 pages (just kidding, it’s only 1,090 pages). It doesn’t contain as many renderings as some of Harris’s other texts, but it does cover many both obscure and modern terms that are lacking from other traditional historic architecture guides.
Two titles worth adding if you’re looking for something non-dictionary related.
The Shingle Style and the Stick Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright by Vincent Scully (1971)
I’ve already mentioned how useful I found this text for understanding architectural theory when marking the passing of its author in a post earlier this month. Beginning with the origins of Andrew Jackson Downing and running all the way through Frank Lloyd Wright it helps you understand the development of American sensibilities for modern architecture of the 19th to the early 20th century.
Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture edited by Dell Upton, John Michael Vlach (1984)
This is a new book for my shelf, but it came highly recommended. It is a series of essays that focus on buildings and spaces unique to the U.S. landscape, reconstructing the social and cultural contexts of the modern bungalow, the small-town courthouse square, the shotgun house of the South, and the log buildings of the Midwest. I’m quite looking forward to reading this over the holidays.
On the fun side, LEGO has an architectural series that includes many historic buildings. Malvaney has the Fallingwater and Farnsworth House models, and now the Robie House model, which has fives times as many pieces as the Farnsworth model. Many of these models are retired by LEGO so you might have better luck finding them on eBay. Anyway, the Chicago Times’ Cityscape blog ran a great story about Adam Reed Tucker, the man who created the entire LEGO Architecture concept and who designs each one that comes out. Check it out at “The Very Model of a (LEGO) architect.”
Happy Shopping y’all! Let us know what goodies you got when we meet again in 2018!