Last Minute Holiday Gifts For The Preservationist On Your List

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 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.

Pevsner’s Architectural Glossary (2010)

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.

A Visual Dictionary of Architecture, by Francis D.K. Ching (1997)

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.

The Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture, by Rachel Carley, Ray Skibinski and Ed Lam (1994)

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!

Categories: Architectural Research, Books, Historic Preservation


8 replies

  1. Thanks for this very useful guide,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Some of those Lego sets are pretty awesome, but some have me scratching my head (the Guggenheim Museum, for instance). Happy Holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think that some regional, Southern architecture books would be good to add to your recommendations list, though it is too late for them to be gift ideas. Mississippi has several architectural histories focusing on various aspects of the state’s architecture, mostly by Mary Carol Miller (Lost Mansions, Lost Landmarks, and the more photographic based Great Houses as well as Sherry Pace’s Victorian Houses photobook and Richard Cawthon’s Lost Churches), but no complete overarching history of the state’s architecture. Historic Architecture in Mississippi by Mary Wallace Crocker (University of Mississippi Press, 1974) is the closest thing to one for Mississippi, but it only focuses on antebellum architecture. Still no Mississippi preservationist’s bookshelf should be without it.

    For a more pointed view of Mississippi’s antebellum architecture, I would recommend Architecture of the Old South: Mississippi-Alabama by Mills Lane (Abbeville Press, 1989, though later Beehive Press printings are also available), along with the rest of his Architecture of the Old South series. Lane argues that antebellum Southern architecture in Mississippi is more a Northern product than a Southern one. Although he slightly cherry-picks examples to prove his argument, he very convincingly (in my view) shows that antebellum Mississippi’s high-style architecture was largely the product of Northern architectural styles, designed by Northern architects, built by Northern craftsmen, with some Southern modifications. For another example of how an antebellum architectural history of Mississippi could be arranged, look to Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky by Clay Lancaster (University Press of Kentucky, 1991).

    For histories covering the entire length of a state’s architectural history, I believe that The Alabama Catalog: Historic American Buildings Survey: A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State by Robert Gamble (University of Alabama Press, 1987) is the best, though more “modern” eyes would fault him for ignoring post-World War II architecture. Louisiana Buildings 1720-1940: The Historic American Buildings Survey edited by Jessie Poesch and Barbara SoRelle Bacot (Louisiana State University Press, 1997) is almost as good as The Alabama Catalog, which seems to be the inspiration for Louisiana Buildings‘ arrangement, tone, and time frame covered. LSU Press went cheap on the book; it is on lower-quality paper than The Alabama Catalog, affecting image quality slightly. Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897 by James Patrick (University of Tennessee Press, 1981) has a narrower focus on pre-twentieth century Tennessee architecture, but has some information on James B. Cook and Edward Culliatt Jones, important Memphis architects who began a long tradition of Memphis architects working south of the state line.

    Columbus, Natchez, and Jackson have all had books published about their historic houses (several in the case of Natchez), generally full of a few dates and names and many colorful photographs of interiors filled with antiques, but not the architectural history books that those places deserve. The model for that comes from across another state line, in Alabama. From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile, Alabama, 1711-1918 by Elizabeth Barrett Gould (University of Alabama Press, 1988) is excellent. John S. Sledge pretty much copied all of Gould’s work for his undeservedly lauded The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile.

    Eutaw: The Builders and Architecture of an Antebellum Southern Town by Clay Lancaster (The Greene County Historical Society, 1979) is one of the very few (if not the only) in-depth examinations of a Deep South small town’s architectural history. If someone wanted to do a history of Holly Springs, Aberdeen, or other similar towns, this would be the book to use as a template as Clay Lancaster was one of the greatest architectural historians ever, with a degree of detail and rigor rarely matched and never surpassed (simply count the number of measured elevation drawings in one of his books to see what I mean).

    Mississippi’s cities and the state as a whole also lack any AIA (American Institute of Architects) guides or a volume in the Buildings of the United States series. My favorite AIA-style guide is Memphis: An Architectural Guide by Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell, Jr. (University of Tennessee Press, 1990). It is a critical guide to the city’s architecture. The authors are effusive about buildings they love and entertainingly caustic about ones the loathe. It covers everything from shotgun house to the tallest downtown skyscrapers and pulls no punches about anyone of them. That style of guide might not work for Mississippi, but it is certainly a refreshing counterpoint to the fawning which fills the pages of most architectural guides.

    Thomas’s post is about holiday gift ideas for fellow preservationists. The problem with my list is that you will probably need two copies of everything on here — the one gifted to a fellow preservationist and the one gifted to yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve bought a couple of vintage/old Graphic Standards on EBay for very little.Great info if you are interested in this past century’s details.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: