My reading time these days is…limited – as is my time to scout for new additions to my library. I missed my favorite book sale of the year, held by the Friends of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (housed in a lovely early 20th century Neoclassical building, built as the Post Office and Federal Building) in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you happen to be in the area during early November (they also have a spring sale), the book sale is a transcendent experience for the bibliophile. Although I mourned missing the sale this year, my love of history and architecture books was not forgotten by Santa Claus!
Although I’ve been to California a handful of times, I’ve never been to San Francisco – an admission that causes me great pain. So while I don’t have any first hand knowledge of the neighborhoods that the authors explore in Painted Ladies: San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians,* the story of rebirth in these historic areas is a familiar (and positive)one).
According to the authors, over 48,000 Victorian houses were built in San Francisco between 1850-1915. Though many were destroyed by the fire of 1906, enough remained to be reclaimed in the period after World War II – and especially during the “Colorist Movement” of the 1960s. Though hippies took the blame for the painting the Victorian houses shocking color combinations, they were only following in the footsteps of their ancestors, who festooned their dwellings with a “Bountiful supply of paint, using more colors by far than the tailor who designed Joseph’s Coat.” I especially like the dedication of the book:
Painted Ladies is dedicated with gratitude to the builders, restorers, painters, colorists, and homeowners who made it possible; to the legions of the faithful who fought with words and actions to save the Victorians; and to the city which gave the Painted Ladies a setting worthy of their beauty.
Over 300 miles away to the south lies the subject of my next book: LA Lost & Found: An Architectural History of Los Angeles by Sam Hall Kaplan. This is a more straight-forward survey of architectural styles and types, but set against the context of the developing Los Angeles.
Although many of the buildings explored are high style (R.M Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Neutra all designed houses in LA), there is also an exploration of post World War II mass-produced housing that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever seem a 1950s or 60s subdivision of ranch houses.
As a student of history, and Anglophile, one of the most disappointing things about my slice of America is the disappearance of rail travel (and indeed, the struggles to maintain any public transportation). I remember when the railroad tracks that ran through our farm were taken up – my father picked me up after school, and we went to the field that bordered the tracks to watch their removal. We were quiet for most of the time that we sat in the truck, watching the enormous, unwieldy-looking equipment erase an important segment of history.
The book Railway Stations: Masterpieces of Architecture by Charles Sheppard is divided into three chapters: the early developments of rail travel and first stations constructed to handle the “mighty steam engines and their iron tracks, and shelter and direct the disorganized bustle of all the arriving and departing passengers, their baggage and sometimes their livestock,”; the railways of Europe; and finally the rail system in the United States and the “global railway network.”
I look forward to leafing through this attractive book, with 92 illustrations that alternately thrill and frustrate me – so many beautiful rail stations and humbler depots destroyed in the Bluegrass, and all of our resources put toward automotive travel…
It’s only fitting, after despairing over our lost heritage of rail travel in the States, that my next book is set in London – one of my favorite cities. Crown and Country: A Personal Guide to Royal London is the book version of the PBS series by His Royal Highness The Earl of Wessex – the fourth and youngest child of Queen Elizabeth II.
As far as stirring the imagination, this book is definitely winning. It not only weaves the history of the monarchy into the growth and development of different parts of London, but it provides interesting tidbits (helpfully titled “Fact, Fiction and Fable”) to accompany the discussion of monumental buildings like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the royal palaces.
England is the setting of book #5 as well – and perhaps this tome will not have as wide an appeal. But for an English major turned architectural historian, it works very well! The Country House in English Renaissance Poetry grew out of William Alexander McClung’s dissertation, and its tone is certainly academic, but that doesn’t render the content cold or tedious.
Given that the English Country house is almost as much a myth as an actual entity over the last 400 years, examining the genre of English country-house poetry to determine what the meaning of the country house is (to both its occupants and its laborers, as well as its larger meaning throughout English society) is most appropriate. I don’t think this will be light reading, but the combination of architecture and verse is one I find delightful.
I return to the shores of America with my next volume, a collection of essays from that venerable publication Harper’s Magazine, which began publication in 1850. This collection of essays contains some very interesting observations of life in the “Old South,” but to my frustration, there is no background information on each essay – such as the year it was originally published, or even the name of the author, let alone a bibliography.
The South: A Collection from Harper’s Magazine was published in 1990, so it really makes no sense that these essays would be reprinted (along with the illustrations) without citations. This makes using the book as a reference virtually impossible, but it is still a good addition to the bookshelf (or, as my husband calls it, the hardcopy Google).
I come full circle with the last book Santa brought me: The WPA Guide to Kentucky (a first edition!). Originally published in 1939 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guide Series, the book was reprinted by the University Press of Kentucky in 1996.
The Guide series is perhaps best known for its annotated tours along highways and byways of the subject state. The other two sections of the Guide focus on the context of the state – from history and folklore to geography and geology, as well as highlights of major cities and towns.
I love the story of the Guide almost as I love the product itself. In the forward to the 1996 reprint (in the belief that one can never have too many books, I also have a copy of that edition!), Kentucky’s preeminent historian, the late Dr. Thomas Clark (who worked on the project) commented on the gestation of the Guide: “the miracle is that a book emerged from this tangle of good intentions.”
I can’t see many projects for artists, writers, and historians getting funded in this current political climate, so Clark’s words remind us that everything is a cycle. And when the Guide was completed, the federal funding for the publication…had shriveled up. The University of Kentucky stepped in to sponsor the project and shepherd it to completion.
“Reading a book is the finest way of attaining inner peace.” Although this quote is from a work of fiction (Arthur Bryant in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May: Strange Tide – a fabulous series if you enjoy mysteries and learning more about the layers of history of London), it applies equally well to all of the books noted above.
And I’ve now spent entirely too much time writing about books – I think I am due a spot of reading myself!
*Painted Ladies: San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians, published 1978, Photography by Morley Baer and Text by Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen