Thirty Years Old and Still Relevant: McAlester’s Field Guide to American Houses

Every profession has its own language and often, its own genre of books. I may be a bit partial, but the books I’ve known and loved dealing with architectural history must be among the best non-fiction tomes ever published. Naming just a small selection of those books is agony (there are so many! I love them all!), but I’ve often been asked which book is the most helpful  – not only for me – but for anyone. And that’s easy – it would my battered and trusty copy of A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester.

This is NOT my thumb-worn copy of the book – this is the new , revised and expanded (2014) edition of the “best-selling classic.”

What you see above is the hardbound copy of a revised edition of the book first published in 1984. I treated myself to this copy last fall, rationalizing that it made sense to check out the new sections and to have a copy at home and work.

This log farmhouse in Bath County, Kentucky, long since gone, was typical of the vernacular architecture I first encountered while in graduate school. Photo taken in 2002 by William J. Macintire.

The 1984 edition ended at 1940 – like many National Register of Historic Places district nominations I’ve encountered – but at the time of publication, that made sense.* I’m not sure if my copy made it into my hands during my first foray into the field – way back in 2002 – or if it was later, when I faced architecture far removed from the Bluegrass and struggled to make sense of describing a house without going inside and deciphering the floor plan.

What style would you say this is? Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

That is when the Field Guide came in handy. Kentucky doesn’t hew much to the strict timelines found in McAlester as some high styles took their time filtering down to rural areas, and once something caught on, it tended to stick around for a while. Gothic Revival ending in 1880? I find Gothic touches in houses built in 1918.

This would fall into McAlester’s “Towered Italianate” category. Staunton, Virginia.

But once you get past the (totally understandable) focus on high style architecture, it is an immensely useful guide. I consult it when confronted with a puzzling stylistic characteristic, and I think the emphasis on key features and lots of photographs makes it approachable for anyone interested in historic homes. (Don’t look to it for questions about commercial architecture or ecclesiastical – it covers domestic architecture only.)

On page 460 of the 2014 edition is this Lexington, Kentucky house.

The hundreds (thousands?) of photographs in Field Guide are not only invaluable, but sometimes – downright neighborly. While thumbing through the section on “Eclectic Houses,” which includes Tudor Revival dwellings, I stopped at a photograph that looked remarkably familiar…

Some changes, quite naturally, have occurred over time, but it is most certainly the same house.

A house I had walked by the previous evening in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Lexington, Kentucky! The caption for this 1920s era house reads: “Note how a small rounded English entry porch is used in conjunction with a broad American sitting porch on the right.”

The porch has been opened up to serve as a pergola of sorts,but it is unmistakably the same dwelling – and while its not the only Kentucky example in the book, it made me grin to think that this particular example was being used to illustrate subtle details of a Revival style in America.

There are many, many more books I could suggest adding to your bookshelf, but without going down the rabbit hole of local and regional interest works, the Field Guide is a good companion to have at hand no matter where your travels take you.



*The official (but don’t look for it in the enabling regulations for the National Historic Preservation Act, because it isn’t there) definition of “historic” when it comes to a resource (a building, site, structure, object) is 50 years old.

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  1. Janet Johnson says:

    Very interesting! I need to buy that book.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      It really is one of the best books out there covering such a broad (and diverse) topic. This is a great article about the author that you might like!

  2. Daniel Prater says:

    The Tudor Revival on S Hanover/Ghent is a favorite in the Ashland Park/Chevy Chase neighborhood. Thank you!!

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      You could have knocked me over when I walked by it (as I have many times), and then stopped and looked at it again…it’s pretty adorable.

  3. David Ames says:

    Great book — the bible. However, when I give presentations on architectural history, such as a recent one “Exploring Louisville’s Candy Store of Historic Architecture,” I recommend that the audience buy a used copy of the original 1984 edition on AMAZON, since its only $3.00 (yes THREE) and as a paperback its much handier in the field. I believe that except for a new chapter on neighborhoods, both books have identical content. I recommend buying two used ones and keeping one in the car.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Great recommendation David! Yes, they seem identical to me.

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