2 Basic Books for the Lover of Houses

A Field Guide and Dictionary

black and white line drawing of saltbox colonial house, center chimney, front cross gable
Illustration of a House from the Original Plymouth Colony. Culture Club/Getty Images (cropped)

Do you have questions about the style of your home? Did your porch used to have gingerbread trim, and what is Gingerbread style, anyway? Why are my doors so narrow? What are consoles along the eaves? And what are those jagged parapets called? No matter how obscure the questions, find the answers in just two books — A Field Guide to American Houses and Dictionary of Architecture and Construction.

1. A Field Guide to American Houses (1984 and 2013)

A Field Guide to American Houses is aptly named. Just as some "field guides" identify species of birds or trees, this guide by Virginia and Lee McAlester provides everything you need to recognize housing styles in the USA. Fact-filled chapters describe the identifying features and historic significance of American dwellings. Hundreds of black and white photographs and detailed drawings illustrate building types ranging from Native American folk houses to geodesic domes.

How The House Guide Works

Here's how A Field Guide to American Houses works: In your travels through America, you notice an interesting building with a tile roof, wide overhanging eaves, and arched windows. First, you check the pictorial key at the front of the book. Thumbnail drawings of architectural details help you determine that the tile-roofed house may represent "Mission" style architecture. Turning to the chapter on Mission architecture, you find drawings that illustrate subtypes of the style and some typical elaborations. Two pages of text discuss the history and evolution of Mission architecture. Sixteen annotated photographs show a variety of Mission style homes in different parts of the country.

A Guide to Ordinary Houses

Critics may complain that the McAlesters pay little attention to important figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright. However, A Field Guide to American Houses is a profoundly democratic book. Famous or trendy architects are granted no more attention than obscure or anonymous designers are. Primitive sod houses are described with the same sensitivity and detail as flamboyant Queen Annes. The underlying assumption is that every type of dwelling plays an important role in America's architectural history.

After all, volumes have been written about America's mansions and monuments. But fifteen years after its publication, the McAlesters' book remains the most comprehensive guide to everyday houses in the United States. It's a valuable and entertaining research tool for home-shoppers, homebuilders, and anyone who is fascinated by architectural history.

About the Authors

Mind you, A Field Guide to American Houses does not settle for easy or superficial answers. Author Virginia McAlester studied architecture at Radcliffe, attended Harvard Graduate School of Design, and served on the Administrative Committee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Co-Author Lee McAlester is a geologist who has been involved in historic preservation projects in New England, Georgia, and the Southwest. While organizing and classifying American domestic architecture, the authors repeatedly emphasize that housing styles are fluid and that buildings are shaped by many historic and social influences.

Thirty years and one divorce later, Virginia Savage McAlester updated and revised the 1984 edition. A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America's Domestic Architecture carries on with style trends since the first book was published. She also examines directions in residential architecture, such as the evolution of American neighborhoods. After years of thinking about residential design, Ms. McAlester makes sense of America's mashup of house styles in this "definitive" guide.

A Field Guide to American Houses, 1984
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A Field Guide to American Houses, 2013
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2. Dictionary of Architecture and Construction

Dr. Cyril M. Harris (1917-2011) was a longtime editor for what has become a standard dictionary for the builder, designer, and woodworker. Trained in mathematics and physics, Harris became a preeminent acoustical engineer for many of the modern concert halls in the US, advising the likes of architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee. "In an age of steel, glass and concrete, he favored wood and plaster," wrote The New York Times.

Make no mistake, however. This dictionary is not solely about acoustics or engineering. His edited dictionary has become the trusted resource for telling a truss from a trimmer and Beaux Arts architecture from Rococo. What the entries lack in informational depth is made up by the varietal breadth. Thousands of entries along with many thumbnail illustrations give quick answers to a variety of homeowner and practioner questions. As a reference book, Dictionary of Architecture and Construction makes a good starting point for further study into most things related to building.

Dictionary of Architecture & Construction, McGraw-Hill Education
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Along with McAlester's Field Guide, Harris' Dictionary will meet the information needs of the interested homeowner for a long time. And the best thing? Old editions of both of these books are often found at reduced rates, on remainder tables, and at the library book sale. Even the earlier editions are filled with top-notch, useful information.