by Virginia & Lee McAlester

A Field Guide To American Houses


Virginia & Lee McAlester have scoured the American landscape to study and construct A Field Guide To American Houses. It was originally published in 1984 but still quite relevant today (as these houses aren’t getting any younger). As its subtitle clearly outlines, this guide lets you easily identify the architectural styles of the houses in your neighborhood and those across the country.  It’s organized in a similar way to a bird watching book or a tree identification guide. I really enjoy the friendly and matter-of-fact the way the authors write about all the different types of American homes, from monumental mansions to small and simple single family homes. Each architectural style is investigated and categorized.

Because of the emphasis on identification, the field manual focuses on the exteriors of houses. It begins with a quick overview of the styles of houses out there, making a distinction between folk houses and styled house. Medieval, Victorian, Modern, and other major stylistic movements give the reader a quick update on visual cues to looks for. But where it departs from an architectural manual is in the Form and Structure sections.


Here are all kinds of great charts and thumbnail illustrations that you can use to quickly match a roof line or floor-plan. Pictorial keys say things like, “If you see this…try these first” Which leads you to a more specific section for identification, and it gets pretty specific. There are sections like French Eclectic, Chateauesque, Colonial Revival, and Folk Victorian.


But what’s great about this book is that it’s not expecting the reader to know every minute architectural style. Through identifying certain elements it helps you dial-in exactly what you’re looking at.


After the pictorial key sends you to a style, for example Victorian houses, there are then chapters devoted to sub-styles like Shingle-style Victorian. Here are pictures and identifying features of this style, in this case the Shingle style was unlike most of the 19th century styles before it because it didn’t focus on ornate details in doors and windows, but instead emphasized the complex shape of the home with a continuous surface of  shingles.


Each sub-section has lots of photographic examples of the style. The general location of the home and when it was built are also included to help place the house you’re trying to spot in the right historical context.


While the book does focus on homes built before the 1940′s, there is a short section on modern homes broken into Modern, Neoeclectic, and Contemporary Folk. But it’s amazing how much of the country was built between 1820 and 1940!


It’s strange but also very satisfying to identify houses in this way. Maybe it’s because they’re all over the place that we often forget to look at them and how different they can be. Next time you go for a stroll, keep your eyes peeled, you might see something interesting.