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Virginia McAlester is the most popular architecture writer in America

In the first installment of our summer series, Curbed’s architecture critic re-reads A Field Guide to American Houses

If you visit the Architectural History best-seller list on Amazon, you will notice Virginia Savage McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses is almost always near the top. Displaced briefly by a Bauhaus anniversary or a famous architect’s death, it always bobs up again. I’ve owned the book for years, first in its original 1984 edition, then the chunky 2015 paperback revision, but I haven’t dipped into it too often. But seeing the book beat my own sales and those of my friends week after week made me curious, not to mention jealous: Why so popular?

It only took me two chapters to figure it out. Virginia McAlester tells you exactly what you need to know about your neighborhood.

If you had the arm strength to carry the Field Guide everywhere (or bought the e-book), you could walk down any street in America and identify the style, age, and component parts of each and every home you pass. Her most enthusiastic readers are preservationists, or wannabe preservationists, trying to quantify just what it is that makes a place so different, so special. Her wider audience comprises people who simply want to know what’s going on out there, starting at their doorstep. It was slightly startling to realize how rarely I’ve considered that view in my writing—though I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the transformation of the inside of the American home.

As a fan of modernism, I was attracted to her straightforward spread of glass houses on pages 624-625, which collects famous examples from Palm Springs, Sarasota, and New Canaan into a grid of awfully similar-looking sharp-edged boxes. It’s pretty amazing to see individual houses that have whole books of their own as part of just another wave. But it’s not all Mieses and Ellwoods. McAlester also includes lineups of the deeply ordinary, like the five examples of typical garage doors on page 601.

It is fun to see McAlester wrestle more contemporary styles into her format as well. You know those houses, often built in gentrifying neighborhoods, that try to disguise their bulk through a profusion of cladding materials? She calls that Decoupage (pages 676-677), and includes examples from Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and Dallas. “Horizontal boards, vertical metal, and stucco (it appears),” reads one caption. On a recent trip I took to Denver, Decoupage seemed to be taking over the townhouse market, with solo rowhouses, clad every which way, standing starkly alone.

She deals with McMansions too—her chosen nomenclature is “Millennium Mansion”—and highlights the strange exuberance of their rooflines. “These complicated roofs can be thought of as crowns, or, more satirically, as the Future Roofers of America Relief Act,” she writes, noting that their mansion-like size is the result of multiple factors: two stories, higher ceilings, building to the lot line. Flipping through her pages of examples, the eye doesn’t know where to fall, but bounces from roof peak to roof peak, arched window to arched window.

The visual elements alone, like the opening pictorial key, are worth the price of the book. A field guide to plants might include drawings of comparative leaf structure; a field guide to houses breaks it down by roofline. Instead of silhouettes of leaf shapes, this guide has floor plans. (Most of the diagrams were drawn by architect Suzanne Patton Matty.)

In the revision, McAlester also decided to increase the scope of the book to include a chapter on neighborhoods. If you are trying to understand the difference in density between a rural New England village, a Brooklyn rowhouse neighborhood, and Levittown, here are the diagrams for you, with additional, detailed visual analysis of street width and curb and sidewalk patterns.

McAlester’s diagrams are not quite as pointed as the graphics at the website McMansion Hell, where Kate Wagner (a frequent Curbed contributor) labels the “lawyer foyers” and windows of conflicting eras right on the real estate listing photos. But McAlester’s book fits naturally into our visually dominated culture. While her writing is clear and to the point, she also has the receipts: Every style, every era, every detail is illustrated in multiple ways. The book has 1,800 photos, most of them taken by Steve Clicque or McAlester herself on trips across the country. There might be a slight Texas bias, but for every Prairie Style house in Chicago, there are examples of the style in Lexington, Kentucky; El Paso, Texas; or Portland, Oregon.

Illustrations anatomize the house, as a field guide to birds might anatomize an avian, so you too can tell a front-gable from a side-gable, an eave from an entablature, or running bond from Flemish bond. When I studied these elements in school, I thought they were as boring as the crossword puzzle. But people love crosswords… a lot.

The book works because, despite its tome-like dimensions, it maintains a personality. McAlester was once one of us, trying to figure out how to value her own neighborhood.

Virginia Savage McAlester, now 75, grew up on Swiss Avenue in Dallas. She still lives on the block today, in a house owned by her family since 1921. Her father, Wallace Savage, was the city’s mayor from 1949 to 1951. Swiss Avenue was the city’s first paved street, developed by Robert S. Munger as an in-town enclave of two-story homes, with easy trolley access to downtown.

“My grandmother had lived there, my parents had lived there, my cousins lived there,” she told me in an interview this spring. “It had sort of gone downhill in those few years when there was a push to move out to the suburbs.”

By the early 1970s McAlester’s mother, Dorothy Savage, worked to rehabilitate houses that had fallen into disrepair, but piecemeal efforts were not enough. From her mom’s efforts, McAlester, a Radcliffe graduate who had studied architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, realized that, rather than saving houses one by one, they needed to improve the reputation of the whole neighborhood by establishing it as historic. Preservation to date had focused on singular projects by singular geniuses, not neighborhoods.

She needed to make a case for the importance of these grand but everyday houses; such projects typically begin with a survey naming the styles of contributing buildings. Where was the sidewalk preservationist to turn for help in identifying the houses that could be Mission, Prairie, Craftsman, Tudors, and more?

“I was thinking, because we had a tree guide, because we had a bird guide, I assumed there was something like that for houses,” she says. “But there was nothing that really covered the country and particularly nothing after 1900. All those early modern houses—Craftsman houses, Italian Renaissance houses—had not been surveyed.”

Savage and the other volunteers fighting to save Swiss Avenue hired two different architectural historians to do an architectural survey, and McAlester volunteered to take them around. “Both of them said completely different things!” And, she realized, they wanted to study the best examples of a style, not the examples the ordinary Texan was likely to run across.

Those volunteers eventually organized into what is now the nonprofit Preservation Dallas. In 1973 Swiss Avenue did become Dallas’s first historic district, protecting blocks of homes. (The Brooklyn Heights Historic District, New York’s first, which was also focused around streets of grand houses with an easy commute downtown, was created even earlier, in 1965.)

McAlester also realized her neighborhood was not alone in needing protection and categorization. Just as she had needed a book, so did preservation-minded volunteers in other places. So in 1978 she set out to write that book. Did you not know what you were getting into? I ask her.

“That would be an understatement. I had no idea. I just started researching one chapter at a time chronologically.”

Halfway through her six-year effort, one foot in front of the other, one chapter at a time, she thought to inquire about photos. “I discovered that an architectural photographer wants $250 to reprint a picture in a book,” she says. She looked at what the Historic American Building Survey had available, contacted various state preservation offices, and decided she would just have to do the rest of the photography herself—which eventually led to the revision.

“As I had driven around taking pictures and more pictures, I got really interested in how houses are grouped together. Most books on planning tell you about wonderful plans of great places like Savannah, but not about typical neighborhoods around the country. It took me a year to write that section, but so many people have told me how much it has helped them look at their own neighborhood.”

A Field Guide to American Houses, co-authored with her second husband, Lee McAlester, was finally published in 1984. It covered American houses from Native American round houses to the eclectic 1940s, ending with a profusion of timbered Craftsman cottages and the dawn of a new age represented as “Modernistic”: an Art Deco chevron pattern here, some Bauhaus-inspired glass block there. The next 40 years were treated in a brief appendix that gestured at the postwar baby boom and its little boxes.

Almost as soon as she finished the book, McAlester realized her project was unfinished. She had written a field guide to American houses… but 80 percent of houses in the United States had been built since 1940, her end date.

Pause a moment and take that statistic in. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s so much literature on the postwar American home, that is your answer: There’s an 80 percent chance you’re living in one.

“Midcentury modern houses were just becoming eligible for historic designation, so people were telling me, ‘You have to do it, we need it for our application,’” she says. Her book had become the bible for neighborhood preservation efforts, and it needed a New Testament.

It had also become a bible for another set of highly motivated house people: “I have had real estate agents say, ‘I bought a copy for everyone in my office so they will know what they are selling.’”

The beauty of McAlester’s book is how nonsectarian it is. She explains everything from the Colonial Revival to the “Millennium Mansion” to Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house (you know the one: with the chain-link fencing “that he has likened to a jazz riff,” McAlester writes) but places them on equal footing as phenomena of their age. American architecture is all of this, held together under one giant gable roof—even if architecture magazines don’t necessarily reflect that fact.

“Architecture magazines and books are only about modern houses, so in fact one of the first things I did when I was starting to think about the revision,” which she worked on from 2009 to 2013, “was I went to Columbia’s Avery Library to go through the builder magazines of the 1950s and 1960s to the present. I could find nothing about millennial mansions in that library. I could find nothing that looked like a traditional house.

“That moment around 2002, 2003, 2004, it was just so striking. Dallas was doing a lot of building, [as were] the places I was traveling. I thought it was strange that the world’s greatest architectural library didn’t reflect that.”

Indeed, contemporary preservation movements can be divisive—and visibly divided. Look at Buffalo, New York, where the love of the city’s superlative architecture cannot extend itself to postwar projects like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Albright-Knox Gallery extension (getting tarted up and hollowed out by Olafur Eliasson) or Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments (getting demolished). Docomomo, a not-for-profit founded to focus on preserving works of modernism, for which many older saving-buildings organizations were not prepared to fight, now makes some members uneasy when it throws its weight behind postmodern icons like Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building or Michael Graves’s Portland Building.

Some of this factional behavior is generational. City planner Nolan Gray asked on Twitter, “What’s the first bit of architecture you can remember loving as a child?” and the replies were revealing both of age and geography. The Jefferson Memorial, Googie dry cleaners, the neon strip.

My answer, the New England Aquarium by Cambridge Seven, is a Brutalist building that was a site of celebration in my childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember the anticipation of walking inside the big concrete box to find the aqueous light, the central, columnar glass tank of ocean wonders. That’s how you make children love fish and architecture: You bring them close to grandeur, and then you let them follow their own interest.

When asked what her favorite style is, McAlester says, “I love the one I’m with. If I am standing in front of a great Craftsman house, I just think it is incredible.”

Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster, who presented McAlester with an honorary degree from Southern Methodist University this May, says, “Virginia McAlester is a one-woman preservation movement. In a city notorious for tearing down its history, she managed to save and revive entire neighborhoods, and founded the organization that would protect the city’s crown architectural jewel, Fair Park.”

Fair Park is the now-277-acre site of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, a showcase for Art Deco architecture, centered on the highly decorated Great Hall of Texas. A restoration plan is finally at hand, but the whole site suffers from decades of neglect. McAlester founded the Friends of Fair Park way back in 1984, and has been fighting for its future ever since. “I love Art Deco, the variations of it from Streamline Moderne to Art Moderne to WPA Classical,” she says. “Fair Park is nearest and dearest to my heart.”

That is far from the only project on McAlester’s plate. In the acknowledgements to the 2013 edition of The Field Guide, McAlester describes the architecture of the City of Hope in Duarte, California. “A few months after turning in the manuscript,” she writes, she was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a chronic form of leukemia. Following a stem-cell transplant, “I found myself literally inhabiting my work,” recuperating in the midcentury modern cottages of the Village at the City of Hope.

When I interviewed McAlester this spring, she had just returned home after being hospitalized. But she seemed sure that she would be able to take up her next project, a field guide to American commercial architecture—storefronts, movie theaters, department stores, office buildings. They too need their defenders. It takes a special kind of mind to embark upon one encyclopedic project, much less three (the original book, the revision, this new one), but it is clear that McAlester has retained her curiosity and sense of civic purpose into her eighth decade.

“At this point I wish I had done a little less [preservation] and gotten this book finished now,” she says, but you know she can’t give up on a fight. “I can’t help myself when I see important buildings, particularly ones I know and love, being threatened.”

McAlester’s book was born of Swiss Avenue, and born of Dallas, but she wants her readers to discover the stories of their streets in the same organic, curious way she did. The task is too great for one person, but at least there’s a guidebook.