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Architectural History At Its Best

ISSUE:  Winter 1988
The Crowning of the American Landscape: Eight Great Spaces and Their Buildings. By Walter L. Creese. Princeton. $55.00.
Architecture, Men, Women and Money in America, 1600—1860. By Roger G. Kennedy. $35.00.

Architecture, and specifically architectural history, has been a growth industry in recent years. The academic field of architectural history coupled with the activity of historic preservation has boomed and we have had (and will have more of) architectural history on public TV, architecture critics in nearly every major newspaper, and vicarious peeks at how people (especially the rich) live in all sorts of magazines. Museums have discovered that architecture is a collectible, or, more appropriately, that architectural drawings, fragments of buildings, and architect-designed furniture can be exhibited along with the Monets and Rembrants. Tours are sponsored ranging from a day with the local garden club to month-long safaris to the Véneto. And architectural book writing and publishing has boomed; where there used to be a paucity now there is an embarrassment of both riches and junk. Among the dross the good works should be hailed, and the two books under review are among the most challenging and indeed the best to be published on American architecture in recent years. They are very different, and in fact differ in quality and level of insight, but both are very important. And both are very much the products of a lifetime of travel, research, and thought.

The Crowning of the American Landscape treats the identification and creation of a series of great American landscapes and their buildings from those “almost too large to comprehend or handle”: the Charlottesville vicinity, the Hudson River Valley, Yosemite, Mt. Hood, and Timberline Lodge, to smaller spaces “treated more directly and actively”: the Fens in Boston, Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, the suburb of Riverside, Illinois, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Valley. Walter Creese, the author, is an architectural historian at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and has written extensively on the search for a natural environment in the 19th and 20th centuries. A lot of American architectural history treats buildings and indeed their gardens as isolated in space, as having little connection to their environment. Much of the recent writing on American landscape history has either treated the formal garden, or emphasized the broad picture of the “common” or “vernacular”—manmade—landscape. Creese’s book is none of these, and neither is it a history of American’ landscape design. Rather it is an examination of how the “artist-intellectual” has gone about conceptualizing, identifying, creating, and controlling large areas of landscape. His heroes, those “artist-intellectuals,” are Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Law Olmsted, Andrew Jackson Downing, and John Muir; people who not simply created buildings or gardens but more importantly had the ability to delineate the character of a natural landscape and then educate Americans on how to view it as an entity, such as Yosemite or the suburb of Riverside. From the conceptualization to the realization is frequently a long step, and a good portion of Crowning documents the fight to create or recognize the landscape, whether through early visits as at Yosemite or actually running the motor grader to smooth out roadside ditches as Frank Lloyd Wright did in the Taliesin Valley. It is also a story of both additions, of how structures can complement the landscape, such as the wonderful Timberline Lodge built by the WPA in the 1930’s which echoes the peak of Mt. Hood, and also it is a story of subtractions through the removal of early attempts at “civilization” in Yosemite during the 1890’s to return the Valley to its “primitive conditions.”

Creese’s chapter on Jefferson and the Charlottesville vicinity stands as a remarkable achievement. It is certainly the best analysis and interpretation of Jefferson’s architectural and landscaping endeavors. Jefferson’s sources are examined—a favorite preoccupation of architectural historians— but more importantly, the creative genius Jefferson brought to reinterpreting these sources is emphasized. Jefferson employed the classic mode and “tended to stretch its implication to the absolute limit.” The Lawn at the University of Virginia is seen as encompassing a variety of spatial motifs, from quadrangle to mall to garden to square, these ambiguous features make it very American: “Every facet has to be represented.”

Crowning the American Landscape does have its flaws; there is a certain wordiness which bogs the reader down, and at times the examples overwhelm. The book has nearly 200 black and white and color illustrations composed of vintage views, architects drawings, maps, and recent photographs. What I missed were reproductions in many cases of views by other artists which made these landscapes famous, such as Jasper Cropsey or Frederick Church’s landscapes of the Hudson River where they lived, or Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite. For many people the views of these artists helped to create or indeed created that special landscape Creese is treating. But put these qualms aside, for Creese’s book is extremely important. He shows that the landscape which so overpowered the early settlers—and still can overpower—was capable of being formed not simply for economic rationalization, but as a container of aesthetic and ultimately national identity. Creese takes Leo Marx’ Machine in the Garden (1964), which explored the impact of the landscape on American writers and extends it in a far more profitable way into how Americans created those great landscapes. He demonstrates a legacy that can still prove fruitful.

Roger Kennedy charts an almost opposite tack from Creese; he views the shaping of American architecture—and by extension the landscape—as not so much the action of a designer or artist-intellectual but rather as the result of economic circumstances of the patron or client. Where did the money come from? What was the ultimate use of a building: as a unit of production? as a reliquary? as signifying accomplishment or intention? The study of architectural patronage is not new; however, most patronage studies are narrow in scope studying the clients of a particular prolific architect and accenting their individual foibles. Kennedy’s accomplishment is to take a large swath of American architecture and put it in its economic context. Kennedy is a former banker and presently director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The reader is taken into a number of architectural byways, such as the medieval and Palladian houses of the Barbados or the Greek Revival houses of the Wade Hampton family in South Carolina. Behind the style one thing was common to all: they represented elegance and denial, they grew out of slavery and fear. Kennedy treats only briefly the “old chestnuts” of American architectural history, such as the Tidewater Virginia plantations, and he avoids Bulfinch’s Boston, for he claims they have been well treated elsewhere. Similarly Jefferson is not extensively treated, though he makes frequent appearances, but George Washington is investigated along with Mt. Vernon. Of course architects do appear such as Latrobe and Walter along with the Philadelphia banker Nicholas Biddle, or Philip Hooker, the Albany designer of George Clarke’s Hyde Hall at Cooperstown, New York. These treatments are important, but I think the appeal of the book is the way Kennedy stretches out and includes great areas of the South or the Midwest which are generally excluded; from orthodox architectural histories. Why treatment of Southern architecture has been so minimal, with practically nothing written on it other than 18th-century plantations and Jefferson, is practically a scandal. (The reasons are complex, but at least one has been the South’s own nostalgia and view of its later history as outside the mainstream.) Ultimately the book is about two very different phenomena, strong personalities—and Kennedy states his position forcefully: “history is an accumulation of biographies”—and their seeking of buildings to display their wealth; and secondly the book records the underlying economic systems based on cotton, indigo, shipping, lumber, or land.

The relation of economic systems to architectural form and style is complex and not simply a direct linkage. Perhaps the best overall theme Architecture . . . and Money develops is the enduring power of the Véneto or Palladian villa in the Caribbean and later in America. Architecture is seldom portable and certainly not for trans-Atlantic voyages, but books are portable as was economics, or in this case the plantation system. Of course the Italian villa was not directly analogous to the American plantation house, especially in its worst moments, but Kennedy observes: “Sometimes a social and economic affinity induces an aesthetic affinity.”

The book does have some difficulties, the number of examples and personalities which are a strength also overwhelm, and by the end the reader is glad Kennedy decided to cut it off at the Civil War. The writing is certainly not—which Kennedy admits frequently with glee—the usual academic prose. It is refreshingly vibrant and flows, but there are too many “Ahs;” too many banalities such as “The age of publicity had begun”; and too many repetitions. The book could use an outline of the various possibilities for the economic-personality-architectural relationship. He comes the closest when halfway through he writes: “bold and successful architecture is likely to be produced when an economy has enlarged itself quickly, when the energy of the newly rich has not been wholly spent in that enlargement and when there is a group of these potential clients interested in architecture.”

Architecture . . . and Money is handsomely illustrated with not only buildings, but also the patrons and their families. Numerous interiors and gardens are shown, and the question that sometimes historians are prone to ask, how did the people live in or inhabit such rooms?, Kennedy seeks to answer. One example is George Washington Parke Custis, the self-appointed curator of his stepfather’s memorabilia and flame. Custis commissioned George Hatfield, a British émigré architect to design Arlington House (known today as the Custis-Lee mansion and standing in the middle of Arlington Cemetery), which became the reliquary of the great man. He welcomed any and all to the mansion and was remembered as “”a shabby old man with angular features and thin grey hair, who would come down from the mansion, violin in hand, and amuse the children by the hour.”“

Both Kennedy and Creese in their very different books have written more than architectural history; the books are the best examples of cultural history that contains both violent and poignant stories.


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