Historic Architecture Books

Historic Architecture Books

Reconstruct the history of your family's house with these five guides to identifying home styles.

1. American House Styles by John Milnes Baker (W.W. Norton & Co., $13.95). Don’t know Queen Anne from Second Empire? Baker, an architect specializing in residential design, outlines stylistic details you can use as clues to determine what type of house your family lived in. Along with exterior sketches of various house styles, he also provides diagrams of typical floor plans. The chapters are arranged chronologically and begin with a historical overview of the period (Early Colonial, for example), followed by commentary on each style.

2. Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood by Betsy J. Green (Santa Monica Press, $14.95). Pick up this easy-to-follow guide, and immediately you’ll feel motivated to begin tracing house histories. Green explains how to get the most out of a wide variety of sources, including former owners and their descendants, and concludes with ways to preserve a house’s history. Most of the records Green mentions will be familiar to genealogists—in fact, she often recommends enlisting a genealogist’s help. Unfortunately, she doesn’t reference genealogical guides specific to the records she discusses, and it doesn’t appear that she had a seasoned genealogist review her book before it went to press. There are a few misstatements about records, such as, “Note the census for 1880 only included families with school-aged children.” Not true! All families were enumerated, but only families with children ages 10 and under were included on the Soundex. Likewise, she doesn’t mention that most censuses (and many indexes) are now available online. Readers would benefit more from consulting one of the many genealogical guidebooks on records research. Aside from some misinformation about specific record groups, though, the book itself will inspire you to trace house histories and tell you exactly how to go about it.

3. A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95). This 500-plus-page guide, full of photographs and illustrations, is an ideal resource for identifying the type of home you or your ancestors lived in. The chapters, each covering a major architectural style, move chronologically from Native American folk houses to today’s modern homes. Along with photographs and drawings, the authors provide descriptions of different styles, the anatomy or structure of American houses and typical house shapes.

4. Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945 by John J.-G. Blumenson (AltaMira Press, $12.95). This book is less detailed than the others here, but it’s still a handy reference to take on trips. Blumenson has called out stylistic details and architectural terms in the book’s 214 chronological photographs. This guide will help you identify (and write about) not only homes, but also banks, churches and other buildings that may have punctuated your ancestors’ town.

5. The Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture by Rachel Carley (Henry Holt and Co., $23). Like A Field Guide to American Houses, this book progresses chronologically and covers American houses, including Native American dwellings, from Colonial times to the present. With more than 500 illustrations, it will help you not only identify the style of your ancestral home, but also write about the home using the proper architectural terminology. In addition, the author provides typical floor plans for each style, so you can visualize and describe what the rooms looked like and how they were laid out.

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