I worked for a few years as an architectural historian doing historic building surveys and wore out at least 2 or 3 copies of this wonderful book. There are lots of "pocket guides" to architectural styles which will tell you that yup, that thing with a turret is a Victorian. But this book is a priceless resource for anyone with more than a casual interest in American domestic architecture. The McAlesters focus on ordinary houses (rather than rare architectural landmarks) and cover everything from dog-run log cabins to Greek Revival cottages to 1950s ranch houes. The writing is clear, the level of detail is just right, and the book has hundreds of black and white photos and illustrations.
I learned about domestic architecture to make a living, but even 20 years later still enjoy it as a hobby. If you're a professional in the field, this book is essential. But I would strongly recommend it to amateur enthusiasts as well. Once you learn to recognize housing types, every drive becomes a history lesson.
on January 3, 2003
If you are an old-house fan, this book is the equivalent of a college education. Here are some reasons this book is both entertaining and useful:
It starts with chapters on basic structure: shapes of houses, style of construction, ornamentation, etc. There are simple, remarkably clear drawings accompanying all this that will serve to give you a kind of 'vocabulary' to interpret houses when you run across something new (for example, a dozen different types of dormers - what are they all called?). (These involve almost entirely external elements, for detailed interiors you will need another book.)
Lots of delicious historical background about how history and technological advances changed housing. For example, the authors divide folk housing into "pre" and "post-railroad" because not until railroads made building materials nationally accessible did a national set of housing styles develop.
Following this, there are a series of chapters describing different styles (i.e., Victorian, Tudor, etc.), starting with the characteristic details, when and where the style is found, etc. The McAlisters do a particularly good job on regional variations; there are some remarkable maps showing the prevelance of different styles in different states.
The graphics are fantastic and plentiful. The simple stylzed drawings of building elements (rooflines, doorways, windows, etc.) clearly distinguish one detail from another, while the photographs make you want to pop into the car and drive all over to see the real houses themselves.
One note: there is a table, starting around p. 55, that will make the book much easier to use as a 'field guide' (i.e., driving around looking at houses the way birders look at birds). This chart helps you use key identifying features to determine the most likely style of the house. For example, my house has a steeply pitched roof and multliple gables, so it's probably a Tudor. From there you can go to the proper chapter. Without this chart you'll have to search the whole book.
on December 10, 2013
This book is a "must" for anyone who likes to look at houses. Its novel, central purpose is to aid in identifying the architectural styles of American homes. It does this in a manner analogous to "field guides" for birds, bugs or plants, but instead of wings and beaks or leaves and bark, it describes roof lines, window treatments and the many other visible characteristics that define each style. Introductory chapters offer an engaging historical background for floor plans, construction techniques and exterior features; these chapters are clear, concise and accessible even to a novice. The chapter on neighborhoods, new for the 2nd edition, presents a fascinating account of how geography and advances in transportation have influenced people's decisions to live in communities and the homes they were likely to build in a given locale. The author is well aware that illustrations are crucial in a volume of this nature; she provides hundreds of straightforward line drawings that clarify structural and decorative concepts, plus hundreds more instructive photographs of actual dwellings. In the chapters on individual styles these figures complement one another to convey both the essential elements of each style and the range of variations that may be encountered "in the field". Add an exhaustive reference section at the end and you have a versatile work that will enrich the afternoons of casual weekend wanderers while also serving the needs of serious students of architectural history.
on April 1, 1999
Of the several dozen books I own of American house styles, this is the only book that systematically breaks down every American house style from the Native American tipi to Modern architecture. For every style, it gives the two critcal elements of architecture, the form/shape of the houses and their details. As a land developer, I use this book as a pattern book for the design criteria of homes built in my neighborhoods - every homeowner gets a copy! This is truly the bible of American house styles.
on December 20, 2013
I got the new edition of the Field Guide the other night, and I think that it's BRILLIANT! This book is an absolute Bible for all of us in the real estate business, and the chapters on the Millennium Mansions and New Traditionals are priceless. Virginia always hit the nail on the head with her descriptions, and I literally laughed out loud when I read the line re: the McMansion roofs...."These complicated roofs can be thought of as crowns, or, more satirically, as the Future Roofers of America Relief Act." Bravo!
This book is a "must-have" reference for anyone interested in architecture, building, real estate, historic homes, etc. It is a fascinating study on homes of yesterday AND today. Anyone could learn a lot from this volume, and it's information is timeless.
on June 8, 2014
After a decade of consulting my softbound copy of the earlier edition, I eagerly awaited this one. It is, at once, both familiar and new. My first impression was, "Wow, it's big; and heavy!" It's probably now out of the "field guide" category in the sense of portability. Perhaps the current one is similar to the hardbound 1st edition I never knew but the smaller, lighter softbound book was easier to toss under my arm and take off.
I'm a clinical pharmacist by training - not an architect or architectural historian - so content accessibility is very important to me. Like the earlier edition, the book shines in this department but even brighter. I find the layout more logical, with the pictorial key and glossary up front, not buried in the early pages. At first I couldn't figure the organization of the pictorial key but now I see it's clearly aimed at the sidewalk house viewer, e.g., me. Start at what you can see over the hedge and work down: Roof form, Dormers, Roof-Wall Junction, Chimneys, Porches, Windows, etc. Unfortunately, the typeface for the category headers is less eye-catching in the new edition, making it harder to skim to your section.
The meat and value of the book is in the text. I haven't read it all, being most interested in the styles found here in southern California, but the content is again extremely accessible to the average reader. There continues the excellent use of line drawings, many that have been improved from the 1st edition. The photographs are much clearer on fine white paper than they were on the buff colored pages of the softbound previous edition. In my selective review I notice there are some new house photos and some different photos of 1st edition houses. There are also some photos deleted in this edition - so don't throw away your 1st edition!
If I had to pick a single best new feature of the book, it would be the 45-page chapter, "Neighborhoods: The Grouping of American Houses," with historic photos, aerial line drawings and elevations of neighborhood types, and discussion of the history, growth and problems of neighborhood development. With some historic neighborhoods being nibbled to death by individual variances and code exceptions until they've lost their defining character, this chapter makes clear that individual houses - no matter how remarkable - are usually part of a collection worth recognition in its own right.
Final assessment? This tome is no longer suitable for my backpack and the typeface choices make it less friendly for skimming but the expanded material is so good and so well integrated into the original [including the line drawings that look like they could have been there since 1984] that this "field guide" is still a must-have book for anyone interested in historic [or some-day historic] houses.
on August 11, 2000
It was during a conversation that I was having with a co-worker at a major N.Y. cultural institution that I was first handed a copy of this book. I needed it too, because I cound not identify the architectural style of my own house!! This book changed all of that! You will find every architectural style in covered in this book along with some fabulous illustrations, with variants and details. I was absolutely delighted to see a section devoted to Native American architecture, and eclectic architectural styles. The photographs are excellent as well. This book is perfect for students of architecture and Historic Preservation. In the many years since I was first introduced to this book I have yet to see any other publication beat it, and I don't think any will.
If I could only keep one volume from my small library of books on home architecture, I would probably stick with "A Field Guide to American Houses," by Virginia and Lee McAlester. This is a true encyclopedia of the American home.
The McAlesters combine an informative introduction with a chapter-by-chapter guide to each of the major styles of home architecture in the United States. Each chapter includes both crisp, detailed line drawings and a wealth of photographs of actual houses themselves. The photographs alone--there are literally hundreds of them--make this book an invaluable reference work.
The McAlesters also provide newcomers with a useful primer to the language of home architecture. After reading this book you might find yourself using terms like "hipped dormer," "decorated verge board," "roof-line balustrade," and "ogee arch" when you visit a new neighborhood.
From Native American tipis to geodesic domes, from Chateauesque mansions to mobile homes--all this and more is in here. This book is a monumental achievement.
on January 2, 2000
This is a keeper book! I keep going back to it month after month. It has home styles as they came thru history grouped by style. It has pictures of house features that help identify what style a home is. It has lots of pictures. The only weakness I can think of is it does not have a lot of information on Home-styles being built right now. AntBiscuit@cs.com
on April 4, 1998
As a first time buyer of a vintage home I disapointedly rambled the internet look for a definitive guide to identifying the style of my home. Finally I lucked upon the Field Guide to American Houses and using its detailed guidance and illustrations I quickly solved the mystery. This book is well organized and very clear in describing the key identifying features of American homes. The numerous illustrations and photographs allow the reader to visualize the single or multiple influences used in the construction of a vintage home. A must for those interested in walking tours of homes.