In the first installment of our summer series Overdue Books, 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.