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The old school

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Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850 By W Barksdale Maynard. Yale University Press, 2002. 322pp. £35

Visiting Washington DC in 1842, Charles Dickens found a place reminiscent of 'the worst parts of London's City Road and Pentonville, or the straggling outskirts of Paris scorching hot in the morning, and freezing cold in the afternoon, with an occasional tornado of wind and dust'.

Small wonder that Dickens' American Notes infuriated many Americans. Even today, Washington is a depressing city, but it is no longer 'the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva' that it was in the 1840s - spitting, Dickens reported, was an almost universal American habit.

Nineteenth-century America, at least in the decades before the civil war, was a rough-and-ready place (as large tracts of it remain today). Its more cultivated inhabitants were anxious only to ape European (or, more specifically, English) ways. In the realm of architecture, this preoccupation was reflected in a quest for 'correctness': 'We have the intelligence to avail ourselves of the wisdom of our ancestors, ' wrote the American architect William H Ranlett.

Later American critics, writing in the context of America's rise to world power status and seeking antecedents for the extraordinary achievements of Richardson, Root, Sullivan and Wright, looked to the architecture of the late 18th and early 19th century United States as an expression of political and cultural independence and a reflection of the distinctive democratic spirit of the country.

Fifty years ago, John Summerson sensibly insisted that 'American architecture up to 1830 can fairly be considered as a branch of the English school', challenging the conclusions of Talbot Hamlin's famous 1944 study of the Greek Revival in America (which managed to omit any mention of British practitioners such as Wilkins and Smirke, Hamilton and Playfair).

W Barksdale Maynard's highly enjoyable and tautly argued study should finally lay to rest the myth of an American architecture, springing instantly into life with the Declaration of Independence. In the first half century of the US, America's architects, like its presidents, were of British origin, raised in the Classical traditions of the British Isles. British models were emulated, albeit using American materials - mainly timber in the early decades. Thomas Jefferson, whose architectural efforts are the subject of 'boundless adulation' (says Maynard) in the US was actually a rather average designer, on a par with other worthy amateurs back in England, and working firmly within the English Palladian tradition.

Accepting that early American architecture, including the major works of the Greek Revival, was essentially derivative, as Maynard argues, does not mean that it lacks qualities of its own. Pevsner considered America up the 1860s 'a backwater thoroughly provincial', but, as we all know, he was obsessed with notions of progress.

A distinctive architecture did, of course, emerge in the newly independent country, not least the vernacular style which everyone now identifies with log cabins. The author HD Thoreau built his own version of the primitive hut at Walden Pond in the 1840s.

Walden became integral to the American myth of the wilderness but, as Maynard points out, its setting was far from remote - there were no marauding wild animals or savages and the surrounding forests were rapidly being cleared. (Within 20 years, the site had been developed as an amusement park! ) Modern America is a suburban country, and the mentality of the suburb was stamped indelibly on the nation within the first halfcentury of its existence - it was later to infuse the thinking of Wright, who was an antiurban architect by conviction. Yet the origins of the suburb lay back in England, where Twickenham was the bolthole of London's rich and fashionable in the mid-18th century.

As George W Bush's America seeks to belittle Europe, the fact that white American culture is rooted in European traditions should not be forgotten. Is there anything so distinctively American as the external covered verandah that Americans call a 'porch'?

Some have claimed that the device was imported from the West Indies or even Africa (like the slavery that so disgusted Dickens).

In fact, its chief inspiration was the English Picturesque tradition of Loudun and Nash.

'Readable' is the adjective that Maynard's publishers attach to this finely illustrated book. I found it gripping - and timely.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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