Selling the Dwelling

When you consider the process of designing and building a house today most likely you don’t imagine flipping through a catalogue and selecting a ready-made model. It’s amusing to imagine that people once shopped for architectural plans as we do today for gift baskets and linens. Richard Cheek explained the mail-order home phenomenon in addition to many other stages of domestic literature. Cheek’s lecture covered material from his book, Selling the Dwelling: The Books that Built America’s Houses, 1775-2000, chronicling the evolution of the domestic architectural design book.

Cheek is a collector of architectural and domestic books in addition to being a historian on the topic. Many of the books mentioned in his lecture were on display for students to peruse and get a firsthand feel for how the books have changed over time. In their early stages, architectural books were designed for builders and craftsman. The books included sections, elevations, and plans as well as technical drawings of features. Such books allowed people to pick and choose individual elements for their homes, which a local builder could then create without the aid of an architect.

Richard Cheek speaking

Richard Cheek speaking

Cheek spoke to the incredible influence the builder-oriented reference books had on the course of American architecture as they enabled the development of many self-made architects. American architecture books also reflected the patriotic desire for a national style of building to emerge that differentiated American homes from European homes. The selling point of many American books highlighted the American-ness of its contents and the fact that the designs were adapted specifically for American soil.

The lecture covered the observation of trends in these books such as Greek orders, English Gothic, and Tudor. The most important shift in the publishing of architecture books was the perception of who the audience was for such volumes. In the 1840s, the books began to cater to clients rather than builders, and they started to resemble guides. These guides include color images of the home from various angles with the intent to encourage the client to imagine him or herself living in such a picturesque home. The technical drawings were eventually dropped and the guides began to look more similar to the coffee table books we are accustomed to today.

Various architectural books

Architectural books

To further glamorize the domestic architectural books additional frills were added, such as fine bindings, tinted lithographs, oversize dimensions, and monthly issued guides. These vanity books were designed with an upper/middle class audience in mind. Cheek pointed out that the architectural books did nothing to address the urban housing crisis, and very few guides included small homes for the average family on a laborer’s budget.

Shelter magazines emerged from the evolution of the domestic architectural book (some of which are still around today House Beautiful, for example) as did mail-order catalogues. The homes advertised in these catalogues were part of such an efficient process that every supply and material needed to build the house was already pre-cut, sitting in a warehouse, waiting to be called upon.

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The ready-made home catalogs were a topic of great interest in the lively discussion that followed Cheek’s lecture. Many of the students were architects and, thus, had informed opinions about the problems inherent in Levittown-esque developments that use unvaried architectural plans and, by and large, do not require architects. The discussion raised an interesting question: if people are content living and buying cookie-cutter homes, how is the architect supposed to react? How should we deal with the contention between what the client wants and the architect’s creative integrity?

Through the lens of domestic architectural design books, Cheek offered an interesting perspective on the history of American architecture. The students were able to trace a path that saw technical elements of design married with the commercial interests.

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