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Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 207-208



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Book Review

Architectural Books in Early America:
Architectural Treatises and Building Handbooks Available in American Libraries and Bookstores through 1800


Architectural Books in Early America: Architectural Treatises and Building Handbooks Available in American Libraries and Bookstores through 1800. By Janice G. Schimmelman. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 1999. ix, 221 pp. $40.00. ISBN 1-884718-99-X.

Architectural Books in Early America reprints a checklist first published in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society in 1985, adding a brief bibliography of secondary works and an index. Janice Schimmelman has updated Helen Park's A List of Architectural Books Available in America before the Revolution (rev. ed.; Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1973) and refined Park's work by identifying the libraries and booksellers who offered these works to the public during the first two centuries of Anglo-American settlement. Appendixes further tabulate the publication dates and relative popularity (in terms of number of citations) of the titles included in the list, as well as summarizing the holdings of the major public collections of architectural handbooks.

Schimmelman's work will be useful to scholars wishing to identify the sources of specific architectural elements in surviving early American buildings and, to an extent, to those interested in more general issues of European-American cultural development. I say "to an extent," because the list's usefulness is limited by its intellectual assumptions. This work belongs to a tradition that stretches back to the early-twentieth-century architectural historian Fiske Kimball. Kimball's Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1922) presented the history of early American (always understood to mean Anglo-American) architecture as a tale of the triumph of architectural taste, culminating in the arrival on the scene of the first professional architects at the end of the eighteenth century. The reliance on architectural publications such as those included in this list was, for Kimball and those who followed the path he had [End Page 207] marked, an intermediate stage between untutored folk building and the sophisticated products of professionals. Implicit in Kimball's thesis was the assumption that Americans aspired to imitate European models as closely as possible and that American buildings were aesthetically successful to the extent that they did so. It followed that the largest and most refined houses owed the heaviest debts to the kinds of publications cataloged in Architectural Books in Early America. The search for pattern-book sources of houses and public buildings became the dominant method of historians of early American architecture.

There are limitations implicit in this methodology, and they affect the value of Schimmelman's work. To assume that "American" means "Anglo-American" (and that "America" is the United States) omits other European builders' use of published sources, documented at some of the Spanish missions in the southwestern United States, for example, or in Samuel Wilson's research on eighteenth-century New Orleans. Nor are possible sources of architectural ideas other than the relatively specialized genre of treatises and building handbooks surveyed. Most important, the nature of the treatises and handbooks leads one to assume that they were used simply as books from which to copy verbatim, which offers a distorted view of the goals and methods of early American builders.

These limitations are predictable in the light of the assumptions laid down by Kimball. Schimmelman's exclusion of books found in private libraries is more puzzling. She explains her decision to do so only obliquely: the library and bookstore copies were available to "the general public" (2). But even by the light of the Kimball method, the private libraries are critical, for their "gentleman" owners often had the decisive voice in building design, as in Joseph Brown's use of his personal copy of James Gibbs's Book of Architecture (1728) to choose a model for the steeple of the First Baptist Church (1776) in Providence, Rhode Island. Thus the exclusion of private...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-3033
Print ISSN
2164-8034
Pages
pp. 207-208
Launched on MUSE
2002-05-01
Open Access
No
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