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  • Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780-1830
  • Marla R. Miller (bio)
Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780-1830. By Bernard L. Herman. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Pp. xvii, 295. Illustrations. Cloth, $45.00.)

Readers of Bernard Herman's Town House might do well to begin at the end, with the book's epilogue. Quoting the celebrated American poet Edward Hirsch, Herman suggests that, just as "a certain kind of exemplary poem teaches you how to read it," urban spaces likewise can carry their own "encoded instructions"; poems and buildings alike can suggest their meanings in unconscious, intangible ways "before they are understood on a rationalized, self-conscious level." The "poetical city," Herman posits, is a world of ambiguity and lyricism.

Herman's ability to find and articulate the ambiguities and lyricism of the built environment is the product of decades of study. Few scholars have influenced the contemporary understanding of American architecture more than Bernard Herman has through his books, such as Architecture and Rural Life in Central Delaware, 1700–1900 (Knoxville, TN, 1987), Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic (Baltimore, MD, 1997, with Gabrielle M. Lanier; winner of the Fred Kniffen Prize for the best book in material culture for 1999), and The Stolen House (Charlottesville, VA, 1992); as a founder of the Vernacular Architecture Forum; and of course through the numerous students he has trained at the University of Delaware. Herman's scholarship in all of these settings has advanced an approach to material culture study that balances the rigorous study of materials, construction and design with the interpretation of artifacts in an array of social and cultural contexts.

In Town House, Herman turns his attention to urban landscapes, tackling his subject via "a series of explorations into the ways people employed town houses as symbolic representations of self and community" (20). Engaging the perspectives of both builders and residents, the book orders its evidence in a series of chapters that turn on classes of occupants, including merchants, servants, women, artisans, immigrants, owners, renters, and lodgers. The scope of the analysis includes architecture and landscape as well as the material culture that filled these rooms, from [End Page 676] the "topography" of tea tables (73), to the "assemblages" of artifacts that together constituted sociability, domesticity, and other features of urban life.

An opening chapter on merchant houses tracks how urban America's most privileged families asserted their elite status through architecture and goods. Next, Herman explores how architecture shaped and reflected both regional and ethnic identities as families balanced traditional and cosmopolitan practices and values. In an insightful exploration of the "architectural topography of urban slavery," Herman posits that the very ubiquity of slaves in cities facilitated a certain sort of privacy; "the habit of their masters' gazes," he writes, "was the servants ally," in that their movements up and down stairs, through yards and along streets and passages were so routine that they "failed to register . . . except when service went unexpectedly right or very, very wrong" (134). Turning to white female heads of household, Herman considers what dower rights might suggest about gender and space in early American cities, as the careful enumeration of the specific domestic spaces to which a widow retained access reflected assumptions about her needs and station. It is interesting to note that Herman finds no clear pattern when committees were tasked with dividing a residence: Some widows were assigned the home's work spaces, while others received the parlor and other more formal rooms. The "rationale for their choices remains clouded," Herman concedes, "given the absence of public discussion on the matter" (172). In an essay on artisan lodgings, Herman examines surviving examples of what is among the most vulnerable forms of early American housing stock, though he is most interested in the lives of artisans who fell somewhere on the spectrum between "struggling itinerant lodger" and "successful entrepreneur" (199), whose residences "in plan and finish" illuminate their "tenuous grasp on the culture of property" (200).

Each of these chapters is filled with small and large insights on a variety of urban cultures...


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