Exhibit | November 14, 2013

Grolier Club Exhibit on the Books that Built America’s Houses

06 Palliser cottage.jpegThe fascinating history of the American Dream of home ownership is highlighted in the groundbreaking exhibition Selling the Dwelling: The Books that Built America’s Houses, 1775-2000 at the Grolier Club, on public view from December 11, 2013 to February 7, 2014.

Curator Richard Cheek, architectural photographer and visual history editor, has selected over 200 rare books, periodicals, drawings, and printed ephemera.  They show how the idea of “A Home for All” was marketed in the United States, first through eighteenth-century builder’s guides, then by nineteenth-century pattern books, and finally by twentieth-century house plan catalogues.  The distinguished lenders include the American Antiquarian Society, the Avery Library at Columbia University, and several private collectors.
The elevations, floor plans, and large, often colorful perspective views in these books fueled the growth of home ownership in America. The story begins in 1775 with George Bell’s reproduction of Abraham Swan’s The British Architect, credited as the first architectural book published in America.  It was the basic structural and stylistic information within these large European treatises that was needed, not the designs for grand classical mansions.  Such knowledge was better conveyed by the more modest “builder’s guides," manuals that directed the hand and eye of the craftsmen who were building all of the country’s houses.

As the Republic grew, novel styles of design began to challenge Classical and Federal norms. Designs in Italian and Gothic modes appeared in new domestic pattern books such as Alexander Jackson Davis’s Rural Residences (1837). Filled with alluring perspective views as well as elevations and floor plans, these books were calculated to appeal more to the customer than the builder.

After a hiatus in construction during the Civil War, American house building resumed in earnest in large northern cities in the late 1860s, propelled by an explosion in architectural book publishing. Some of this literature adopted a new approach for providing less expensive house designs: selling pre-drawn plans through the mails.  First attempted in 1856 by Cleaveland and the Backus brothers with their book, Village and Farm Cottages, the method finally proved to be successful in 1876 when George Palliser issued an inexpensive catalogue, Palliser’s Model Homes for the People, that won customers “from every state and territory in the Union.”     

By the 1880s, house plan publishing firms such as Robert W. Shoppell’s “Co-operative Building Plan Association” were producing mail-order catalogues in periodical form, demonstrating the growing importance of magazines in popularizing house designs. Godey’s Lady’s Book  and Ladies’ Home Journal  had been among the first to carry home plans in the nineteenth century, and shortly after 1900, a host of new magazines such as House Beautiful and House and Garden started competing for the attention of well-to-do readers who were planning to build architect-designed houses in the country or the suburbs.  

There was also a growing demand in the early twentieth century for more small houses, a need that millwork companies and national retailers like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward decided to serve by producing pre-cut homes that could be shipped by railroad for assembly by local carpenters. The exhibition devotes a special section to the advertising and marketing of this new mode of house building.  

04 American Builder.jpgWith so many different businesses issuing house plan books simultaneously, an incredible variety of often elaborately designed and printed publications was produced prior to the Depression, usually accompanied by other forms of advertisement such as home planning guides, company journals, flyers, posters, calendars and paper models. Focusing directly on the consumer, chiefly on women, this vast panoply of promotional material promised a tasteful, convenient, and comfortable dwelling to anyone who purchased the products and services or followed the advice being offered.  

The post-WWII home-building boom reinvigorated plan book production, with modernism gaining a foothold when the undecorated version of the ranch house became part of the vogue for wide, single-level houses in the 1950s and early 1960s.  

The exhibition tracks extensive and rapid changes to the literature of house building after 1970. The level of house catalogue publication declined in the 1970s and 80s, chiefly because large tract developers were making more of the design decisions for new dwellings than were prospective homeowners. Many smaller house plan publishers went out of business, and the supply of plan books was further diminished in the 1990s, as house designs became increasingly available on internet sites which offered CD-ROMS instead of printed catalogues.

The evolution of the house design book in the United States is a long and complicated story, filled with architectural creativity and banality, commercial genius and excess, egalitarian and humanitarian ideals, literary and social ambition, can-do individualism, faith in progress and invention, and endless energy. All of these quintessential American traits are bound within the pages of the builder’s guides, pattern books, catalogues, and other forms of architectural literature that have competed for the financial and psychological rewards involved in designing and building a domestic haven for every citizen. Mr. Cheek highlights the more visually arresting and socially compelling examples of this genre, focusing on books that reveal the character of our country as much as they do the style of our houses.  
CATALOGUE: A comprehensive 200-page catalogue with 600 illustrations is available at the Grolier Club.

Curator-led tours of the exhibition: December 11 and 12, 2013, 1:00 - 2:00 PM
Panel discussion on architectural pattern books: Tuesday, January 21, 2014, 2:00 - 5:00 PM
Lecture by curator Richard Cheek: Wednesday, January 22, 2014, 2:30 -3:30 PM

47 East 60th Street  
New York, NY 10022  
Hours: Monday - Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm
Admission: Exhibitions are open to the public free of charge

February 19-April 26, 2014. "The Dean of American Printers: Theodore Low De Vinne and the Art Preservative of All Arts." Curated by Irene Tichenor and Michael Koenig.
May 14-August 2, 2014. "The Power of Words and Images in a World at War." Curated by Kenneth Rendell.

First image: Title page of Palliser’s American Cottage Homes, Palliser, Palliser & Company (Bridgeport, CT: Palliser, 1878). Collection of Eric Holzenberg.

Second image: Cover of American Builder Vol. 39, no. 3, June 1925. Private Collection.