3. Two Traditions in Conflict

It was in the various branches of technology that the vernacular tradition first and most uninhibitedly displayed its characteristics, and we have therefore attempted to define it in terms of tools and machines. But even in machine design, as we have seen, it interacted with the tradition of cultivated taste which flowed into our national life from the reservoirs of western European culture. Actually the two traditions mingle from the beginning in all branches of the arts; it is in their interpenetration and in their alternate ascendancy in the work of different men and different periods that the history of American art consists.

To make clear the nature of this interaction, let us turn for a moment to a consideration of the art of building. Throughout the Western world during the nineteenth century there was a disastrous separation between engineering and architecture. 1 Academic architecture, swept along on the flood of classic, Gothic, and Renaissance revivals which culminated in eclecticism, became more and more archaeologically-minded as the century progressed. It was ornament, not construction, that it adopted as its province, and architects seemed increasingly to share the belief of James Ferguson - one of the century's most influential writers on the subject - that "where the engineer leaves off the art of the architect begins." Given the engineer's structural materials, the architect had merely to arrange them "artistically," as the phrase was, and then add ornament.

In the United States it was in such academic architecture that the tradition of cultivated taste found expression. Moreover, it was this tradition that produced some of the most attractive buildings of the century. Richard Upjohn's Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street in New York, Minard Lafever's Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, and James Renwick's St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue are all charmingly successful imitations of medieval Gothic forms, and the national Capitol in Washington, with its vast dome, is an impressive echo of classic styles. The very success of such buildings, however, did much to establish in America the dichotomy between architecture and engineering. If Renwick could get away with Gothic nave vaults of papier-mache painted to look like stone, and if Thomas U. Walter's dome for the Capitol could be so impressive in spite of the structural dishonesty of its iron members, disguised as masonry, why should architecture concern itself with the logic of structural expression?

The development of academic styles necessarily figures largely in the history of the practice of architecture in the United States, and we can learn much about our cultural limitations and aspirations from the way in which we tried to adapt a variety of imported forms and styles to our needs. But, taken by themselves, without reference to the enormous quantity of non-academic and non-professional building which our people produced, these borrowed modes mislead rather than inform us about American civilization, however charming they may be. More significant, from our point of view, are the constructive techniques of the vernacular tradition, which can be seen in their purest form in the technological features of construction-in engineering itself.

National unity, in a land so vast and geographically diverse as ours, could not have been achieved without roads, bridges, canals, railroads, and other means of intercommunication, and farsighted Americans early in our history were well aware that the consolidation and expansion of the nation as a political, social, and economic unit would depend upon technological developments. As early as 1785 Washington was preoccupied with the necessity for developing inland navigation in order to bring the Western settlements in close connection with the Atlantic states. "Without this," he argued, "I can easily conceive they win have different views, separate interests, and other connections." And Thomas Pope, shipbuilder and bridge designer, explicitly stated in his Treatise on Bridge Architecture (1811) that no real physical union of the country could take place without "the building of bridges, the digging of canals, and the making of sound turnpike roads."

The speed with which canals and bridges were construced in America was astonishing to Europeans. With the coming of the canals and railroads it was necessary to span rivers, streams, and chasms cheaply and rapidly, and new techniques were used ingeniously to meet the new needs. 2 David Stevenson, the English civil engineer, traveled widely in this country in the thirties and was struck by the temporary and apparently unfinished state of our canals. "Undressed slopes of cuttings and embankments," he wrote, "roughly built rubble arches, stone parapet-walls coped with timber, and canal locks wholly constructed Of that material, everywhere offend the eye accustomed to view European workmanship." But, he added, although the works were wanting in finish, they served their purpose efficiently, and they had the advantage that, as traffic increased, they could be enlarged and improved "without the mortification of destroying expensive and substantial works of masonry." Had some of the Erie barge canal's locks not been originally built of stone, the canal would, he pointed out, have been converted into a ship canal long before. But most construction was of wood, in bridges as well as in canal locks and aqueducts, and all kinds of experiments were tried with it. Most important, the techniques developed in wood construction were carried over into later work in more durable materials.

By the seventies, for instance, it had become apparent that the practice of American engineers in iron bridges differed widely from that of their European contemporaries. European bridge builders had always aimed to build structures as strong and safe and durable as possible, cost and speed of construction having been secondary considerations. For hundreds of years before the introduction of iron as a building material, massive stone-arch bridges had been painstakingly erected across European rivers. It had been only natural, therefore, that when in 1793-96 Rowland Burdon built the famous cast-iron bridge at Sunderland, England (based on plans worked out some years before by Thomas Paine, the great propagandist of the American Revolution), he had adapted the methods of stone vaulting to iron construction. The six ribs which formed the 236-foot arch were made up of cast-iron panels which served roughly the same structural function as the wedge-shaped stones in a masonry arch. Even in later bridges European engineers tended to perpetuate in iron the proportions which had been familiar in stonework.

The contrast between European and American practice was made clear in a paper read by Thomas C. Clarke before a meeting of the American Institute of Mining Engineers in 1876. In America the aim of the builders bad necessarily been to erect a bridge as rapidly and as cheaply as possible. Lack of capital and the necessity for haste led the early railroad-bridge builder, like the canal builder, to use the most abundant material - wood - and the same in-fluences prompted him to design the bridge so that it could be put together with the utmost rapidity. Hence, as Clarke said, when we began to build our iron bridges, we copied the proportions already established as the most economical in wooden trusses instead of copying the more massive proportions of stone; and rather than rivet the separate parts of the bridge together on the scaffolds (as a mason would cement together the separate stones), we copied the techniques of timber construction-using tenons and sliding joints for the compressive members, and pins and eyebars for those in tension. (See fig. 8)

The marked feature of the American method, according to Clarke, was the special use of special machine tools, by which the sizes and lengths of all the parts were fitted with the utmost exactness at the place of manufacture. In other words, the parts of the bridge were prefabricated by machinery and could be rapidly assembled on the spot; whereas in the European system of riveted lattice construction assembly was often tediously slow.

The proportions adopted by American designers and their methods of construction both resulted in great economy of material. The result was that when, for instance, English, continental, and American bridge builders submitted competing designs in 1876 for a bridge over the Minamidic River on the Intercolonial Railway of Canada, the American plans called on the average for roughly half the weight of materials required by their competitors. Similarly, when Roebling had completed the Niagara Suspension Bridge (1851-55) - the first large railroad suspension span in the world - he was able to write in his report to the directors of the company: "The work which you did me the honor to entrust to my charge has cost less than $400,000. The same object accomplished in Europe would have cost four millions without securing a better purpose, or insuring greater safety."

The early builders of wooden-truss bridges, like the early designers of machinery, had worked by rule of thumb. The carpenter-builder had a feel for the strength of timber but no precise knowledge of its capacity to bear loads. Not until 1847 - when Squire Whipple, of Utica, New York, published his analysis of bridge building - was there any source of accurate quantitative information on stresses in bridge trusses. The consequence was that some early bridges were uneconomically strong; but the rivalry between the patentees of various wooden trusses in the early days, and the subsequent competition between the various iron-bridge manufacturing companies (like Keystone, Phoenix, and Baltimore) constantly encouraged economy of materials and standardization of design.

In the realm of house building, as in bridge building, the prevalence of wood construction in America as opposed to the stone or brick construction of Europe led to significant differences in architectural fundamentals.

In the twenty-five years immediately preceding the Revolutionary War the tide of Adam's and Chambers' classic revival architecture, which bad already swept Gothic, Tudor, and Jacobean ideas out of favor in Britain, reached its height in the American colonies. Almost all the early classic revival buildings in England had been of stone or of brick faced with stucco. But in America the plentifulness of wood had resulted in the development of more skilled carpenters than masons; so the New England builder usually approximated in wood the stonework details he found illustrated in the English books he imported. But modifications of the original designs began to appear almost immediately. Cornices became smaller and more delicate, mantels became daintier, and the decorative details took on more and more the essential characteristics of wood.

But far more important than these modifications of borrowed forms was the way in which wood construction cooperated with the social system to undermine the cultivated tradition and develop new and more flexible forms. As would be expected, the cultivated classes regarded wood as an inferior material. For one thing it was perishable, and subject to the dangers of storm and fire. But from the earliest days of the Republic there were other and weightier arguments in favor of brick and stone. The article on architecture in The New and Complete American Encyclopaedia (New York, 1805) baldly put it thus:

Considered politically, there is this good attending brick buildings: from durable habitations, in which more money has been spent, and more of the refined tastes gratified, an affection for the soil is increased. . . . But the last and highest consideration which strikes us is that emigration would be less easy, and not so common amongst us, were a finer spirit of building to prevail. The facility with which we may move, is a strong incentive to that love of change which it particularly interests us to repress in our citizens.

But change was irresistible under democratic political institutions. Ruskin might appropriately argue in Britain that the right to have a house express one's character and history belonged to its first builder and should be respected by his children. But among the majority of Americans there were few who would have agreed with him that it was "an evil sign" when a people built their houses to last for one generation only. A farmer neighbor of Emerson's who had been reading the Report of the Agricultural Survey of Massachusetts in 1840, had small respect for the Report's recommendation of stone houses. "They are not so cheap," he said, "not so dry, and not so fit for us. Our roads are always changing their direction, and after a man has built at great cost a stone house, a new road is opened, and he finds himself a mile or two from the highway. Then our people are not stationary, like those of old countries, but always alert to better them-selves, and will remove from town as a new market opens or a better farm is to be had, and do not wish to spend too much on their buildings." It was inevitable that in the United States the facility of wood construction would be exploited.

Technologically, the most important contribution in building was the anonymous development of the so-called balloon frame, a revolutionary method of wood construction which appeared early in the nineteenth century in the vernacular realm of utilitarian architecture. No historian of our architecture considered this invention worthy of notice until Siegfried Giedion, in the Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1939, emphasized its importance as marking the point at which industrialization began to penetrate housing. But despite the refusal of academic architecture to concern itself with such a utilitarian development, there are a number of sources for information about the role it played in American life.

For hundreds of years men had made wood frames for houses out of heavy timbers (often a foot or more thick) which were joined together by cutting down the end of one timber to form a tenon which could be fitted into a hole, or mortise, which had been cut out of the other timber. If the joint had to support a pull, rather than a thrust, the two pieces were fastened together with a wooden peg driven through auger holes.

With the invention of nail-making machinery early in the nineteenth century, and the resulting availability of cheap nails, the way was open to the development in the United States of a new construction which soon replaced the old type and which has been used throughout the country ever since. This was the balloon frame (so nicknamed, in contempt for its lightness, by traditional carpenters and builders), which the mid-century builders G. E. and F. W. Woodward described as characterized by light sticks, which did not require laborious mortising and tenoning, and (in language very reminiscent of that used in contemporary descriptions of American locomotives) by "a close basket-like manner of construction." The balloon-frame house is nailed together with light studs only two inches by four inches, but is so tied and strengthened that every nail holds to its utmost strength. (See fig. 9)

Credit for the invention apparently belongs to a carpenter-builder named Augustine Deodat Taylor, who in 1833 built St. Mary's Catholic church in Chicago - the first balloon-frame building ever built. Giedion and others have credited it to another Chicagoan, but the researches of Walker Field, first published in 1942, seem to establish Taylor as the real originator. Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the new construction developed anonymously.

The first professional architect who recognized its importance, so far as I have discovered, was Gervase Wheeler, an Englishman who came to the States to practice in the 1840s. His book, Homes for the People (published in 1855), was the first architectural publication to quote the description of balloon framing which Solon Robinson had given at a meeting of the American Institute and which had been reported in the New York Tribune, January 31, 1855. Robinson himself, who was apparently the first person to describe the new system of construction, was a farmer who had migrated from Connecticut to Indiana in 1834, and he had seen how these lightly framed buildings, erected on the open wind-swept prairies, stood as firm as any of the old frames of New England with posts and beams sixteen inches square. How long they might endure he did not know, but for all practical purposes they were substantial enough to meet the needs of those who were building towns in the wilderness. When another member of the Institute expressed doubts about the long-term durability of the balloon-frame structures, in spite of their admitted strength, Robinson replied: "Sir, we are Christians, you know, and therefore we take no thought for the morrow."

Yet, in spite of Gervase Wheeler's interest in the new method of construction, it was generally ignored by professional architects. As one of the most successful of them put it in 1879:

It sometimes happens, in localities remote from large cities or large towns, that persons are obliged to do with make-shifts, to get a home at all. it was such a condition of things that led the well-disposed pioneer of the West to adopt the method called "Balloon framing", which is really no framing at all....

It was the carpenter-builders and the farmers who developed it, and its role in American life was best understood by men like Robinson and one of the anonymous authors of The Great Industries of the United States (published in Hartford in 1873), who hailed it as "the most important contribution to our domestic architecture which the spirit of economy, and a scientific adaptation of means to ends, have given the modem world." There was, he thought, hardly a better evidence of the American spirit than the prompt adaptation to new conditions reflected in the introduction of this new method of building. And he demonstrated his understanding of its relationship with other aspects of technological advance when he added that "our methods of construction, like our means of transportation, have passed into the railroad phase of development."

Here, then, were the roots of the vernacular tradition in building. Here were the same characteristics which we have already traced in technological design: simplicity, lightness, flexibility, and wide availability.

These balloon-frame buildings were often designed and constructed without reference to any requirements other than those of utility, and they were often appallingly unattractive. Professional architects usually regarded them with horror. To Calvert Vaux, for instance, who, like Gervase Wheeler, had come to the United States with the best available English training and had devoted his life to the realization in this country of his ideals of his art, such houses seemed to have been constructed without any sense of proportion or the slightest apparent desire to make them agreeable objects in the landscape. These "bare, bald white cubes," as he called them in 1857, struck him as monotonous evidence of a life spent "with little or no cultivation of the higher natural perceptions." And like many of his cultivated contemporaries, he set about doing his best to educate the American people in sifting, testing, and improving all suitable architectural forms and modes of the past. He recommends, for instance, Moorish arcades and verandas and Chinese balconies and trellises added to what he calls the "irregular Italian" or to the "later modifications of the Gothic."

But Vaux, again like a number of his contemporaries, was at least vaguely aware of the basic problem represented by the conflict between the cultivated academic tradition and the square boxes which were springing up in every direction. Republicanism, he argued, tacitly but none the less practically, demanded of art to thrive in the open air if it was worth anything, and if not, to perish as a troublesome encumbrance." The balloon-frame houses might trouble him because of their builders' apparent lack of capacity for enjoying what is really desirable in life, but he nevertheless recognized that they were rooted in the lives of the people, "simply and unceremoniously' reflecting both the migratory, independent spirit which pervaded Americans and the economic opportunity which made it possible for almost every storekeeper and mechanic to build his own home.

Vaux was typical, in a sense, of a whole group of professionals to whom it was obvious that the forms and modes of the past could not be slavishly copied in this country. The past, they proclaimed, should be regarded as a servant, not as a master. Yet no matter how devoutly they professed, as William M. Woollett did, that "architectural effect should be obtained by the natural combinations and workings of the constructive portions of the structure, and not by adding or planting on of these features," they nevertheless were capable of the kind of alteration of old houses illustrated in the accompanying plates from Woollett's book. (See fig. 10) Calvert Vaux was willing enough to quote Emerson's exhortation to the American architect to "study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of government." Indeed, many professionals felt in a vague sort of way that American architecture would develop some distinctive characteristics, but they generally agreed with Vaux that whatever these characteristics might ultimately turn out to be, they could "hardly be expected to depend much on the employment of really new forms."

Clearly it could not be from men so disposed and so bound to tradition that fundamental innovations would come. Those would continue to develop anonymously in haphazard response to social necessity, as did balloonframing. But as the anonymous and revolutionary contributions of the vernacular tradition became established in building construction, they inevitably influenced and modified, and were modified by, the ideas and practice of the professional architects. There is no more charming evidence of the interaction of the two traditions than the carpenter-Gothic houses (like the "Lace House" in Blackhawk, Colorado, Fig. 11), built in all parts of the country during the middle decades of the century. The fanciful and sometimes highly elaborate scrollwork overlies a balloon-frame structure in much the same way that the carpenter's scrollwork overlay the bold, simple mechanism of many American woodworking machines.

The essential point, however, is that through all the various revivals which were borrowed from Europe by the professional architects in the United States - whether it were Asher Benjamin's Greek style, Alexander Jackson Davis' and Upjohn's Gothic, or Vaux's Italian - certain characteristics recur which distinguish the American examples from their European contemporaries; and these characteristics clearly reflect the recurring influence of the vernacular tradition.

One of these characteristics is the plane surface - the flat wall of wood, or brick, or stone. The simple clapboard wall, for instance, which was evolved in response to the lack of lime in the colonies, has dominated American wood construction for three centuries. There have been, of course, numerous instances in the United States of cluttered and elaborate wall surfaces, in wood as well as in other materials. But in general, even in the worst moments of nineteenth-century eclecticism, American buildings differed from those of England, Germany, or France in being less given to surface richness. Similarly, early in the century, when, classic styles had been revived, in Europe it was-chiefly the magnificence of Roman forms which had been imitated, while in the United States (except momentarily in a few urban centers in the East) it was the serenity and severity of Greek forms which had appeared in churches, houses and courthouses throughout the country.

Newspapers, farm journals, family magazines, and many books of the period offer ample evidence of the attitude which is expressed in the buildings themselves. There is a whole literature, for example, on the general subject of rural architecture, some of it by trained architects but much of it simply by farmers or "friends of agriculture who had enough ingenuity and good sense to plan houses which met practical needs. Almost all of this literature expresses pragmatic contempt for "Gothic castles with piecrust battlements," "fantastical and puerile 'bird cages' with gewgaw carvings," and other follies which, as D. J. Browne told his fellow farmers at an American Institute meeting in the forties, were at variance with the simplicity of our manners, with our climate, and with reason and sound taste.

Nowhere did the interaction of the vernacular and the cultivated tradition find clearer expression than in the popular books on architecture which appeared in the middle of the century. One of the most amusing and enlightening of these was Lewis F. Allen's Rural Architecture, originally published in New York in 1852 and reissued several times in the sixties and seventies, a forgotten volume which did more to shape the course of ordinary house building than many a more pretentious and less salty book. Allen was a farmer in western New York State (and an uncle, incidentally, of Grover Cleveland) who had no formal training as an architect, and whose contempt for the professionals sprang from a conviction that they showed no understanding of the purposes to which a rural home should be adapted. He therefore took it upon himself to instruct his neighbors in the fundamentals of house building, so that they would have their own notions about it, "and not be subject to the caprice and government of such as profess to exclusive knowledge." He was concerned, he said, only with the shape, arrangement, and accommodation of the building, not with modes and styles of exterior finish. The latter, so long as they suited those who adopted them, were of little consequence, he felt, and could therefore safely be left to the architects.

The fundamental principles which Allen keeps reiterat-ing throughout his book - wbether in connection with farm- houses themselves, or barns, or poultry houses, or rabbit hutches - are all summed up in his definition of good taste. It is a definition which in our day may sound commonplace enough, but which most academic architects of his day overlooked. Good taste, Allen believed, demanded both a fitness to the purpose for which a thing was intended and a harmony between 'the various parts. Any product of good taste would be both "pleasing to the eye, as addressed to the sense, and satisfactory to the mind, as appropriate to the object for which it is required." No style of architecture or finish could be really bad, he in-sisted, if utility were duly consulted and complied with. Provided there was a harmony amongst them even the meanest buildings on a farm derived a dignity from "the character of utility or necessity which they maintain."

Planting himself on these convictions, he mercilessly attacked the meaningless current styles which the architects of the cultivated tradition were exploiting. At the slightest excuse he laid into "the ambitious cottage, with its covert expression of humility" such as those which men like Vaux and Downing were building. "What," he asks, "are the benefits of a parcel of needless gables and peaked windows running up like owls ears above the eaves of a house, except to create expense, and invite leakage and decay?" He detested all the "gewgawgery" of the haberdasherbuilt houses of his time and maintained stoutly that all buildings should show for themselves what they were built of, rather than masquerade as something else.

Being altogether untutored in draftsmanship, Allen had to employ a Buffalo architect to draw up the elevations and plans of his houses for illustrations in his book, and as might be imagined - the results were not satisfactory. Throughout the text Allen snipes at the architect's renderings. For instance, he objects to the diamond-paned windows with which the draftsman dressed up his design for a poultry house; "but," he sourly remarks, "as he had, no doubt, an eye to the 'picturesque,' we let it pass, only remarking that if we were building the house on our own account, there should be no such nonsense about it." (See fig. 12)

But the significance of his book is not confined to its attacks upon frippery and pretense. Its positive contribution is that all the plans for buildings which it offers have their origin in the life to be lived, or the jobs to be done, within them. The layout of buildings, arrangement of rooms, provision for light and ventilation-all are managed with an eye to the comfort, convenience, and pleasure of actual farm living rather than to stylistic design.

Another book which should be better known to students of American architecture is Orson S. Fowler's A Home for All, or, The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building, originally published in New York in 1849. Fowler was, in a way, typical of the reformer-enthusiasts who flourished in the forties and fifties. For a generation be and his brother Lorenzo were the most active boosters of phrenology - the "science" based on the belief that mental faculties and character traits are revealed by the conformation of the skull-and he traveled throughout the country lecturing and selling copies of the books and magazines which he and his brother wrote and published.

It was on one of his Western trips that Fowler came across a method of building which, combined with certain phrenological conceptions of his own, produced a system of building examples of which can still be seen in many Hudson Valley towns and elsewhere. Fowler was convinced that, from all points of view, an octagonal form was the ideal one for a home. For one thing it provided considerably more enclosed space than a square or rectangle of the same circumference, and hence was economically superior. Furthermore, it permitted floor plans which, he argued persuasively, were phrenologically sound and which made housekeeping less of a burden than it had to be in houses of other shapes. The trouble was, simply, that its obtuse angles were harder to frame than the right angles of conventional houses.

The solution to this problem he found, however, when he saw houses near Janesville, Wisconsin, built of lime, gravel, and sand. But let him tell it in his own words:

I visited Milton [Wisconsin], to examine the house put up by Mr. Goodrich, the original discoverer of this mode of building, and found his walls as bard as stone itself, and harder than brick walls. I pounded them with the hammer, and examined them thoroughly, till fully satisfied as to their solidity and strength. Mr. Goodrich offered to allow me to strike with a sledge, as hard as I pleased, upon the inside of his parlor walls for six cents per blow, which he said would repair all damages. He said in making his discovery he reasoned thus: Has nature not provided some other building material on these prairies but wood, which is scarce? . . . Let me see what we have. Lime abounds on them everywhere. So does coarse gravel. Will they not -do? I will try. He first built an academy not larger than a school house. . . . It stood; it hardened with age. He erected a blacksmith's shop, and finally a block of stores and dwellings; and his plan was copied extensively. And be deserves to be immortalized, for the superiority of his plan must revolutionize building, and especially enable poor men to build their own houses.

Here was a method of construction (in reality an empirical rediscovery of Roman concrete, and one of the earliest uses of this material for domestic architecture in modem times) which was easily adapted to octagonal houses, and Fowler at once set out to sell the idea to his countrymen. His own house at Fishkill, New York, was a sightseers' objective for many years, until seepage from a cesspool made it a typhoid breeder and broke the old man's heart. In the meantime, however, hundreds of houses had been built according to his proposals, and his book did a great deal to promote a method of construction which, quite apart from his octagonal plan, had a share in the development of what later became ferro-concrete architecture.

Like Lewis F. Allen, Fowler had no use for fancy trimmings, and one of the things he liked about his "gravel walls" was the plain surfaces they presented. Nature, be reminded his readers, "never puts on anything exclusively for ornament as such. She appends only what is useful, and even absolutely necessary," and that should be the law of design.

This brings us to another recurring characteristic which--like the plane surface--distinguishes American domestic architecture from its European counterpart: flexibility of ground plan. This flexibility may be traced from its origins in the early eighteenth-century practice of adding ells and lean-tos to the central-chimney houses on up through the nineteenth-century development of sliding doors which came into American house design with the Greek revival in the late 1820s and were extensively used thereafter. Yet to Wilhelm Bode, the German critic, these sliding doors seemed a novelty at the end of the century, when he visited the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

Openness and flexibility have been characteristic of American house plans for three hundred years, and have to a great extent resulted from the influence of the vernacular tradition. An 1872 book of plans, each of which is designed "to afford an easy opportunity of adding to it in the future without interfering with the construction already in use," was the work of an architect named C. P. Dwyer who in his preface claimed "years of residence in the Great West" and "a knowledge of the various modes of cheap construction" in Europe as well as in America, "where necessity is the superintending architect." It is possible to trace a part of the development in the records of academic architecture, especially in summer cottages and country homes where architect and client felt relatively free to develop independent solutions. But for many of the most daring innovations one must turn to such unlikely and neglected sources as, for example, a volume produced in the sixties by Catherine Beecher and her more eminent sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Here, in The American Woman's Home (New York, 1869), these worthy and earnest ladies laid down the specifications for what they called "a Christian house; that is, a house contrived [notice the verb] for the express purpose of enabling every member of a family to labor with the hands for the common good, and by modes at once healthful, economical, and tasteful." The house they contrived is a remarkable job. They planned it for mass use, and deliberately acknowledged the industrial environment by arguing that, owing to the railroads, men working in cities could build such a house and rear families in the country. The overall plan, and every detail, aims - in Miss Beecher's words - at "economizing time, labor, and expense by the close packing of conveniences." (See fig. 13)

As in Frank Lloyd Wright's Suntop Homes at Ardmore seventy years later, all the heating, plumbing, and storage facilities are concentrated in a central unit-at the darkest part of the house-leaving the well-lighted outer parts free for family life. The kitchen and stove room, the arrangement of which the authors liken to a cook's galley on a steamship (from which, indeed, they probably got the idea) are an extraordinarily advanced piece of compact, functional planning. The glazed sliding doors between stove room and kitchen serve to shut out heat and smells and to let in light. The whole house is artificially ventilated by a system of flues connected with the stove; the stove warms the air in the flues, thus setting up a current in them, which both draws off the heat and smells of the kitchen (and of the water-closet room on the second floor) and draws fresh air from outdoors to supply all the rooms of the house.

Particularly interesting, since it seems to be the earliest recorded use of a movable partition in an American house, is the screen on rollers by means of which the large room to the left of the entrance could serve as a big, airy sleeping room at night; then in the morning, when the screen is rolled to the middle of the room, as a sitting room on one side of the screen and a breakfast room on the other; and finally, through the day, a large parlor on the front side and a sewing room behind. By means of this movable partition (which, incidentally, was also a "storage wall," with shelves and compartments built in to economize space), and the compact kitchen and stove room, the useless spaces usually devoted to kitchen, entries, hall, back stairs, pantry, etc., would all be eliminated. It is, on the whole, a radical interior plan, broadly prophetic of features of the best twentieth-century design. But the ladies got nowhere with the exterior; that remained strictly conventional. Working from the inside out, they - like Allen and other nameless exponents of the vernacular tradition - did not have the requisite experience and training to evolve a suitable exterior shell for their creation. The chances are, indeed, that they were not much concerned about relating the exterior to the interior. Even among professional designers it was assumed that although the ground plans of a house should be made to conform to the necessities and requirements of those who were to occupy it, those plans did not, as the architect S. B. Reed said, "decide, or even indicate, the style, character, or expense of the outside dress that may be put upon them."

But it was the gradual pressure of flexible and open plans, co-operating with the freedom and facility of the vernacular balloon-frame construction, which encouraged a few architects to abandon the stagnation of academic traditions and to evolve new solutions to the problems of house building.

A writer in Putnam's Magazine in 1854 declared that splendors Of architecture were not to be looked for in America (except in the shape of bridges and aqueducts) until such time as we learned that twenty or thirty families might live in a palace by pooling their wealth and building one capacious dwelling, while if each built separately they would be compelled to live in inconvenient and unattractive houses. The problem which the writer was facing was one which is still much agitated: how can we provide adequate housing for the masses of our people? As a matter of fact his suggested solution (an idea which he caught from the vast hotels of his pre-apartment-house period) is basically the same as the one which Lewis Mumford and others have advocated in our time: dividing up the expense of major installations, such as heating units and water mains, among a number of families to reduce the per capita investment. But the other approach to the problem - mass-produced portable and prefabricated housing-about which we bear even more today, goes back at least as far.

Balloon-frame construction, as we have seen, early in the last century made substantial houses much more widely available than they had been before. But maximum availability could be achieved only when the building industry adopted mass-production techniques similar to those developed in the manufacture of firearms, machinery, and watches. In recent years, particularly as a result of the war-stimulated demand for emergency housing of workers, we have learned a great deal about prefabrication of houses and about portable and demountable buildings. One gathers from present-day writers on architecture and construction that these are almost exclusively twentiethcentury developments. (The John B. Pierce Foundation, for example, published in 1943 a History of Prefabrication, by Alfred Bruce and Harold Sandbank, which mentions no case of precut or sectional buildings before 1892.) Certainly many important features of modem technique are of recent origin, but the theory of prefabrication itslef, and its pioneer practice, go back well into the nineteenth century. The frames of hewn-timber houses and buildings were shipped ready-cut to all parts of the world in the late seventeen hundreds, as we know from early records. The old Seamen's Chapel, or Mission House, in Honolulu, was sent, disassembled, from Boston around Cape Horn in a whaling ship in 1820.

Even some of the most revolutionary current methods were proposed more than a hundred years ago by a weird Pittsburgh genius named John Adolphus Etzler. He described them at considerable length in a long memorial to Congress and in a book called The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery, first published in this country in 1833, reissued a number of times in England, and rather scornfully reviewed by Henry Thoreau in the leading article of the Democratic Review for November 1843. Etzler described, for instance, how wood, if "cut and ground to dust and then cemented with a liquor," could be molded into any shape and dried so as to become a solid, consistent substance which could be dyed and polished. Thus, he announced, "we may mould and bake any form of any size, entire walls, floors, ceilings, roofs. . . . furnitures, . . . kitchen utensils, pieces of machineries." He proposed the construction of huge, air-conditioned apartment buildings, to be made of "large solid masses, baked or cast in one piece . . . so as to join and book into each other firmly."

Apparently Etzler's schemes never came to anything much, and the man himself was so completely lost sight of that a popular American writer of the seventies - confused by the numerous English editions of the bookreferred to him as "Mr. Etzler, of England." But prefabrication on a less ambitious scale managed to make considerable headway during the next few years. "Barnard's Portable Patent Houses" were exhibited and sold in St. Louis, Missouri in 1847, and were described in the St. Louis Daily New Era (June 26, 1847) as "made in single or double sections. . . . suitable for dwellings, stores, offices, shops, &c., . . . of various sizes with one or more rooms, and can at any time be taken down and removed to any part of the town or country at small expense."

Thomas P. Kettell observed in 1861 that "the settler on the new lands of the West is now not always required to plunge into the wilderness and rear his first shelter from logs, but may have his house sent from Chicago or other cities by railroad, and put up to await his coming." By 1873 an anonymous writer was able to say that with the opening of the West, with the new methods of transporta-tion, and with the application of machinery to lessening the expenditure of labor, domestic architecture bad "partaken fully" of the spirit of the age; the Western prairies be said, were dotted over with houses which had been "shipped there all made, and the various pieces numbered, so that they could be put up complete, by anyone."

One of the most interesting of the United States exhibits at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867 was a balloon-frame farmhouse which had been shipped in sections by its manufacturer, Colonel Lyman Bridges, of Chicago, and assembled at the exposition. Bridges had, for a number of years, been in the business of supplying settlers in the West with portable, prefabricated buildings of this type. According to his own testimony at the time, the majority of his customers ordered houses of from two to four rooms, which cost from two hundred to six hundred dollars, but about one out of seven bought more pretentious houses which sold at prices up to a thousand dollars. Schoolhouses, also, were supplied to pioneer villages (usually of a standardized 24' x 36' floor plan-costing a thousand dollars), and stores of various styles and sizes could be bad at prices ranging from five hundred to two thousand dollars. It was the colonel's firm, no doubt, which James Parton described (in the chapter on Chicago in his Triumphs of Enterprise, 1872) as "happy to furnish cottages, villas, schoolhouses, stores, taverns, churches, courthouses, or towns, wholesale and retail, and to forward them, securely packed , to any part of the country." Similarly, D. N. Skillings and D. B. Flint manufactured and sold in Boston and New York in the early sixties farmhouses, barns, hospitals and barracks for the Union armies, depots for the Adams Express Company, all made in sections, any one of which could be applied to any building of their make (on the general principle of interchangeable parts).

It is difficult to trace the development of prefabrication. Source material for such history (such as catalogues and advertisements) is ephemeral, and no one thus far seems to have bothered to collect the available scraps. But by the seventies the system was well established. Derrom's Ready-Made Houses were widely advertised in 1876. (See fig. 14) The Ducker Portable House Company, of New York, published an extensive catalogue of buildings made up of strong, fight, wood-framed sections-covered with an indurated, waterproof fiber-which locked together without the use of nails, screws, or any other appliance. William H. Wahl, writing in the eighties, said that the manufacture of portable houses had become an important industry in the United States. According to his account, they were extensively used by builders of such public works as railroads and canals; by the Army (as barracks, hospitals, etc.); and by miners, sportsmen, photographers, and others. Railway stations, storehouses, bathing houses, pavilions, fruit stands, summer kitchens, and outbuildings of every description were available, and one could buy substantial summer cottages "of many styles and as elaborately finished outside and inside as may be wished." By 1897, when the Klondike gold rush began, a New York company immediately shipped a large number of houses overland, and began loading a vessel to carry more of them to Seattle via Cape Horn, all of them ready-made in sections so that they could be carried easily in boats up the Yukon or packed on sleds.

Unfortunately these early experiments with prefabricated houses did not lead to a thoroughgoing modernization of the building industry. For one thing carpenters and builders early organized to resist the adoption of a house manufacturing method which threatened to deprive many of them of jobs. Perhaps equally important, the architects must have quietly done all they could to discourage people from buying the mass-produced products which threatened not only to deprive their profession of work, but also to standardize architectural forms and characteristics which seemed to them incompatible with good taste. We have seen how the vernacular tradition in purely technological design ran afoul of the cultivated tradition during the early days of machine design when inventors had to turn to cabinetmakers and architects for patternmaking. But that was simply the result of the inevitable fumbling for methods and techniques which characterizes early procedure in any new field. House design was quite a different matter; it was not a new field, and it had long been the province of the architects-who had the weight and prestige of the cultivated tradition behind them.

Here, then, and in the development of balloon-framing, were the makings for a showdown between the two traditions. The inevitable clash was marked by all the features which we have come to recognize as misfortunes in the social and artistic history of the United States. On the one hand, the emergent vernacular tradition-neglected as it was by the architects-was free to evolve solutions for problems inherent in the new civilization's environment; but its freedom was bought at the cost of losing all con-tact with the humane tradition of western European art. On the other hand, the cultivated tradition, refusing to adapt itself to the new environment, turned in upon itself - marrying itself to its own past; and the more it did so, the more anemic and impotent it became. The results of this conflict, at the worst, were on the one hand the bare, unimaginative, depressing houses which stalked both sides of Main Street in Western manufacturing and mining towns, and on the other hand the pointlessly mendacious pseudo-classical and pseudo-Renaissance public buildings which were pompously erected in the proudest cities of the land.

Yet, however much weight the cultivated tradition had, it was a dead weight. In the long run the vernacular, with its creative vitality, was certain to exert increasing influence wherever it appeared-in the United States or abroad. At first, of course, this influence was felt almost exclusively in those areas where the new civilization was least subject to the restraining influence of the older culture. In geographical terms this meant the new industrial centers, particularly in the Midwest and West; in social terms it meant the fields of inexpensive housing and of commercial and industrial structures. It was precisely in these subartistic areas that balloon-frame construction and prefabrication of buildings were developed (both of them, apparently, first in Chicago, and both of them for the satisfaction of plain people's needs); and it was largely in such utilitarian structures as factories, grain elevators, and warehouses that a tradition was developed of direct, unembarrassed simplicity and common-sense adaptation of form to function.

In these areas also there emerged yet another major achievement of the vernacular: the expressive use of the iron or steel skeleton. In order to understand the relationship of this architectural advance to the vernacular tradition as a whole, we must turn for a moment to an even earlier development: the use of iron as a building material.

The first building in which iron columns replaced the masonry of the outer walls as the support of the various floors was a five-story factory erected by James Bogardus in New York in 1848-49. Boulton and Watt in England had used cast-iron beams and columns in interior construction forty-seven years earlier, but Bogardus was the first to employ exterior iron columns as supports in place of brick or stone columns or walls. From 1850 on be designed and built a great number of buildings of this type, using prefabrication techniques much like those which we have already mentioned in the discussion of the construction of American iron bridges. (See fig. 15)

The discovery of gold in California gave the necessary impetus for the development of Bogardus' invention. Previously he had been unable to persuade American or English capitalists to invest in his project, but when the rush to California set in there was suddenly a huge market. Wrought-iron parts for buildings which were shipped to San Francisco by his English competitors required a month to assemble, but the buildings Bogardus sent out by the shipload could be put up in a day.

Throughout the next thirty years iron was widely used in the United States; but in spite of the fact that Bogardus had hoped from the start to introduce it in domestic architecture, its use (other than in hiden or disguised structural members - as, for instance, in the dome of the Capitol at Washington) was largely confined to warehouses, office buildings, and other structures which were often regarded as below the notice of official architectures. Iron, as iron, was suspect. 3

To the custodians of the cultivated tradition the new material offered nothing. Ruskin, after all, bad made it clear that "true architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material" because the sense of proportion and the laws of structure had always been based on the use of clay, wood, and stone; a metallic framework would inevitably create a flimsy appearance. Indeed, such works as the cast-iron central spire of Rouen Cathedral and the roofs and pillars of iron railroad stations were, he flatly asserted, 'not architecture at all." In 1869 the editors of Appleton's Journal, one of the most influential of all the magazines which were trying to improve America's taste in the arts, announced that the use of iron in architecture was "utterly destructive to its dignity." Seven years later Richard Morris Hunt, architect of a number of Fifth Avenue chateaux and Newport villas, and a staunch advocate of "art education for the masses," echoed Ruskin in his official report on the architecture of the Centennial Exhibition when he said that because the main building was built of glass and iron there was "a total absence of anything like monumental grandeur or even apparent substantiality" about it. The author of Gems of the Centennial Exhibition (1877) went even further, asserting that there was an "utter lack of beauty and picturesqueness in all iron-frame buildings," and that iron columns and girders, filled in with plate glass, could only produce an inartistic effect.

But to those who, like the authors of The Great Industries of the United States, had living contact with the everyday world of machines and trade about them, the use of iron seemed "one of the chief improvements of modern times." It was clear enough to them, to be sure, that the architects of the sixties and seventies had not yet evolved a satisfactory treatment of the new material; but they knew that it had potentialities which should not be neglected. They saw that London's Crystal Palace of 1851 had pointed the way toward exciting new architectural forms and methods of treatment. Here, they wrote, was a material whose tensile strength permitted its use in slender pillars and thin sheets, allowing "an unprecedented proportion of space for windows"; a material which was cheap, handy, strong, safe, and easily movable. No sentimental, Ruskinish objections could, in their view, prevent the increased use of a material with such advantages, and the time would surely come when increased knowledge would lead to its scientific use.

Meanwhile, however, the chief recommendation of iron as an architectural material was the ease with which it could "embody any architectural design." From the architectural rather than the engineering point of view, it was the "iron front" rather than the iron frame that was most interesting, and huge factories were built in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and other cities to make iron fronts for buildings throughout the country. (See fig. 16)Little attention has been paid to this aspect of our architectural history, and the available information has never been collected. Casual research reveals, however, that twenty iron-front buildings, all designed by the architects Van Osdel and Bauman, were built in Chicago in the year 1856, the iron fronts for all but two of which were made (if not designed) by D. D. Badger & Co. of New York. The other two, one of which was a bank, were made by Stone, Boomer, and Bouton of Chicago.

A few fine, intelligently handled examples of iron buildings were built anonymously during the third quarter of the century, such as the warehouses which were torn down to make room for the Jefferson Memorial Park on the old St. Louis waterfront. But most architects who used iron at all continued to treat it as nearly as possible as if it were stone, casting it in Corinthian columns and Romanesque or Gothic arches. (See fig. 17) In cities like Chicago and Baltimore there were by 1870 many buildings with iron fronts which were modeled as nearly as possible in the forms and proportions of stone, with only such modifications as the nature of iron made necessary. Such imitation of old forms in new materials is apparently an inevitable stage of development. When sheets of galvanized steel were used to cover fronts of wooden-frame buildings in the eighties, they were stamped in patterns resembling stone and brick and iron. (See fig. 18) Worse still, when Chicago was rebuilt after the fire of 1871, and stone was reintroduced in place of the iron which had melted and buckled so quickly in the fire, the forms which had themselves been modified metal imitations of stone construction were now in turn imitated in masonry which was painted to look exactly like cast iron.

Nevertheless, the essential scheme of a metal frame was becoming firmly established, and the way was being prepared for the development of the steel-skeleton architecture which--in skyscrapers and great factories--later appeared as one of the most distinctive achievements of American art. With the increasing use of steel during the seventies and eighties, new techniques of construction had been evolved. In 1874 James B. Eads completed the famous steel-arch bridge across the St. Louis - the first bridge in the world in which steel was extensively used, and a structure which served as an important stimulus to the development of the Chicago School of Architecture in the eighties and nineties. The engineering problems presented by Eads' design and solved by him in carrying it out, and the honesty and majesty of the finished struc-ture, marked it at once as a monument in the history of bridge building. But it was more than that. From this bridge Louis Sullivan, the greatest of the Chicago architects of the end of the century, caught his vision of the power of the creative dreamer - "he who possessed the power of vision needed to harness the intellect, to make science do his will, to make the emotions serve him."

One of the first buildings in which the steel skeleton was used without any self-supporting walls was William LeBaron Jenney's second Leiter Building (1889) at the corner of Van Buren and State streets, Chicago. Unlike Jenney's earlier Home Insurance Company Building (1883-85) which was the first "skyscraper" actually erected, the Leiter Building displays practically no reminiscences of academic architectural styles; as in Jenney's proposed building for the Hercules Manufacturing Company, the huge squares of the steel skeleton give shape and form to the exterior. Wide areas of glass screen the interior from the weather, and there is so little ornament that the eye is not distracted from the clean, strong shape of the building. To many critics it was of no account as architecture, but the anonymous author of Industrial Chicago(1891) admired its light, airy, yet substantial appearance and astutely observed that it was constructed "with the same science and all the careful inspection that would be used in the construction of a steel bridge of the first order.

It would be wrong to give the impression that engineering construction in the United States surpassed the achievements of contemporary Europe. As in the case of machine building, the truth seems to be quite the contrary. According to Giedion, French engineers achieved the most audacious and brilliant constructions during the period from 1855 to 1900 Cottancin's and Dutert's Galerie des Machines and the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 marking the climax and conclusion of a long development. But it was in the United States, and specifically in Chicago during the eighties and nineties, that the science of the engineer and the creative genius of the artist combined to produce a new urban architecture: the clearcut, open skyscrapers of Jenney of Burnham and Root, and of Adler and Sullivan.

While emphasizing the engineers' role in developing new techniques and forms we should not, however, lose sight of the fact that architecture, rightly conceived, has always concerned itself with more than mere construction, and that the engineers had by no means taken over the large-scale humanizing and planning functions of the architect. The result inevitably was that whenever vernacular forms were in competition with the work of the best cultivated architects people were likely to prefer the latter. So, for example, the success of the vernacular in Chicago's business district during the eighties and early nineties was for a time almost completely obscured by the academic brilliance of the cultivated tradition as displayed at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Returning to the classic forms which bad dominated our official architecture in the first decades of the century, the architects erected an impressive group of buildings which, according to the glowing tribute of Hubert H. Bancroft, the Western historian, were "a triumph of the aesthetical." It has often been said that the Chicago Fair set back American architecture thirty years; and in a sense it did. Certainly there was more originality of design in Sullivan's Transportation Building than in the scholarly classic revival buildings which dominated the exhibition. But in another sense the fair was a significant achievement. Never before had Americans seen a group of buildings so skillfully harmonized; nowhere else had they been able to wander down one apparently endless vista of beautifully correlated facades then turn a comer and face another, and never encounter a discordant detail. It was this overall planning, this total effect, which made the borrowed, academic style so impressive to the thousands who visited the fair. So long as the fine achievements of the vernacular remained isolated and unrelated phenomena, they inevitably failed to capture the public imagination on so vast a scale.

The century ended with academic architecture in the ascendancy, and with McKim, Mead, and White as the leading practitioners of the art. But despite the elegance and echoed charm of such buildings as the Boston Public Library (1887-95) and New York's Pennsylvania Railroad Station (1906-10), the work of men like McKim, who operated in the cultivated tradition, had less relation to the vital contemporary forces of American life, and to its future, than even the crudest, least ingratiating examples of small-town dwellings or the most materialistically functional office buildings. And meanwhile, however thoroughly Louis Sullivan's work was eclipsed by his Eastern contemporaries, be for one had fused the vital impulses of the vernacular into what he liked to describe as organic architecture (a word which he loved for its sense of "a ten-fingered grasp of reality"). The vision he had caught from the great Eads bridge at St. Louis was given concrete expression in his buildings. "With me," be wrote to Claude Bragdon, "architecture is not an art, but a religion, and that religion but a part of the greater religion of Democracy." Here, close to the vernacular roots, was the first flowering of an architecture indigenous to modern civilization.


1 The phrase is Talbot Hamlin's in his magnificent history of Architecture Through the Ages. Return

2 It was the "ingenious novelty of invention" displayed in American engineering works to which the Englishman, John Weale, hoped to call attention in the illustrated folio be published in London in 1841. See The Public Works of the United States of America, edited by William Strickland, Edward Cill, and Henry R. Campbell, London, 1841, with prefatory "Advertisement" by John Weale. Return

3 The professional architect's attitude toward iron as a structural material is plainly revealed in Minard Lafever's The Architectural Instructor, New York, .1856, PP. 405-07. Iron, Lafever Wrote, was suitable for " warehouses, crystal palaces, banks, and printing establishments" and also "for the interior structure and decoration" of other buildings where fireproof construction was desirable and where floors and galleries required strong support with a minimum of material. For such decorative details as window pediments and cornices, he pointed out, iron when painted and sanded "has the ornate and massive appearance almost of carved stone." Return

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