Skip to main content

New book challenges long-held views of American architectural history

A new book by Mary Woods, professor of architectural history in Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), shakes up long-held beliefs about how architecture first emerged as a profession in the United States.

The book, From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America (UCLA Press, 1999), definitively shows that the profession, as we know it today, owes as much to the contributions of 18th-century U.S. artisans as it does to those of formally schooled British "gentleman" architects of the late 19th century.

Woods' archival research reveals that as early as the 1800s efforts were afoot to advance architectural education in the United States and form professional societies of architects. She shows that early exemplars of the profession in the United States were men trained in building workshops or architectural offices who assumed the roles of both construction supervisor and designer -- and were often poorly paid for their dual efforts.

She writes of the emergence of partnerships and large private offices as ways to make the profession more professional -- and command higher fees. "Early American architectural practitioners were by necessity entrepreneurial," she explained at an alumni reception and talk on her book this fall in AAP's Sibley Hall. "Unlike their European counterparts, they could not rely on state commissions or noble patrons" to fund their projects, nor were they likely to have chosen architecture as an appropriate profession for a gentleman with an independent income, like their English mentors.

Woods goes on to show that such leading 19th-century architectural practitioners as B. Henry Latrobe, Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Stanford White needed to be first-rate merchandisers, educators and lobbyists for the profession, not merely inspired creators. Like today's top-drawing entertainers, they were showmen who paid careful attention to where they located their practices, how they designed their offices and how they dressed when they consulted with clients.

For example, Richardson created a studio intended to resemble an artist's atelier, "where one lived and felt art, and the hours did not count." He purposely situated it in Brookline, Mass., an out-of-the-way Boston suburb, so that clients would need to travel a distance to see him. When

they arrived he made a point of dressing in a monk's robe to greet them and sounding a temple gong to summon his office boy. Visitors were made to feel like "aesthetic pilgrims" to that exotic domain, said Woods.

The approach that followed, exemplified in firms like the one headed by White and Charles McKim, attempted to establish an esprit de corps among its staff by organizing staff baseball teams, maintaining on-site gyms and holding concerts, balls and costume parties to celebrate when they won large commissions. The results: Although architecture succeeded in advancing as a profession, it remained a mostly male, mostly white society until as recently as the 1960s. To illustrate that point during her talk, Woods showed a clip from Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" in which Wesley Snipes plays a hardworking young black architect who is turned down for partnership because his firm isn't ready to promote him. (He walks, and starts his own firm.)

Racial and gender diversity in architecture was not totally absent in 19th century America, however. The buildings at historically black Tuskegee University, which was founded by Booker T. Washington, were designed by the architecture faculty at the university. And Louisa Tuthill completed A History of Architecture from the Earliest Times in 1848. It was the first architectural history to be published in the United States.

Woods' book has received critical acclaim from both architects and architectural scholars. "Mary Woods questions the profession's myths and traditions, centers and peripheries, barriers and opportunities," wrote Gwendolynn Wright, a professor in Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. "Such astute analyses are critical to the future of American architecture."

The book was written with support from the Ahmanson Foundation, the American Institute of Architects, the Architectural History Foundation, the College of Fellows, the Graham Foundation and Cornell's Department of Architecture. The Department of Architecture web site http://www.architecture.cornell.edu.

Media Contact

Media Relations Office