"American Building: the historical forces that shaped it, by James Marston Fitch." - review by Lewis Brown, Jr.


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"American Building: the historical forces that shaped it, by James Marston Fitch." - review by Lewis Brown, Jr.
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Brown, Lewis Jr.
College of Architecure, University of Florida
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, FL
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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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Architecture 682
Winter 1977

American Building- The Historical Forces That Shaped It.

James Marston Fitch- Author

Review by- Lewis Brown Jr.

At first glance the Fitch book seems to be just another

history of architecture. As one begins to get into the work

he discovers that isn't so. Fitch has related mundane architectural

metamorphosis to the social, technological and political history

of the day. This is rather a unique approach to architectural

history, and one that should be carefully noted by his peers.

In the beginning Fitch paints a rather bleak picture

of early American life. He reminds the reader of the general

misconception that American colonial life was a glorious existence

where all dwellings were like the governor's palace at Williamsburg.

In the early days of America there were no building toolsand

no skilled labor to guide the eager hands of the inhabitants.

Families of this age had to satisfy themselves with anything

they could find to build with in any fashion that ingenuity

would allow. The results were mud shacks with thatch roofs.

As time was spent in the new world the local people sent

back to the mother country for skilled men and tools with which

to build. As these people began to arrive with the tools of their

respective trades a more sophisticated architecture emerged.
Buildings with heavy timber frames covered with sawn or

split wood siding became more and more popular. For the wealthy

brick masonry architecture became a symbol of status.

American Building- The Historical Forces That Shaped It.
Review by- Lewis Brown Jr.

page two

Until after the time of the revolution the American colonies

developed no architectural style of their own. This may be

blamed on two very distinct reasons. First: the pioneers were

too busy fighting indians and hunger,trying to obtain a foothold

in a new and alien land to allow themselves the luxury of

developing an independent architectural style. Second: all

materials and ideas on building were the product of their mother

country, therefore any architecture that did emerge would be

strongly influenced by that country.

After the American break with England several problems faced

the new nation. The war had almost drained the country of her

money, and as after any war fought on native soil the extreme

expense of reconstruction was at hand. This problem was further

compounded by the fact that the new government had to build an

entire independent nation; a nation whose buildings expressed her

political philosophy. Fortunately the country had grown a native son who

was to almost single handed dominate American reconstruction.

This person was Thomas Jefferson.

Fitch seems to have an almost intimate knowledge of Jefferson,

especially as related to Jefferson's prejudice for and love of

the classical style of architecture. Under the leadership and

influence of Jefferson and his friend Benjamin Latrobe the new

nation blossomed as a haven for classic revival architecture.

In the time period between the Revolutionary War and The Civil

War the United States began to grow as an industrial nation.

Naturally this had a great deal of influence on the architecture

of the time. Government building began to take a backseat to the

building of factories and other industrial buildings in the

American Building- The Historical Forces That Shaped It.
Review by- Lewis Brown Jr.

page three

years immediately proceeding the Civil War. The population

centers that surrounded these industrial areas naturally grew

right along with the rise of industry. This industrial growth

was taking place in the northeastern portion of the country.

This sudden spurt of industrialism barely influenced the south,which

was an agricultural center of the country. The architecture of

this area continued to develop in the classic revival style.

This isn't hard to understand since it was the architecture of

the few wealthy landowners that dominated the scene and set the

tempo of good taste.

Probably the most important part of Fitch's book is the

part he titles "The Golden Leap'. In this section he describes

the work of only three men, but these men were to have the most

pronounced effect on world architecture for the next fifty years.

Of course these men were Joseph Paxton, a horticulturist; John

Roebling, an inventor and engineer ; Gustave Eiffel, an engineer.

It is particularly curious that these men would have such a strong

effect on building and none was an architect. And only one of

these even worked with a structure that could be defined as a


The years after the Civil War up until the turn of the century

were the years of the great victorians. These people were the product

of the industrial revolution and were the new rich. Their architecture

expressed it. This period in American architectural history is the

finest example of building expression of the thoughts of the

day. America had become a first rate industrialized nation

and along with it came the sophisticated tools with which to

work her favorite building materials, especially wood. Better examples

American Building- The Historical Forces That Shaped It.
Review by- Lewis Brown Jr.

page four

of cast iron and sheet metal and wrought iron use in'anchitecture

were being done every day.

Americans of this time hunted in their history books for new

styles of architecture to copy. Each new rich American wanted to

express his fantasy as the sun king of France or the pharoh of

Egypt in his building. Some pretty bizarre architectural styles

arose during this time.

It was in this era that two of the most influential American

architects in American history emerged, Henry Hobson Richardson

and Henri Louis Sullivan. As with any innovators in this profession

their practices were an uphill struggle. Resisting the architecture

of the time has never been an easy task for any architect. The

motivation behind these men was, of course, the advances made

in new building materials, especially iron products.

Sullivan saw this as a material to be used to the fullest

extent and to be expressed architecturally rather than being

hidden behind a revival facade. An entire school of thought

grew up around Sullivan known as the Chicago School. It would

be many years and several fine architects later before this

school of thought would or could explore all the possibilities

open to it.

The one great catalyst of twentieth century design was

Frank Lloyd Wright. Although many great architects emerged in

the twentieth century, each was influenced in some way by this man.

He was the great innovator. His buildings were the expression of

man and his technology. Wright was never afraid to explore a new

material or idea, and some of them were pretty far fetched

for the time. Wright's peers, if it can be said that Wright

American Building- The Historical Forces That Shaped
Review by- Lewis Brown Jr.

page five

really had a peer group, were still conceiving revival styles

using contemporary materials in the most mundane fashion.

Architecturally speaking the second World War was a shot

in the arm for America. It gave her young architects a chance

to get their minds off architecture. It also provided a break

in the development of the mundane building of the time. The

post war building boom provided the chance necessary for

expression of contempory architecture as we know it today.

Architects were now back in control of creative design, a

privilege they had lost a hundred years ago.