VERNACULAR TO SPECTACULAR
Function Follows Form:
How Houses Changed Lifestyles of the Hudson Valley Dutch,
by Harrison Meeske
Introduction by Roderic H. Blackburn Color plates by Geoffrey Gross
From the introduction by Roderic H. Blackburn:
Houses are the most familiar of all objects for each of us-they surround much of our lives-yet we know the least about what, one would think, we ought to know the most. Yes, we know about features and styles, names and dates, but we have little understanding of how and why they evolved, how they functioned. Like us, houses have a lineage of descent and evolution. They began as simple structures like sapling and bark huts, which became larger and more complex over centuries but in different ways, with different descent lines, so to speak. But unlike the evolution of species, houses are not determined by DNA but by the choices humans make about how, where, and in what they live. How those choices were made, and the consequences which followed, is what this interesting book is about. There are plenty of books which describe what houses are like and where the idea of their designs came from. Books which go beyond that, to explain not just how but why houses evolved and the effects those changes had on the lives of subsequent generations are still relatively rare. This is such a book. It takes as its start Hank Meeske's prior book on Dutch houses The Hudson Valley Dutch and their Houses (Purple Mountain Press, 1998, revised 2001), which is primarily a discussion of the Dutch in the New World and their houses-how they built them, decorated and furnished them, and lived in them. Vernacular to Spectacular takes off from the former, starting with the Dutch in New York and New Jersey, but ranges far wider, seeking explanations for the evolution of architecture in both Europe and America from the Medieval period through to the early twentieth century. While it starts with the Dutch, houses described and illustrated are from all along the Eastern seaboard. I would call it a magic carpet journey through the ages. Feature by feature of ancestral homes gives flight to explore the origin, meaning and function of each in the most interesting and surprising ways.
Here is one magic carpet trip. The seemingly simple fact of house evolution, of Georgian houses increasing in size to accommodate two rooms deep, leads to how this changed first required developing a new roof structural system to allow for spanning a deep house. Increasing the number of rooms allowed for differentiated purposes for each room, which led to formality, and that to a more sophisticated social life dependent on increasing help, etc. This is a book about connections-causal, functional connections between people, ideas, and the material world. Houses which illustrate each point are discussed from Boston to Tidewater Virginia. Many European precedents are cited as well. The take off point for each exploration is a change-or the need for a change-in the Dutch or Georgian house. This may lead to Andrea Palladio's books on his Renaissance villas and how greatly they influenced later European architects, especially in Britain, and how their students, in turn, brought a renewed classicism to America in the eighteenth century. This brings us to Thomas Jefferson who did the same himself, emphasizing a purer version of Roman design for public buildings and private homes. It is a fascinating romp through all major influences which changed the homes we live in.
The author also explores the vehicles for change: the influence of architects, builders, patrons, and craftsmen on each other; and how the news, literature, literacy, pattern books, trade, resources, advertisements, gossip, social aspirations, women's rolls, wealth, events, climate, religion, taste, and education influenced ability and motivation to live differently and express this in new homes. The bibliography is staggering in its breadth and depth, all used judiciously. Throughout there are central themes which underlie explanations for why homes change. These changes had much to do with the developing ideas of privacy, comfort, domesticity, and gender rolls. Rich citations to early journals and diaries flesh out these concepts through the eyes of the participants, always the best sources. Current literature on these themes give further context and explanation for how Meeske applies these themes as explanatory concepts for how and why the house developed over three centuries in America.
Not to short change the technical, there is an extensive chapter on technological innovations (glass, shutters, heating, kitchen, cooking, dentistry, diet, soap, medicine, cleaning, laundry, bathing, toilets, lighting, paint, and wallpaper-you name it) which either allowed or propelled changes in houses and in life styles, important components in the modernization of American life. Another chapters is on the major house theme of the division and use of space: life style changes, specialization of new rooms, the importance of private versus public space, the purposes of hallways and special kinds of stairways, the evolving functions of parlors, dining rooms, bed chambers, dressing rooms, libraries, studies, service area, storage, and closets, the stoop and porch. Even the outhouse is not forgotten. A chapter on design and decor knits underlying themes into eye-catching features of a house: decor trends, sculpture and carving, paintings, furniture, and textiles. Meeske covers houses up through the colonial revival.
If you want to expand your mind through just about all the influences that caused change in our domestic life and homes over the last 350 years, this book is both read full of surprises and a fine reference source. Most of the references are completely new to me despite the fact that I had, in a more brief way, covered similar themes in Dutch Colonial Homes in America (Rizzoli, 2002, for which Hank Meeske kindly contributed the introduction). Indeed some might ask the reason we write the introductions for each other's books (this is the third). The reason is we are asked, but the real reason is that we both learn so much from each other, each building on the other's prior perceptions to advance our knowledge of our favorite subject. We hope these book efforts will be as enlightening and delighting to others as they have been for us.
Educated at Long Island University and New York University, Harrison Meeske is employed by the New York Times. Dutch Architecture has been his lifelong passion, and he has traveled extensively in The Netherlands seeking the prototypes of small Hudson Valley Dutch houses. He is the author of The Hudson Valley Dutch and Their Houses, also published by Purple Mountain Press and no out of stock.
160 pages, 32 pages color, index, 8.5 x 11
$25.00 quality paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original
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