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Famous Buildings In America

( Originally Published 1915 )

This is sometimes called domestic architecture, to distinguish it from civil architecture such as public buildings, or from ecclesiastical architecture such as churches, or from military architecture such as forts. Domestic architecture is of great importance to a people, and it will be worth our while to consider how it began.

Something to eat and a shelter to sleep in are man's first needs. Wild men of the fields and woods look for a cave, they dig holes in banks, or they climb into trees. When enough of such places cannot be found, or better homes are required, they make tents of skins,or huts of branches. Sometimes, to be safer, they build these huts on piles and over water. Such people are called Lake Dwellers, and remains of their villages are found in what is how Switzerland. Those who live in holes under the rocks are called Cave Dwellers, and remains of ancient homes of this sort are found in many parts of the world, because rude peoples, having like needs and the same chances, will think of doing the same things.

Those people, whose wealth is in herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats will chose to dwell in tents, that they may easily take their homes with their animals, when, because of hunger, there must be a removal to new pastures. These people are called nomadic, or wandering tribes.

Families who live by farming need to dwell most of the time in one place. They will think of making larger and more lasting houses of the materials most easily and cheaply to be had. A village will be formed; a church, a public hall, a market, and a school will be needed, each so constructed as to be good for its special use. The village, if well placed, will grow into a town, and at last become a city.

The home of today, our kind of home, with its comforts and associations, is the product of civilization, although in America there were true homes even in the wilderness.

The log cabin, perhapes one in like a great President of the United States was born. If we consider this simple structure we shall see that it had many of the elements of good architecture. It was fit. It was convenient for practical use, and it was suited to its surroundings ; its construction and arrangement were exactly adapted to the needs of its occupants. It was well-lighted, and well-ventilated. It was strong: the logs were cut and fitted, and could withstand storm and stress, wind and rain, and attacks by Indians. Patched with mud and papered within, even the cold could scarcely penetrate. It was beautiful: its color soon harmonized with the the landscape, its few ornaments were sensible. It expressed itself and its owner. Every home should do that.

Nearly every one becomes personally interested in architecture at some time in his life. Perhaps this will come to him just after he has seen some beautiful building that greatly impresses him. But it will surely come when he builds or alters his own home, and, if he is a reasonable, sensible man, he will want a reasonable, sensible home. If he is pretentious and vain himself he will probably reveal it all the more clearly by the kind of home he puts up. One thing we should make sure of, namely, that the home shall be convenient do its duty well. It should also do it in a graceful, pleasing way. A man will not become an architect by building his home, nor by reading books, but he will learn to appreciate more of what he sees. There is an old saying : " By dint of hammering you become a black-smith."

Mount Vernon is a place of great interest to all Americans, for it was the home of George Washington. It was an ideal country home in its time, and it speaks of comfort and peace to all who visit it today. Washington wrote to Lafayette : " I have become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my vine and fig tree. I am solacing myself with tranquil enjoyments." The scene is one of great natural beauty, with the noble river, the hills and the valleys and deep woods, the park of deer all the fit abode for a noble mind. Here the Washingtons lived, and dispensed a quiet, warm-hearted hospitality.

It was built for comfort and convenience, somewhat reminding us of Longfellow's description of the Wayside Inn, which was:

Built in the old Colonial day, When men lived in a grander way, With ampler hospitality.

The place is admirably preserved, mostly in its original state; and to visit it is to bring back the times of long ago. But, although the arrangements seem simple to us, we are impressed by their convenience and suitability.

The plan of the estate is important, with its fore-court surrounded by kitchens, work-shops, and offices, the mansion itself opening toward the view. The public, the private, and the service portions were kept carefully distinct. Notice the tall portico, and the arcade connecting the detached building. One of these was the kitchen where to-day we may see the candle-mold, the warming pans, the great andirons and pots, and many kinds of household implements that have since been superseded by newer inventions. Another building held the spinning and weaving machinery; another the family coach ; and so on. How independent was the farmer of those days ! He had everything necessary right at home.

I suppose we should call the architecture Colonial, and the style, which we call Colonial, is a sort of simplified Renaissance. It is often called Georgian because it flourished in England during the reign of the Georges.


We have seen that throughout Europe, although there were periods of extensive building, no new type came into being after the fifteenth century, but instead revivals of the classic and Gothic.

The capitol at Washington, which is so familiar to all Americans, is in the style of classic revival. The type of this great building has been adopted widely for smaller public buildings and so it has had a great influence on our ideas of buildings of this class. The style is called, more precisely, the neo-Roman or the New Roman.

We all know that many of our older public buildings are horrible examples. Some one has said that the greatest difficulty with which American architects have to contend is public indifference. But now that all seems to be changing, and the people as a whole now take a deep interest in having their public buildings erected in a worthy manner,and in having their architecture beautiful and fit.


The peculiar conditions of American business have given us a new type of architecture known as the sky-scraper. It is a distinct type as much as those of the Middle Ages, al-though its ornamental features are usually borrowed from wherever the architect finds it convenient, or thinks it suitable to borrow. They may be Gothic, or Romanesque, or Renaissance, or pure Greek. The modern architect considers the situation and purpose of the building, and commonsense and good taste 'tell him how he should build.

In structure the sky-scraper must be a building of steel frame. Its exterior appearance may be inappropriate and ugly, as sometimes happens; or it may be suitable and beautiful. The Woolworth Building is an example of the suitable and beautiful kind, and it thrills the beholder as few other buildings can do. Its chief beauty is its tall tower. Its color of creamy whiteness, with roofs of green and gold, greatly helps its lace-like lightness, and the whole effect is one of inspiration and pleasure.

The skyscraper is no exception to the truth that architecture tells the story of a people. It does not contain writings and sculptured pictures like the Egyptian temples, but, if the people of future ages dig up our sky-scrapers, they will need no writings to proclaim how ingenious and convenient were our contrivances, or how great was our hurry. We would show plainly, too, that one man or combination of men could shut off the light from his neighbors, and that one man lived like a king where thousands existed in crowded squalor.


" Architecture is worth great attention, since it shows so much," wrote Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson was a great lover and a great student of architecture. " How," he asked Madison, " is public taste in this beautiful art to be cultivated in our country-men unless we present to them, on every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, models for study and imitation? "

Jefferson's studies were so thorough and well grounded that he is worthy of ranking as the earliest of the great American architects. His first important work was his own home, Monticello, begun in 1770, long before trained men were at work. Architects of today, who have had the long training which an architect must have, wonder where Jefferson got the technical knowledge and skill which a study of his home reveals. We know that he owned Palladio's treatise on the Five Orders, and that he followed Palladio's ideas.

His most important work was the University of Virginia, which was the product of his mind alone. It is a great architectural success, and architects can understand the great amount of labor he put upon it. His plans and notes for this undertaking are still in existence, and it is marvelous to see how meager they are compared with what an architect today would have to put on paper before turning over his work to the actual builders. We are told that Jefferson actually trained the stone and brick workers and the carpenters.


" If the artist, who fashions a great statue, or who paints a great picture, leave behind him an enviable fame and a fragrant memory, surely the men who have helped fashion and adorn a great city, who have laid its foundations and builded its walls, who have given it its character, and guided the currents of its history, who have made Boston, Boston, and Worcester, Worcester, have a far greater title to grateful remembrance," writes Senator George F. Hoar in speaking of Charles Bulfinch, the American architect.

Charles Bulfinch was born in Boston in 1763. He tells us that he would have become a doctor like his father, but that his father was averse to it. He entered a counting-room of a friend and, owing to the unsettled state of business, had much leisure time. The attending to some building on the estate of one of the partners of the firm helped to interest him in architecture. The death of a relative in England brought a thousand dollar bequest, and his parents devoted it to a trip abroad for Charles. He writes of this tour: " I was delighted in observing the numerous objects and beauties of nature and art that I met with on all sides, particularly the wonders of architecture."

The completion of the capitol at Washington was his most important work, and the state house in Boston one of his best known. He did many public buildings and entire streets, such as Park Place, in Boston.


Henry Hobson Richardson was born in Louisiana in 1838. Soon after his graduation from Harvard College his stepfather sent him abroad to prosecute his architectural studies. He spent a summer traveling in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and then settled down to his work in Paris. The great Paris art school, especially for architects, then as now, was the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He writes home about his admission there : " The examinations lasted one month and were carried on entirely in French. I was sick, but nevertheless I was eighteenth of sixty accepted out of a hundred and twenty-five who tried."

During the course of his studies he wrote many letters that have been preserved. In one he says: " My poor country is overrun with poor architects. I will never practise till I feel I can do justice to my art."

Trinity Church, Boston, and the capitol at Albany and the jail of Pittsburg are three of his most important works, but town halls and libraries and other public buildings in many cities spread his influence all over America. Many beautiful private dwellings came from his hand.

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