Monday, October 17, 2016

PLAN BOOKS: A Long Lineage

Grant Wood's painting American Gothic
features a "Carpenter's Gothic" cottage
of the kind that was built across the nation
during the 1850s, when Andrew Jackson
Downing's plan books were popular.
Stock building plans have helped shape America’s domestic architecture since the early 1800s, when Asher Benjamin’s The American Builder’s Companion helped popularize the Federal style.  It was among the first American plan books to find widespread popularity.

In 1850, the self-taught architect Andrew Jackson Downing published a plan book of Gothic Revival cottages decorated with brackets, finials, and gingerbread.  These designs, derisively nicknamed “Carpenter Gothic” due to their rather two-dimensional detailing,  nevertheless became enormously popular.  Soon Gothic Revival cottages were springing up from coast to coast, particularly in rural areas. The painter Grant Wood later immortalized them in his most famous work, American Gothic (1930), which features a very Downingesque farmhouse behind the pitchfork-wielding farmer and his dour wife.
Victorian-era plan book houses were by no means
small; elaborate examples such as this one
could range up to twenty rooms or more.

Victorian era plan books offered a huge range of architectural styles, from Italianate to Mansard to Stick to Queen Anne, as well as quite a few that defied categorization.  Floor plans ranged from one story cottages all the way to three story confections with twenty rooms or more.  When Victorian home styles fell out of favor in the late Nineties, the sedate Colonial Revival and shingled designs of such East Coast firms as McKim, Mead & White were quickly copied by plan book publishers. The national availability of plan books during this time also helped disseminate the latest architectural trends from the East Coast, which traditionally set the architectural pace for the nation.

During the 1920s, plan books helped
spread the popularity of the so-called
California Bungalow across the nation,
and made the West the trend setter
for residential design thereafter.
After the beginning of the twentieth century, however, plan books began to create the opposite effect. They played a major role in popularizing the bungalow, a humble little house that, unlike its Victorian predecessors, emphasized economy and space efficiency. In 1915, E. W. Stillwell & Co. of Los Angeles published a plan book entitled “Little Bungalows” which featured a whole range of charming and inexpensive bungalow homes. Furthermore, it sagely advised:

“It is better to build a small house than to overburden the budget with a large one.  A beautiful small house is just as expressive of character, aims, and aspirations as the large house. Mere size is a waste of money and human endeavor.”

These post-Victorian arguments for simplicity and economy apparently hit home. The little plan books were extremely popular, and the Stillwell firm quickly followed up with others, as did its competitors. The so-called California Bungalow style gained enormous popularity throughout the state, and in short order began appearing across the nation as well. For the first time, a new residential style had originated in the west and spread eastward—a development due in large part to the widespread availability of plan books.

Yup, these 'Contemporaries"
were plan book houses too—this one is a
Lindal Cedar Homes plan book dating from 1990.
Following World War II, stock plans gained another forum through mass-marketed home magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens.  The frequency of these publications made them even better suited to respond to rapidly changing tastes. During the Fifties and Sixties, for example, such magazines helped popularize the California Rancher and other West Coast styles nationwide; more recently, they’ve helped spur a renewed national interest in Colonial and other traditional styles.

Today, with the Internet's vast collection of architectural plans available in seconds rather weeks, stock plans will likely be more influential than ever.

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