On a frigid day in December, a group of Greeters were warmly welcomed to the Grolier (grow-lee-er) Club at 47 East 60th Street in Manhattan. The 96-year-old neo-Georgian townhouse was all decked out in elegant Christmas finery: cheerful wreaths and garlands complemented the red walls and huge brass chandelier in the foyer.
The Grolier Club is one of the first American organizations to consider books and prints worthy of display. The exhibit we saw was called SELLING THE DWELLING: THE BOOKS THAT BUILT AMERICA’S HOUSES 1775-2000 (open through
Feb. 7, 2014).
Richard W. Cheek, curator of the exhibit, ushered us into the ground floor gallery where display cases were set up chronologically. He showed us The First American Architectural Books from the 1790’s, the builder’s guides and pattern books designed in great detail to show carpenters and builders how to build homes.
From the 1840’s through the 1950’s, pattern books were aimed at a new audience: the American public. The books touted many different styles: from Greek revival to Gothic Tudor, Colonial to Federal, Cape Cod cottages to Ranch houses. We even saw homes in children’s books, created to lure parents into buying!
Contrast was everywhere. There were pattern books about Mansions for Millionaires, elaborate Beaux Arts country houses built by the extremely wealthy from 1890-1930. There were booklets about Bungalows – Artful Houses for the Common Man. Under 1000 square feet, Bungalows were a worldwide craze through the 1930’s, even inspiring what Richard called “an awful poem,” Bungal-ode. By the 1950’s, Ranch houses were the rage among the post-war middle class.
By 2008, pattern books and builder’s guides were rarely published in print form – all the more reason to appreciate those that remain. Bound within their pages are quintessential American traits: the can-do individualism, the faith in invention and progress, and the endless energy of the architects, builders and carpenters.
To learn about free upcoming exhibits, visit the Grolier Club online.