Lecture 23:
Built Environments of Domesticity and Commerce

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (1948).

Rachel Carley, The Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture (1994).

Lester Walker, American Homes: The Landmark Illustrated Encyclopedia of Domestic Architecture (1981, revised edition 1996).

Virginia Savage McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America's Domestic Architecture (1984, revised edition 2013).

Kate Ascher, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (2011).

A reminder: in discussion section this week, you'll be talking about your place papers. Please come prepared to speak about your project for 2-3 minutes per person.

I. Introduction

I want to start by connecting today's lecture on the built environment to last week's lecture on electrical systems. In today's lecture, we'll take a whirlwind tour of architectural history, looking at two main themes: the history of technology and engineering making possible the built environments we see today; and the visual aesthetics of architecture in different regions and time periods within North America. The construction technologies and the design aesthetics of buildings we use everyday are not unrelated. So today I'll try to give you a sense of architecture thought about as small domestic landscapes.

Let's start with Madison: James Duane Doty platted Madison a territorial capital in 1836. We see that familiar rectilinear pattern we encountered in New Haven, Philadelphia, and in part in Washington, D.C. Looking at streetscapes rather than aerials, we can see that streets for much of the 19th century were unpaved and muddy. Notice that, when thinking about urban transportation, railroads in the second half of the 19th century start becoming internal to cities: streetcars and trolley cars. There were also a growing number of interregional systems of trains. All of the systems that we talked about last week were increasingly central to daily urban life: petroleum pipes bringing the energy sources that kept the lights on; steam tunnels; sanitary sewer pipes; storm sewers; chilled water pipes; compressed air; electrical systems (often built as above-ground cables, then moved below ground in some cities); fiberoptics and information systems. Those pieces are all part of our utility system just on this campus, in Madison, and beyond. Everywhere you've lived has had some connection to these systems.

I want to note that this lecture relies heavily on a work that may be of interest to many of you: Siegfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 1948). Let's start with heat, which reaches us via compressed steam and air handling systems today. If we go all the way back to Colonial New England and ask how Pilgrims heated their structures, we'd see that firewood was crucial. An open hearth was an extraordinarily inefficient way to heat one's home and cook food. With influxes of German immigrants, new and more efficient stove models were introduced to North America. So we begin to see firewood combustion in much more efficient fireplaces that were also stoves.

One of the people who studied domestic technologies was Benjamin Franklin, who invented the Franklin Stove. He introduced to stove design a number of baffles, metal pieces that would slow the movement of hot air out of the chimney flue, so more of the heat could be radiated into the house before existing. Ever-more elaborate systems, and systems that combined different activities—a fireplace, a boiler for hot water, and an oven, for example—continue to emerge. We are also watching the switch from wood to coal as a fuel source, and also the emergence of manufactured stoves that happened across the 19th century.

So we've talked about how to heat a house. Now I want to shift us to talking about how to build a house you'd want to heat. If we look at the architectural design that makes a building like the Saugus House (New England) possible, we see techniques going back to Medieval England: a series of posts, with beams running latterally across, rafters placed across the top of those. One attribute of these structures is that they are not held together with metal, but entirely with wood: you would need to have enough skill with an ax and an adz to create mortise and tenons to lock the beam and post in place. It takes great skill and great labor to build one of these houses. One thing we'll see unfold later in this lecture are building innovations that requires less skill on-sight, but rely on a host of industrial innovations on the factory floor.

The cladding one would put on a structure depended on the time period and the region of the country in which one lived. Keeping wood dry so it wouldn't rot was one of the key dilemmas of any type of building that relied on wood. Immigrants from England moving to the U.S. were seeing a wood shortage in the British Isles. So one innovation you see in the U.S. because of an abundance of timber, particularly versus in England, were shingles and clapboards on the outside of houses. Germans brought with them to places like Wisconsin the fachwerk building style that used grasses for the roof or mud daub to clad the exterior of the house, a wood-saving technique.

The one- or two-room style of "Cape Cod cottages" began to become more elaborate over time. One consequence was that often buildings expanded out the back. That sort of architectural form is well-suited to the northern lattitudes of the U.S., where we can see an increasingly number of long and connected buildings to the barn in the rear.

In the south—in, say, the Chesapeake—there were still some of the same architectural styles, but also some regionally different styles. The "shotgun house" in the American South—so named because a gun fired through the front door would run all the way through the house through the backdoor—was one-room wide. Contrast that with a wealthier style of domestic architecture: Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and his design of the University fo Virginia, which relied on Greco-Roman forms. If you fly over Monticello today, you'll see Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columnar forms. If you've taken History/Geography/Environmental Studies 460, you'll recognize the painter Thomas Cole. Ben Kasten also gestured at Cole's "Course of Empire" series in his lecture. The little temple in Cole's "The Arcadian or Pastoral State," the ideal painting in the series, was what was in Thomas Jefferson's mind as he is designing Monticello.

The period of the 1770s-1840s was a period of Greco-Roman revival in the U.S., characterized by the construction of columns at the entrances to houses owned by wealthy individuals. This was in stark contrast with classic frontier architecture: sod houses on the great plains, and the log cabin in wooded parts of the U.S. The initial log cabins in the U.S. appeared in the Delaware River valley, generally an architectural form brought from Germany and Scandavia. Notice the modest skill required to build these structures: notching of the logs was vital to keep logs from slipping when the roofs became load-bearing during heavy winter snows. Here in the northern latitudes of the U.S., snowloads were one of the fundamental problems of making buildings work.

So it was Swedes who introduce the log cabin, but many ethnic groups would use this built form in forested landscapes of North America. We also see a proliferation of other folks architectural forms: one-room log cabin, saddlebag cabin, and dog-trot cabin. These forms migrate out from their point of origin in primarily the U.S. northeast to other parts of the country: to the southern Appalachians, out to the Great Plains. By the early 18th century, we also see the French settling in the Mississippi Valley, and the Spanish settling in California and South Texas. What do these groups bring? From the French we see porches stretching all the way around the building. From the Spanish, we see pueblo architecture and Spanish colonial forms with central courtyards.

I've given you architecutral forms and cultural regions of the U.S. I'm now going to flash foward across the 19th century and talk through some industrial revolutions. Water power was typified by the Merrimack River that flowed from New Hampshire into area just north of Boston. It relied on capturing the potential energy in a drop of water—at, say, a waterfall—as mechanical energy in a turbine or waterwheel underneath a factory. Leather belts transferred that mechanical energy vertically and drove machines from more belts located on different floors of a multi-story factory.

We've watched steam engines emerge in this class in the form of steam engines, and then later with the railroads (which you can think of as mobile boilers using combusted coal to heat to produce steam that drove shafts). The rate of adoption of steam power happened least quickly in New England, where there there were more vertical drops in rivers. By contrast, the Midwest moved towards coal-fired steam because of a lack of vertical drops suitable for water mills in Midwestern rivers.

A steam-powered revolution presupposed an iron revolution, and eventually a steel revolution. Without steel, none of what I'm going to narrate in the remainder of this lecture would have been possible. So bear that in mind always that technologies emerge in ways that are reliant on each other. Major steel manufacturing centers emerged in Gary, Indiana; Chicago; Cleveland; and Pittsburgh—the latter especially right in the center of coal country. That node of U.S. Steel plants in and around Pittsburgh initiated by J.P. Morgan turned the company into the largest steel producer and largest corporation in the world.

With coal and steel we see the emergence of an industrial belt marked with cities. We also see new construction techniques. For contrast, consider St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, a structure built entirely of stone. That building material was not the norm in most American architecture by the latter decades of the 19th century. The crucial innovation that took place in Chicago that revolutionized domestic architecture was a replacement of old timber-framing architecture—a technique dating back to the Middle Ages—with the balloon frame. The balloon frame needed an industrial revolution in order to be possible because it required the following inputs:

  • You needed a large amount of milled wood. Those huge lumberyards that we've seen before, outside of Chicago, for example, shows this shift: toward milled wood of standard and predictable dimensions.
  • You needed metal nails. No longer were builders cutting notches, but instead taking standardized pieces of wood and simply nailing them together. Much less skill was required to built balloon frame structures.
  • You needed a system of standardized parts, all with the same dimensions to them. Standardized pistons, gears, and shafts for standarized machinery became so popular that they became known as parts of "the American system."

Cheap mass-produced wood, nails to hold that wood together, and interchangable parts preceded a revolution in architecture. Also proceeding that revolution in architecture was the proliferation of pattern books for architectural styles and blueprints. Andrew Jackson Downing, inventor of the field of landscape architecture in the Hudson Valley, published a number of books about gardening, orchards, and country houses. These pattern books were brought out by more and more publishers in the 19th century, as book publishing itself was also undergoing a mechanical revolution. Out of those pattern books would pour the plans for a proliferating set of architectural forms: the four-square, the Queen Anne style, etc.

Not only were there more elaborate house patterns across the 19th century, but one could also increasingly open the catalog of Sears, Roebuck and Company and buy any number of decorative elements. The residential buildings constructed in the later half of the 19th century would have been impossible prior to the proliferation of the balloon frame and the mass production of building materials. So by late 19th-century, there was an explosion of architectural revivals: the Spanish Revival, the Richardsonian Romanesque (red brownstones, rounded arches), the Italianate Revival, Tudor. The Old Red Gym and Science Hall on campus are examples of this Richardsonian revival, though note that Science Hall has an underlying steel structure that would not have been possible in the original Richardsonian style. The Memorial Union is an example of the Italianate Revival. And the University Club is a great example of Tudor.

Typically we point to the Columbian Exposition in 1893, also called the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, as the source of a widespread Greco-Roman revival in the U.S. The fairgrounds were designed by Daniel Burnham. Nonetheless, notice that this revival, unlike the original Acropolis it invoked, was build with steel underlying the structures. Madison's Capitol Building and the Wisconsin Historical Society could not be more Greco-Roman in their forms. These grand styles were meant to exemplify the power and importance of governmental buildings and their inhabitants.

The 1893 World's Fair was not just a place exciting interest in Greco-Roman architectural styles, but also in electricity—particularly in the electrical kitchen. Now I'm going to look at industrial changes that remade what the interior of the household looked like, and that remade housework.

One change is an evolution in stoves: gas ranges and electrical ranges in the 20th century both expanded and become easier to clean. They were one part of a larger impulse to innovate: new mechanical devices—from the egg beater to the apple corer—proliferated in American kitchens in the early 20th century. Washing laundry became a mechanized form of activity with the adoption of the electrical washing machine. Additioanlly, by the 1950s, the refrigerator was replacing the icebox, alongside the freezer; the in-sink disposal and mechanical dishwashers were also appearing in many kitchens.

There were also revolutions to the bathroom. The bathroom sink—along with the kitchen sink—presupposed the standardization of fixtures and implements. The advent of the hot water heater also radically changed what the bathroom looked like. One of the institutions that standardize what the bathroom looked like was the hotel, and eventually the apartment building, urban structures that mass-produced bathrooms for large numbers of people. These buildings also have to solve sewer and pipe-building problems that would be central to remaking the bathroom.

Notice: buildings were getting higher because of steel as underlying structural support. As buildings grew vertically, it was no longer feasible for people to walk up to their residence or office. The the elevator became a crucial innovation. Less noticed was the stopping mechanism that Elisha Otis invented to make possible the safe stopping of descending elevators. Notice: this one invention was necessary to the explosion in height of urban buildings. The city of Chicago was one of the propagators of new vertical building styles, as a result of the 1871 Chicago Fire that motivated an interest in non-wooden, non-flammable structures—i.e. buildings supported by steel.

Remember that as one builds vertically, one is left with this engineering challenge: what can bear the weight of that load? What foundation is the building on? How does one keep the building from blowing over? Steel structures bearing the load of the building meant that the walls no longer need to be weight-bearing, so materials like glass windows could be increasingly integrated into a building's external cladding. This would also change the aesthetics of urban architecture.

We'll close with this thought: notice that all buildings are the same in some fundamental ways: they require a site on which to sit; they require a set of fundamental systems (water, electricity, heating, cooling); they require cladding on the roof and walls to keep water from entering building and to keep heat in. Whether skyscrapers or simpler building forms that proliferated across the 20th century—the bungalow, the ranch house, the split-level—the technology and aesthetics of building domestic structures shaped each other, and relied on an increasing number of standardized parts and industrial processes.