Call for Papers: Race and the Historiography of American Architecture

  • Dates: 20 Aug – 01 Oct, 2021

This co-edited book will examine the role of race in the construction of historical narratives of ‘American architecture’ during the nineteenth century. Focusing on a relatively narrow group of people, structures, and landscapes, canonical surveys of American architecture written up through the 1930s continue to have substantial influence on our contemporary historical, architectural, and preservation practices. Optimistically, they tend to interpret national architectural movements through the lens of an inclusive democratic liberalism that embraced and collected the material cultures of people of all colors, nationalities, and religious creeds. Yet the first century and a half of American history was characterized by stark debates about the racial and ethnic composition of the new nation state and its citizens. While more recent histories have expanded their focus, the complexity of these debates and their impact on the built environment is yet to be recognized. Claims to ‘Americanness,’ called into stark relief by the profound violence of the Civil War, were highly contested, exerting a direct influence on both the body politic and its perception of material culture. Across architectural periods and movements, the adaptation and appropriation of historical forms and styles gave rise to nationalist and regionalist ideologies with diverse political aims. 

An important element of this volume will be its critique of the racial discourses that subtend the historiography of American Architecture, including the institutional divisions that continue to racialize our conception of avant-gardist and vernacular traditions. The writings of early twentieth-century historians—from Montgomery Schuyler’s American Architecture and Other Writings and Talbot Hamlin’s The American Spirit in Architecture to Fiske Kimball’s American Architecture and Lewis Mumford’s The Brown Decades—constructed a teleological history of modern architecture that evolved from early vernacular styles into the technological achievements of the twentieth century. As this history was consistently viewed through the lens of a European settler past, its cultural pedigree greatly influenced the early selection criteria of building case studies in HABS, SHPO and other preservation offices in the first half of the twentieth century.

The antiracist values of postwar social movements solicited the rise of vernacular architecture studies in the 1970s. This revisionist brand of historiography employed the fieldwork methodologies of archaeology and anthropology to shift its focus from a narrow investigation of the professional architect’s intentions to the general role of the built environment for constructing meaning for a diverse set of publics. While vernacular studies have done much to recuperate the historical contributions of women, people of color and sexual minorities in shaping the built environment, their findings are routinely considered separately from the canon, preserving the racialist foundations of Enlightenment models of expertise. As a result, avant-gardist and vernacular studies of American architecture tend to co-exist as institutional silos within the architectural academy. This status quo needs to change.

The purpose of this volume is to consider revisionist histories of American architecture in the long nineteenth century, defined as the early republican era up through the period of Jim Crow. This new portrait of American architecture will bring canonical and vernacular histories together in a contrapuntal narrative of the formative nineteenth century, paying special attention to the histories of those written out of canonical surveys. We seek scholarship that subverts the synthetic narrative of “a nation of immigrants” or a “melting pot,” and recovers the competing debates about nation and nationhood. Of particular interest are contributions that adopt and utilize a more horizontal schema for addressing the complex social and political conflicts of the 19th century, undertake critiques of 19th-century racial epistemologies, and provide narratives of BIPOC material cultures that address the relationship between professional architectural and vernacular practices. Case studies that bridge disciplinary and methodological divides are encouraged. 

We invite anyone interested in contributing to engage with the related SAH Connects publication workshop before submitting. The larger questions and themes of the proposed volume are discussed in detail. The workshop, presented live on July 28, 2021, is available in recorded form online here: 

Please submit an abstract of 500 words to by October 1. We will select contributions with a balance of methodologies and time periods that best amplify the project’s central goal to challenge the most fundamental assumption in the canonical histories of 19th-century American architecture. We will notify authors by November 1, with drafts of full chapters due by February 1. Final chapter lengths will be 5,000 to 6,000 words inclusive of endnotes with 5 illustrations. We expect to workshop contributions collaboratively during May 2022, with final chapters complete by June 30, 2022.

Charles L. Davis, University of Buffalo
Kathryn Holliday, University of Texas at Arlington
Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, Victoria University of Wellington


SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
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