When Frank M. Snyder produced his twelve-part serial Building Details (1906–14), the library was the heart of every important architectural office and books documenting the iconic buildings of the classical world were frequently referenced for design ideas. Compendiums of actual buildings, such as the seminal Les Edifices de Rome Moderne (1840–57) by Paul Letarouilly (1795–1855), featured carefully presented, measured drawings of the great Renaissance monuments that inspired firms like McKim, Mead & White. As described by architect Paul Cret, it “was the architect’s livre de chevet during the period when harmonious proportions and rhythms of composition first began to be understood in this country as elements of beauty.” William R. Ware’s American Vignola (1902, 1906) and similar such volumes reinterpreting Vignola’s landmark treatise on the five orders of architecture (1562) laid out the formulae of proportion for the orders and also served as an important foundation for composition. While the profession did not lack a canon, it did not however possess a shared or established method of representing building construction. Charles G. Ramsey and Harold R. Sleeper’s Architectural Graphic Standards, the first comprehensive handbook on building design and construction, was not released until 1932. Published from 1906 to 1914, Building Details falls into the American tradition of books that raised the level of professional practice, codified standards, and consolidated the authority of the nascent profession in its formative years.
Up until the late nineteenth century, formal education for aspiring American architects was rudimentary, at best, given that schools of architecture had yet to be established in the United States. The most erudite architects working in this country, such as the English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), brought training and lessons with them from abroad that in turn informed their work and that of their apprentices. Some American builders and self-taught architects also relied on imported treatises. For example, Thomas Jefferson consulted Claude Perrault’s Les Dix Livres d’Architecture de Vitruve (1673), a book he had purchased in Paris, in designing details at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.
However, during this period, far more construction was based on pattern books and builder’s guides intended to formalize and expand the craftsman’s knowledge. Asher Benjamin (1773–1845), a prolific and influential author and architect from Greenfield, Massachusetts, spread the virtues of the Federal and Greek Revival styles and building types in The Country Builder’s Assistant: Containing a Collection of New Designs of Carpentry and Architecture (1797), The American Builder’s Companion (1806), The Practical House Carpenter (1830), and myriad other publications and editions. Benjamin’s pattern books were supplemented by those of New York architect Minard Lafever (1798–1854), who produced The Modern Builder’s Guide in 1833 and The Beauties of Modern Architecture in 1835, among others. Illustrating basic designs and details, these extraordinarily popular and influential treatises not only dictated the direction of American architecture in the 1800s but also delved deeper into such challenges as stair and fireplace construction.
Though pattern books provided much needed instruction and, in some cases, served as the only educational source for carpenters, architects and builders, they presented prototypes, abstracted from place and time, rather than actual built work. As architectural inspiration, they offered a basis for personalized interpretation because their presentation did not lend easily to a string of exact copies…