When something is regarded as “a classic,” it is usually because the object has achieved the ability to express the cultural spirit of an era. Objects having this status are often considered as art, or at least as cultural symbols. And so we have classic cars, classical novels, classical music, and so on. We also have Classic Coke, so called because, after public outrage at trying to change the recipe of its brew, the soft drink company quickly went back to the original version—now dubbing it “Classic”—realizing that it was messing around with an established cultural icon.
Caroline Swope’s Classic Houses of Seattle makes use of “classic” in this way. Her book categorizes the significant historical styles that have shaped Seattle’s residential architecture: Victorian, Craftsman, Four-Square, Modern, and a variety of Revival styles. All of these styles are represented by their classical exemplars in a book that is well organized and attractively illustrated.
Swope begins with a very readable overview of Seattle’s residential architecture since the city’s inception in 1853. This is followed by seven chapters covering different residential styles. Each chapter begins with a clear explanation of the style and its historical roots, followed by brief summaries of the classic examples. Each chapter, along with the book’s appendices, documents whether the cited houses are still extant, or have been demolished for various reasons.
One theme that emerges is how, like many cities of the American West, Seattle looked to Europe and the American East Coast for its stylistic—and hence its cultural—cues. I was particularly struck by how much the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago affected almost all of the styles Swope analyzes. This fact, along with recurring names such as Andrew Jackson Downing and the English architect Richard Norman Shaw—not to mention the Sears & Roebuck Company catalogue—paints a picture of a simpler and more homogeneous national culture, in which single events, single voices, and single publications were indeed able to affect national trends. Swope’s book, when read in one sitting (as was the case for me), suggests how an overview of a city’s architectural heritage can result in understanding that city as a historical-cultural collage of social forces that leave their imprints on the city’s streets and neighborhoods.
Swope’s final chapter is an added value to the book: it gives practical tips for how the reader can research the history of his or her own residence. To be such a sleuth, one must leave one’s armchair and do some reading, some digging, possibly some visits to archives. But the rewards can be, if not great, at least very pleasurable and informative. The case studies Swope includes underline how drastically one house can change over the years. Don’t believe what you see; the truth may be behind three layers of wallpaper!
Classic Houses of Seattle is meant for a general readership, so I don’t think scholars will be referring to Swope’s work as a primary source. And I guess I can quibble with Swope on small details; for example, balloon framing in residential construction is not commonly used today, as she claims. But this is indeed quibbling (besides, I would not want people to be reading my books that closely either). Caroline Swope has given us a very readable reference book for Seattle’s residential architectural history. I am already thinking about assigning the last chapter to my students as a good example of how a little research can go a long way towards understanding the built environments all around us.
— David Wang, Associate Professor of Architecture, WSU