Buildings of Delaware
By W. Barksdale Maynard. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2008; 352 pp., hardcover, $45.00.
Delaware doesn’t have a National Park, but it does have an impressive array of architectural wonders that, taken together, form a built environment tapestry of the First State’s history. The Buildings of Delaware, W. Barksdale Maynard’s contribution to the “Buildings of The United States,” sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) is a splendid addition to the expanding list of titles available in this series.
The SAH website promotes Maynard’s book “…as a resource for architectural historians, preservationists, and other professionals in the field….” In her foreword, series editor Karen Kingsley states the overall objective for each volume is “…to identify and celebrate the rich cultural, economic and geographic diversity of the United States…as it is reflected in the architecture…” (p. xi). Maynard’s book reflects these stated goals and presents us with a work delineated by architecture, geography, and tour guide, all through the lenses of cultural history.
Published in 2008 by the University of Virginia Press and billed as “…the first book to document the state’s architectural history from all periods,” this handsome volume approaches Delaware’s history through structures along geographical lines. Maynard’s organizational structure sections “the state into regions convenient for touring” and for easy reference. Indeed, the volume does have the look and feel of a tour book, with maps and numbered location guides for each building. The over 400 entries which comprise the book are compact, yet useful for the professional and layman (p. ix).
Maynard is keenly aware of regional cultural and social histories that have ultimately produced what is often thought of as “just” the buildings of Delaware. A powerful tool when considered in concert with other disciplines, historical architecture can result in profound insights into cultural analysis. Political power, ancestral heritage, and ethnic identity are all subjects that help to shape both architecture as well as our attitudes toward the builders. Maynard provides generously for this idea in his book and is careful to ensure that readers are aware of Delaware’s heterogeneous nature. Maynard argues that Delaware is not so much a singular concept in thought as it is a variation on themes, for example: “The stone farm houses of Delaware’s Piedmont resemble those of its sprawling neighbors…. Houses in Wilmington and environs often imitate Philadelphian examples…” (p. 8).
Maynard speculates that Delaware lacks a unique style because of its geography. The state “had no frontier district, no claims to the westward and little immigration, except to Wilmington.” Furthermore, “As late as the 1920s…Delaware was the most…agricultural commonwealth in the nation.” In fact, by 1930, there was an increase of 10 percent in the total area of land under cultivation to 71 percent. This heavy reliance on agriculture led to the state being “a prime laboratory for the study of agricultural buildings and folkways” more so than for its inspired architectural designs. In other words, Barksdale feels that perhaps Delaware lacked the inspiration, financing, and overall cultural outlook to generate an indigenous architectural style (p. 13-14).
Maynard quotes Weston Holt Blake, head of the Delaware office of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) that in 1935 the state had “…300 distinctively designed buildings over a century old….” That averages out to approximately 6.5 distinctive buildings per square mile (Delaware is 1,954 square miles). Whether Blake meant “distinctive” to mean unique in terms of Delaware architecture or just “distinctive” in terms of age or some other criteria, it can certainly be argued that Delaware is perhaps more than just a collection of varied neighboring styles. The Colonial Revival style for example, while not a Delaware invention, is a style closely associated with the state and which continues to influence much design to this day. Another example would be the lowly log house. Maynard remarks that perhaps Delaware’s one unique cultural heritage contribution to American architecture was this “invention.” He writes that “…log houses first appeared in the New World in Nya Sverige [New Sweden], debuting within the walls of Fort Christina” (p. 27).
Strategically placed throughout the book are sections devoted to specific topics, locations, or sites which allows Maynard to delve into these subjects; allowing for more of the cultural, historical, and social context to emerge. Thus, Maynard expands on the connections he sees between architecture and culture and promotes a work of intersecting architecture, geography, culture, and history, within the general organization of a tour guide.
Finally, the DuPont’s of Delaware represented one family of great wealth that might have provided private patronage for architects. However, they did not generally hire master architects or cutting-edge theorists of the built environment, as did other American families of similar means. This is not to say the DuPont’s were stylistic non-participants, as Maynard points out in a brief family overview called “The DuPont Family and Architecture.” Not surprisingly, the DuPont’s are associated with the “Chateau Country” style in the Wilmington area: “Delaware’s most famous architectural legacy” (p. 19).
Maynard’s work succeeds by being demanding enough for the scholar while being approachable enough for the casual reader. Such work takes skill, knowledge, and devotion to the craft of writing. Maynard ably makes his case for architecture as a visual representation of an evolving American culture in the state of Delaware.
Jude M. Pfister
National Park Service