American architecture: Early History

Early History

American architecture properly begins in the 17th cent. with the colonization of the North American continent. Settlers from various European countries brought with them the building techniques and prevailing forms of their respective homelands. Colonial architecture was subsequently adapted to the topography and climate of the chosen site, the availability of building materials, the dearth of trained builders and artisans, and the general poverty of the settlers.

Only in New Orleans, where the French government sent skilled architects and engineers, was anything produced that approached the sophistication of architecture in France. The comparatively short Spanish domination of Florida also produced highly complex structures, including the fort at St. Augustine (begun 1672). The Spanish impress was more permanent in the American Southwest, where settlers borrowed extensively from the Native American techniques of construction in adobe. Mexican baroque details and church forms appeared in a new and simpler guise, as in the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California missions. The Dutch, who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York City), were traders for the most part, and examples of their residential work can be seen throughout the Hudson River Valley.

The English settlements were of two basic types: the small town in the North and the large plantation in the South. In New England settlers erected many-gabled houses of wood with prominent brick chimney stacks of late Gothic inspiration, such as the Parson Capen House in Topsfield, Mass. (1683). In the South, brick rapidly superseded wood as the chief building material, as for example, in St. Luke's Church in Smithfield, Va. (1632). The formality and classicism of 18th-century English architecture was almost immediately reflected in the colonies, as in the official buildings of Williamsburg, Va. or the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia (begun 1731).

During this time a growing prosperity and widening commerce brought a new influx of well-trained artisans, and English architectural books became increasingly available. Many Protestant churches were adapted and simplified from contemporary English styles designed by such architects as Christopher Wren and James Gibbs. Among the American examples are Christ Church in Philadelphia (begun 1727) and St. Paul's Chapel in New York City (1764–66). Pioneer building techniques, however, persisted on the Western frontier where settlers often built cabins of logs or later of sod.

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