This Is the Essential Guidebook for the Casual Zillow Scroller

published Nov 9, 2023
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Book cover of A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester.
Credit: Knopf Publishing Group

Architecture has always been my favorite kind of art — after all, what better art is there than art you can live in? There are few greater ways to experience the beauty of architecture than a walk through a historic neighborhood or an “I’m just browsing” Zillow session. But the enjoyment of a well-built home, like all art, is made so much better with a guide. That’s why I love A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester

Why I Love A Field Guide to American Houses

At first glance, the book looks pretty intimidating. It’s a whopping 880 pages, yes, but inside of it lies a treasure trove of answers to all the architecture questions you never even knew you had. It brings you into the history of American domestic architecture and neighborhoods in all their complexities and wonders. 

The reference book, first published in 1984 and last updated in 2015, breaks up housing into five categories: folk, colonial, romantic, Victorian, eclectic, and modern houses, chronicling their design from pre-1600s to the 2000s. It also explains the history of how neighborhoods were built: How they went from untempered organic growth, to carefully planned grids, to picturesque curvilinear boulevards, and finally, to sprawling, spread-out suburbs. 

When I first picked up the book, I quickly discovered a newfound appreciation for the homes around me. One of the most interesting things I noticed was how a single home could change through the years. A bungalow built in 1910 may have once looked like the textbook example of a craftsman home, but a carport added in the mid-century and awnings added in the ‘70s could significantly alter the look of the house. That’s why I love all the information this book provides on even the smallest features of a home, like its porches, windows, and doors, allowing you to explore stately porticos and uncharacteristic additions alike. 

With A Field Guide at my side, I can imagine the story and life of each home — how it was first built to reflect certain styles and values (like a stately Victorian home’s reflection of that time’s prim and proper values), and how that same home can change over the decades as new residents imbue the home with their own needs and values. 

How to Use A Field Guide on Your Next Zillow Scroll or Walk

The best way to appreciate this book is by using it to look at real houses, via a visit to or a neighborhood walk. When studying a house, consult the guidebook to nail down its style: Victorian? Craftsman? Colonial? (Hint: Unless you’re in a well-preserved New England town, the colonial homes you’re seeing are most likely colonial revival!) Its architectural style can give you a good idea when the home was built, along with the wealth or status of the original residents — the larger and more ornate the home, the more money involved, naturally.

You can also try to use A Field Guide to decode the neighborhood around you: If the streets look haphazard, and frankly, confusing, you’re probably in a (very) old neighborhood that was established in the 17th or 18th century. If you’re surrounded by a grid, think 19th century. If the streets are a little curvy, with lots of focus on greenery or large, picturesque houses facing the widest street, your neighborhood was probably built in the early 20th century. And if the roads wind like there’s no tomorrow, connecting to very few other streets, congrats: You’re in a mid-century neighborhood. 

Whether you’re an architecture admirer like me or you simply want to fact-check the description of a home for sale in your neighborhood, A Field Guide can’t steer you wrong. Learning about the built environment is one of my greatest joys, and I like to think it could become one of yours, too.