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Book Review: Traditional American Rooms

A resource for classical details

I apologize. I read this book more than a year ago and wanted to write a review but never made the time, and I should have. Sure, we’re all busy and short of time, but the truth is, if something is important to you, you make the time, even if it means sacrificing something else that isn’t as important—at least for a little while. And that’s often what it takes to read a good book. This is one I recommend highly to anyone interested in classical architecture and the design of traditional American homes.

When computers became popular, people started saying that one day there won’t be any books. With the popularity of e-books and readers like the Kindle and the iPad, I hear that even more often. Traditional American Rooms is a great example of why books will never disappear. Learning something new (or something old) involves two parts—studying, and understanding what you’re studying. Studying a book means spending real time with it, looking at the same pages over and over again. Understanding something, at least for carpenters, means touching it with your hands; figuring out how it works. For me, this book satisfies both parts of learning.

Ever since I discovered The Elements of Style, I’ve hungered for a book that covered the same subjects but more comprehensively—at least when it comes to Colonial and Traditional styles. As a carpenter, I’ve wanted a reference for molding styles and sizes, as well as classical terminology. And I wanted pictures and drawings that made it all easy to understand.

Brent Hull and Christine Frank have more than fulfilled that need.

With great photographs from the decorative rooms of Winterthur, Traditional American Rooms begins with a lively introduction to the Classical orders, the influence of Vitruvius and Palladio, and the impact those building-blocks had on neo-classical American architecture. Hull and Frank have an academic background, but they use it to teach, not expound, and their text is easy to follow.

Every element and all terminology is defined and described by photographs and line drawings.

From baseboard to casing (architrave molding!), from mantelpieces to full-size trabeated doorways—everything a carpenter needs to know about identifying and describing traditional architectural elements and ornamentation is in this book. Clear communication—between contractors and customers, between architects and clients—is based on vocabulary. This book will help you learn and appreciate the vocabulary of traditional architecture and improve your communication skills.

Hull and Frank’s wonderful book is also a great resource for design ideas that truly work, and that’s the irony of architecture. Unlike the carpenters who craft homes, if a design looked good two hundred years ago, it’ll probably look pretty good today. And that’s what we’re all after, isn’t it? Traditional American Rooms will help you get there.


8 Responses to “Book Review: Traditional American Rooms”

    • Gary Katz

      You’re quick!!! We fixed that link, although I’m a Strunk and White fan, too, so if anyone gets the wrong book they’ll still have the right stuff.

  1. Sim Ayers


    Maybe you our Brent should do an online article on Vitruvius and Palladio. Not for strictly for proportions, but how the two of them have influenced what we cut and nail up each day. Vitruvius and Palladio should be every day words in construction today, just like they were 500 years ago.


  2. Jesse Wright

    I couldnt agree more! This book has been the largest influence in my design work. I recently did a SU model of an interior that was based on the details in this book. It really is one of those MUST haves for every finish carpenter. Thank you Brent!

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  3. Bret Jackson

    Thanks for the review, love that book and “The Elements of Style”. Making my first trip to Winterthur this Friday. I hope they will let me bring in a tape measure, a notepad, and a camera.

  4. Kreg mcmahon

    Gary thanks for the review I just ordered this book from amazon and will have it Wednesday and looking forward to seeing what chapter has my style of entertainment centers! Ya right

  5. Gary Roberts

    Full Disclosure: I’m a furniture guy and a book guy who is back-tracking to learn of the relationship between furniture design and classical architectural elements. I stumbled upon TIC a while back and have been reading through the contents, quite avidly.

    Furniture people seem to think their designs sprung from the aether or that before SketchUp, there were only rough hand drawn plans.

    As a retired librarian and long time bookman, it’s my tendency to amass information without necessarily knowing all the details. This book is now on order. I have a sense it’s going to be a turning point, at least for me, on the relationship between architecture and furniture,



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