In 19th century America, the only way an architect could view historic architecture was to go see it firsthand (usually on another continent), or else find engravings of it in books. Because architects of the era were much less likely to travel than their modern counterparts, engravings ended up being their usual reference. Mind you, the engraver unavoidably put his or her own spin on the thing they were illustrating, and this subjectivity, along with a frequent lack of historic context, made it hard for architects to get a real grasp of historic styles — one reason for the almost cartoonish nature of so much Victorian architecture.

All this changed in the 1890s with the introduction of the halftone process, which used thousands of tiny, variously sized dots to reproduce the full tonal range of actual photographs. For the first time, photos could be faithfully reproduced in mass publications such as magazines and newspapers, without the subjective distortions of the engraver.

The National Geographic was among the first magazines to replace line engravings with halftone photographs, but architectural journals were also fairly quick to make use of the new process. As early as 1898, The American Architect and Building News published a popular series on Colonial architecture. After World War I, when many mainstream architects and builders became smitten with Europe’s vernacular architecture, photo features of historic architecture began going further afield.

By the 1920s, architects were routinely referring to trade journals packed with photographs of European vernacular buildings, whether English, Spanish or French. In 1926, Architecture magazine began a regular series of portfolios featuring authentic renditions of traditional European vernacular details such as iron railing, garden pools and window grilles. Spurred by such information, architects explored increasingly exotic styles, whether Moorish, Indian or North African.

The Depression and the advent of World War II put an end to America’s (fascination) with European and exotic architecture, and for the next half a century, trade journals instead published equally influential photo spreads on what they presumed to be the future of architecture: Modernism.

Ironically, while traditional detailing is once again all the rage, modern renditions of historic styles — or for that matter, copies of 1920s revival styles, which were themselves copies — seem both less erudite and less charming than the originals. Decorative features such as columns, arches and moldings are misused, overused or carelessly thrown together in ways old-time practitioners would have found laughable. This problem is merely troubling in modest tract houses, but epidemic in expensive custom homes, whose larded-on detailing is at once overblown, graceless and clumsily proportioned — much closer to Victorian-era pastiche than to the refined revival styles of the 1920s and 30s.

Despite the blizzard of information to be had on the Internet, we architects seem to have a much lazier grasp of traditional design than did our predecessors. Today’s brand of pastiche strains to evoke the easy charm of tradition, but more often the result is plain old bedlam. It’s a far cry from our colleagues of the 1920s, who composed their "informal" designs with utmost care, and who always kept an eye on their faithful photographs.

***

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