Buildings of Massachusetts: Metropolitan Boston is the twelfth volume in the Society of Architectural Historians' Buildings of the United States (BUS) series. This volume represents a collaboration among a broad community of scholars and institutions operating in the Boston area. Morgan and his three primary coauthors were responsible for the selection of the works included as well as the overall quality of the text. They were assisted by thirty-nine additional writers, credited in the acknowledgments, who produced individual entries. Inviting participation by scholars with specialized expertise no doubt enhanced the accuracy of the text and assured that entries reflected the latest research.
The book is a substantial achievement. As noted in the front matter, although guidebooks have been published addressing central Boston and parts of Cambridge, this is the first guide to encompass the entirety of Boston and 41 additional towns extending out roughly to the circumferential highway, Route 128.
A 43-page introduction establishes the geographical and historical context of the guide. The form of "metropolitan Boston" derives from its geographical features, primarily the ring of hills at about a twelve-mile radius from the city center, and the radiating rivers, later overlaid with a pattern of transportation corridors. The introduction focuses on Boston, for the city truly was the hub of development in the region. Historical descriptions of the outlying cities and towns are found in the shorter essays that begin each subsection of the guide.
The heart of the book is the 513-page guide, organized geographically, with over 1060 numbered entries. The guide begins in Boston with 373 entries in the central city and another 140 in the outlying neighborhoods. Cambridge, with 192 entries, is next. The 40 additional towns, covered in a broad arc from Chelsea and Everett at the north to Quincy at the south, are documented in 358 entries. Each of the neighborhoods and subareas in Boston and Cambridge and each of the outlying towns is introduced in a concise essay that establishes the geographical, historical, economic, and social context for the works that follow.
The Boston area has seen Euro-American settlement over a period of almost 400 years, but few buildings from the seventeenth century survive. Most of the oldest buildings are found in outlying communities——the Fairbanks house in Dedham (begun 1637), and the Winthrop house in Winthrop (begun 1638), are the oldest buildings in the book. The vast majority of structures are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the most recent bear completion dates of 2007. The total number of works addressed substantially exceeds the number of entries, as perhaps 5 percent of the entries include multiple structures. Group entries most often document historic districts or buildings of a single type.
The variety of structures included makes one wonder if the word buildings in the title is truly adequate. There are entries for a wide variety of housing, including cottages, workers' houses, triple deckers, portable houses, and Lustron houses. Industrial buildings include a variety of mills and factories. Transportation infrastructure includes railroad stations, subway stations, viaducts and bridges, highways, and even a building for tunnel ventilation.1 Parks and cemeteries are also discussed.
In general, the descriptive texts are clear and concise, covering building history, social context, materials and construction, architectural features, and later alterations or additions. Although key stylistic elements are identified and briefly described, most entries will be accessible to a literate nonspecialist audience. The tone throughout is even-handed with few overt criticisms. Instead the authors occasionally raise questions, as for example, with the Genzyme Corporation's biotech research facility: "One should question whether the banks of the Charles River should be the site for such operations" (AB12, p. 239).
As one of the first books in the series produced by the University of Virginia Press, Buildings of Massachusetts: Metropolitan Boston contrasts visually with the older volumes produced by Oxford University Press.2 The University of Virginia Press books are taller and wider than the earlier books; they are printed on heavier paper; they have black cloth covers; and they have graphically stronger dust jackets with color images. Inside, the pages look familiar, but a close comparison to older volumes shows subtle changes in type fonts and spacing.
Comparing Buildings of Massachusetts to earlier volumes also suggests how the BUS series has evolved over the past sixteen years. Early volumes tried to balance their roles as guidebooks and reference works. Now the books increasingly lean toward being reference works. The entries have become longer and include more social and cultural context. The scholarly emphasis is particularly evident in the Buildings of Massachusetts index, which fills 69 pages, about 10 percent of the book. Sites are indexed by name, architect, location, and type. Style references are also indexed, and virtually every proper name found in the text is included. A comprehensive index of this kind is unlikely to be of interest to tourists, but it is an essential tool for scholars.
The one failing of Buildings of Massachusetts is the weakness of the orientation offered to the user at the beginning. As a book that addresses only a portion of a state it should include an overall state map clearly delineating the area covered. This or another map should also indicate the major geographical subdivisions by which the book is organized. The only overall map provided here dates from 1893 and it is insufficiently legible to orient the reader. This problem is exacerbated by the brief "How to Use This Book" section, which is both misnamed——it should be called "How This Book is Organized"——and poorly located. This section describes the sequence of the entries in the guide, the system used for numbering, and the coding of preservation information such as listing in the National Register. Yet it comes immediately after the contents, before the foreword, acknowledgments, and introductory essay——that is, more than 50 pages from the geographical guide to which it applies.
Another question to ask is whether BUS volumes should include a brief section on methodology. The selection of entries is not an easy task, for it requires critical judgment balancing a multiplicity of factors. However, the basis on which choices are made in each volume is only implicit in the entries appearing in each book. As the BUS volumes increasingly become scholarly reference works, there may be a benefit to providing some sense of the critical framework determining what is included and what is not. This question, of course, applies to more than just this volume.
Overall, Buildings of Massachusetts: Metropolitan Boston is an outstanding contribution and a work that will serve as a benchmark for future books in the BUS series. Anyone interested in the architecture of metropolitan Boston will find this book an essential work, a fundamental source for the exploration of its built environment.
The linear form of infrastructure sometimes runs up against the need for item-by-item entries. The challenge of writing entries on linear infrastructure may be addressed in future volumes through the introduction of sidebars.
Buildings of Delaware, published in 2008, is the other volume presently reflecting the University of Virginia Press changes.