Title Reviewed:
99 Historic Homes of Indiana: A Look Inside

Author Reviewed:
Marsh Davis; Bill Shaw

Edward W. Wolner


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 99, Issue 3, pp 281-282

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

99 Historic Homes of Indiana: A Look Inside. Photographs by Marsh Davis. Text by Bill Shaw. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv, 240. Illustrations, index. $39.95.)

The premise of this book is excellent: provide brief portraits of a representative sample of home preservationists who illustrate a diversity of contexts (farm, village, and city homes from several socioeconomic classes), a variety of motivations (aesthetic, historical, civic, familial, museological), and the richness of Indiana's architectural heritage.

There are noteworthy surprises, as Bill Shaw profiles individuals who, in the period from 1960 to 1990, had to fight battles to save their houses and often went on to found preservation districts or organizations in their towns. The authors, in an unspoken way, portray an America of individualists and voluntary associations, and their choices of people and locales suggest an Indiana much like the New England village Thornton Wilder created for Our Town. This is an Indiana where people live their whole lives in one locale; remain in the same house over three or four generations; or, in a simultaneous rejection and exploitation of professional mobility, they move back home to acquire the houses they admired as children. Both text and photos communicate what much of contemporary American life denies: a profound need for personal, social, and historical rootedness.

The book's appearance suggests coffee-table vanities, although in fact its size serves the purposes of photographic clarity and completeness. Davis's matte photographs have neither the slickness nor the sense of privileged serenity that images in Architectural Digest promote. Davis's interiors register spatial depth and the warmth of premodern materials unusually well, and his points of view admirably capture the sophistication these houses possess.

While one is tempted to contemplate the photographs in isolation from the text—the lawns are always green, the sun is out, crack teams from Merry Maid have just departed the premises, all is silence and immobility—Shaw's text balances the cumulative impact of so many architectural images of buildings without people. His profiles animate the domestic spaces in the photos with the personalities of the homeowners.

The book, however, does have one major weakness. Although each of Shaw's profiles is engaging, over the course of ninety-nine of them his unvarying use of conventional newspaper portraiture reduces the owners to stock characters. His "just-folks" text unintentionally undercuts the courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity of people like Nellie Longworth, a fiery congressional lobbyist for preservation issues, and Stanley Lowe, a preservation advocate for several of Pittsburgh's black districts. Many of the people we meet in this book made it their business to (metaphorically) dump garbage on the steps of city hall when the sanitation department failed to pick it up in the neighborhoods. Only in this way did they get results. Their civic commitment deserves a treatment divorced from the genteel, aestheticized public image the preservation movement all too frequently creates for itself.

EDWARD W. WOLNER, professor of architecture at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, is currently writing a book on "Skyscraper Romances from the Great War through the Great Depression."

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.