American Architectural History and Materials – Description

American Architectural History and Materials: The Stuff of Dreams, an online Zoom minicourse by Janet Foster. Monday afternoons 1:30-3:30:  June 21, 28, skip July 5, July 12, 19 and 26.

To create a piece of architecture, however grand or humble, the dream for the structure has to be realized in materials. Sometimes the availability of certain materials determines the building’s form. In other cases, the “stuff” available for those dreams leads to disaster.

This five-part course will look at American architecture and its basic materials. There will be a focus on buildings in the Northeast, with highlights from the 18th century into the 21st century.

Lectures will be held via Zoom and will be focused on images.  The two-hour class will include a break and a Q&A period at the end.

Reading material available on-line will be presented for each class for those who wish to explore a topic in more depth.

I.  June 21, 2021           1:30-3:30 pm “Wood”

The most common building material in the Unites States, the material has been used since there were people on the continent. Differences in how the wood is processed, shaped, and used show changing tastes and technologies over time and reflect different practices of European settlement groups. From heavy timbers to balloon framing, and from structural systems, siding, roofing, interior decoration, and flooring, wood has been the most cost-effective and versatile building material ever.

II.   June 28, 2021 1:30 – 3:30 pm “Earth”

Adobe is not a traditional building material in New Jersey, but it is in parts of the American southwest. In our wetter climate, earth is formed and fired into bricks, and used in many ways.  Stone also has a long history of use in American architecture, where it can also be viewed as an indicator of building style, age and the social importance of the builder. “Earth” as manipulated by humans is an important and long-lived building material, and forms some of our best-known landmarks around the world.

                  July 5, 2021   Independence Day Weekend – no class

III.   July 12, 2021 1:30 – 3:30 pm “Metal”

From hand-worked iron nails to the first steel “I” beams to the sinuous modern roofs of aluminum or copper designed with computer systems, metal has always had an important place in building technology and design. The discovery of metals on the North American continent and the development of ways to process them is part of the story of industrial growth in the United States. Metals have become ubiquitous in modern life, including in our buildings, although it is not always immediately visible.

IV.   July 19, 2021 1:30-3:30 pm “Sand”

Sand – perhaps the most common raw material on earth – is useless as a building material beyond a sandcastle that lasts an afternoon. But when combined with other materials, it forms the basis for glass and concrete, two extremely durable materials that are a critical part of modern architecture. The history of the developing technologies that enable sand to become a strong building material is entwined with the evolution of the material’s use.

V.  July 26, 2021 1:30-3:30 pm “Petroleum”

The role of petroleum-based materials in plastics and other manufactured building products cannot be underestimated for modern construction.  Synthetic materials including glues, caulking and insulation are at the heart of modern building performance standards that make our structures safer and more comfortable than ever before.   But what do all these mass-produced materials mean for the environment, for building longevity, and for cost-efficiency?  Can we afford to keep using them? Can we afford not to??

Reading suggestion:

The National Park Service’s “Technical Preservation Briefs” cover a wide variety of building materials. While the focus of the series is on the preservation of buildings using these materials, the briefs also include good short histories of the use and manufacturing mileposts in the development of different building components.


Janet W. Foster, an architectural historian, and noted author and lecturer, is a passionate advocate of New Jersey’s history and buildings.  Throughout her career, she studied hundreds of buildings in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania through preparation of National Register nominations, Historic Structures Reports, historic buildings surveys, paint analysis, and other projects at Acroterion, a preservation consulting firm she co-founded in 1983.

In 2002 she became Assistant Director for Urban Planning and Historic Preservation in Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she had studied in the Masters’ Program in the early ‘80s. She was also a founder and teacher in the Drew University Historic Preservation Certificate Program in Madison, active from 1999-2012.

Ms. Foster wrote three books on architecture:  Legacy Through the Lens (Mendham, NJ, 1986); Building by the Book: Pattern-Book Architecture in New Jersey (with co-author Robert Guter, Rutgers University Press, 1992) and Queen Anne Houses: American Victorian Vernacular (Abrams Publishers, 2006).

She remains active in the New Jersey historic preservation community as the Chair of the Madison Historic Preservation Commission, a board member and recent past chairperson of the New Jersey Historic Trust, and as a member of the N.J. State Review Board.

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