All Hail the Queen

Virginia Savage McAlester, preservationist and best-selling author, dies at 76

Name that style: A home in Baltimore's historic Guilford neighborhood. (Matt Hickman/AN)

Virginia Savage McAlester, author, architectural historian, and doyenne of Dallas preservation, died last week at the age of 76 following a lengthy battle with myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow cancer. Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, was the first to report the news in a beautifully written tribute.

To say that McAlester’s encyclopedic, copiously illustrated A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture, first published in 1984 and significantly expanded and revised for a best-selling 2013 edition that tackles post-1940 house styles (Ranches! “Millennium Mansions!”) as well as neighborhood types, is an essential architecture book would be an understatement.

Over the years, the hefty tome—the 2013 edition is 880 pages—has enjoyed a certain ubiquity, becoming a staple on the bookshelves and coffee tables of architecture students, preservationists, erudite real estate agents, and casual everyday house-spotters curious about the built environment around them. Because of the book’s size, it’s safe to assume that many readers forgo taking their copies out into the field with them in the same way a birder might slip an illustrated guide into his or her back pocket when embarking on an ID’ing mission. The Kindle edition, however, has made it easier to match up eyebrow dormers and chamfered porch supports with corresponding house styles.

I lament having left my own copy of A Field Guide to American Houses at my home in Brooklyn. Last month, I relocated to suburban Baltimore County to ride out the pandemic and, as part of my socially distant fresh air/quarantine constitutional ritual, I’ve been documenting the homes in the immediate and surrounding neighborhoods of where I’m temporarily living. This past weekend, on a particularly sunny Saturday, I decamped from my ranch-heavy, semi-rural neighborhood to Baltimore’s historic Guilford nabe, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. in the early 1900s and features a riot of different revival styles—Tudor, Colonial, Classical, Spanish Colonial, Jacobean, Italian Renaissance, and more—alongside Art Deco, English Arts and Crafts, and others. If there ever were a neighborhood where A Field Guide to American Houses would come in handy, Guilford is it.

Born in Dallas to Dorothy and Wallace Savage, an attorney who served as the city’s mayor from 1949 to 1951, McAlester attended Radcliffe College and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she studied architecture. Settling back in Dallas to care for her aging parents, McAlester became active in local preservation efforts beginning in the early 1970s and was integral in the founding of the Historic Dallas Fund, the Dallas Historic Preservation League, later renamed Preservation Dallas, Friends of Fair Park, and other preservation initiatives. She also led the charge to designate Swiss Avenue, the neighborhood she grew up in and later resettled in as an adult, as Dallas’s first historic landmark district. As Lamster noted, fellow architectural historian Stephen Fox once bestowed McAlester with the most-fitting moniker, the “Queen of Dallas Preservation.”

As the late historian and author Wiliam Seale told the New York Times of McAlester in a 2013 profile: “When she started broadening her preservation efforts, “few, if any, in Dallas had the slightest interest in historic preservation, thinking their history too new to be worthwhile.”

McAlester, who credited her mother for sparking her interest in preservation, co-authored several other books on architectural history and preservation. However, A Field Guide to American Houses, which she co-wrote with her second husband Lee McAlester, a geology professor at Southern Methodist University, remains by far her most widely read. As Lamster wrote, at the time of her death, McAlester was at work on a sequel to the Field Guide that focused on commercial architecture.

McAlester spoke openly about her battle with myelofibrosis, with that fight playing heavily into the aforementioned 2013 Times profile. It’s worth a read.

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