Remarks delivered by VAF President Chris Wilson at the annual meeting in Chicago, June 6, 2015
It is difficult to image a person who has achieved more or contributed more to the field of vernacular architecture studies than the recipient of this year’s Henry Glassie Award, Dell Upton. Upton is a graduate of the storied Brown University program in American Civilization, where his dissertation committee included chair James Deetz, and readers George Monteiro and Henry Glassie. He began his professional career as an architectural historian with the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission in the mid-1970s.
As one of the founders of the Vernacular Architectural Forum in 1979, he served as the first editor of our newsletter, Vernacular Architecture News. In those pre-internet days, those mimeographed, later printed newsletters, and Dell as its editor for ten years served as the indispensible clearing house for information on the quickening of scholarship on everyday buildings and landscapes. VAN and Upton’s own growing stature gave the VAF intellectual credibility, and helped create our community of scholars.
Upton’s own voracious reading and centrality to this emerging discourse, positioned him to edit two influential 1986 collections. Common Places, edited with John Vlach, sampled a rich range of topics, research methods and interpretive strategies, and demonstrated the depth and vitality of the field. America's Architectural Roots broke out of the early east coast focus of the field, even more definitively, to suggest an inclusive range of ethnic and regional traditions.
Remarkably that same year, 1986—while still the editor of VAN—Upton also published his first great scholarly monograph, Holy Things and Profane. The book is so inventive in its use of sources and range of themes that it is impossible to isolate a single strength. But I remember being particularly taken with his analysis of the relation between architecture, ritual and social hierarchy—of the ways that the “processional use of space,” of each socially- and gender-defined group entering the church in tern with the male planters entering last as a group, and of the repetition of this pattern at courthouses and planters’ homes, both reflected and reproduced social hierarchy in 18th century Virginia.
Upton began to serve on thesis and dissertation committees at the University of Virginia in 1979, and after a series of visiting appointments in the East, joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley in 1983. Over the next 20 years, working in particular with his colleague, Paul Groth, Berkeley became to my mind, the leading center of graduate education in the field. Upton returned to UVA for 5 years, and since 2008 has taught and, for a term, chaired the Art History Department at UCLA. He has served on a total of 150 thesis and dissertation committees, including chairing 29 dissertation committees. His former students constitute a veritable who’s who of second and third generation scholars in the field.
While I am focusing this evening on his books, he has also published over 80 scholarly articles, many as groundbreaking and widely read as his books. “Pattern Books and Professionalism,” Winterthur Portfolio (1983); “White and Black Landscape in Eighteenth Century Virginia,” Places (1985); “Architectural History or Landscape History,” JAE (1991); “Just Architectural Business as Usual,” Places (2000, a critique of New Urbanism) come quickly to mind. Scholars with other interests might come up with an entirely different list of favorites, so broad have been Upton’s concerns.
His 1998, Architecture in the United States, incorporated recent vernacular architecture and cultural landscape scholarship into an architectural history textbook, deemphasizing the traditional distinction between elite and vernacular. In place of an inclusive chronology, he devoted each chapter to an interpretive theme: Community, Nature, Technology, Money and Art. Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic, from 2008 is a compelling evocation and interpretation of lived experience, of the sights, sounds and smells of the early American cites. Upton notes elite attempts to foster decorum and shape new urban environments, but also elaborates the counter forces of commerce, vernacular social traditions and the demimonde.
Dell Upton has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Hope Franklin Prize from the American Studies Association, both the Alice Davis Hitchcock Award and the Spiro Kostof Award from the Society of Architectural Historians, and twice the recipient of the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s Abbott Lowell Cummings Award. Please join me in welcoming the recipient of the 2015 Henry Glassie Award, Dell Upton.