Interwoven stories of America’s earliest architects and prodigious scholar Dr. Fiske Kimball (1888–1955), who devoted his career to discovering, restoring and preserving their work.
The title is a bit misleading: Although Jefferson does have a significant and signal presence in the work, he is not the only figure Howard discusses. The author has written about the master of Monticello before (Thomas Jefferson, Architect, 2003, not reviewed) and has published frequently on other architectural subjects (House-Dreams, 2001, etc.). Howard begins by sketching the early career of Kimball, who in 1914 discovered a vast cache of Jefferson’s architectural drawings, a finding that led to his first book. Howard eventually takes us through Kimball’s entire career (ending with his notable and ultimately contentious 30-year tenure as the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), periodically interrupting with substantial segments about the lives and accomplishments of America’s first builders and architects, most notably William Buckland, John Trumbull, Charles Bulfinch, Benjamin Latrobe, Samuel McIntyre and Robert Mills. Some of these—especially McIntyre and Mills—are names not well-known to the general public, and Howard does a stellar job of telling their human and professional stories. The author includes numerous reproductions of early architectural drawings and, for the most part, lets us know the fates of the structures he discusses. His account of the glorious but long-gone Derby mansion in Salem will make readers wish a preservationist spirit had prevailed in 1815, the year workmen razed the building. Howard’s vast research enables him to explore the connections (not always amiable) among these men (Mills, for example, met them all). He also explores the social and political forces that often affect the design and placement of public buildings. Howard’s discussion of the controversies about the Jefferson Memorial is especially clear and comprehensive.
The star here is Kimball, who upstages even Jefferson, emerging as a towering figure in American architecture and architectural scholarship.