Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

David Leatherbarrow


The term “simplicity” frequently appeared in American architectural discourse from the nineteenth to early twentieth century. Ironically, this was a historical period associated with the Gilded Age, and an architectural period known for historicism and superfluous ornament. At least, that is how architects and critics from the mid-twentieth century characterized the lack of simplicity in nineteenth century architecture. Their interpretation of simplicity as rejecting nonfunctional ornament and historicist association overlooked the various early modern architectural implications explored throughout nineteenth century architecture. Instead, I explain how and why designers from the nineteenth century desired and approximated simplicity in their work in terms of historical precedents and antecedents, dissemination of designs and ideas through publication, and what I call “quietness” – that a building serves as the background for activities rather than as an object of attention. This dissertation interprets prescriptive literature and also studies construction drawings and extant buildings. There was no single definition of simplicity, even our current assumptions have nuances, but I show projects ranging from Quaker meetinghouses to Chicago skyscrapers with deeper symbolism and significance than a mere plain aesthetic.

American architects in this dissertation generally understood simplicity as relations between architecture and people with architecture serving as a background for human activities within and around the building. The chapter on economy considers the planning of a building where arranged rooms with clear functions allowed the building to grow with additions. The chapter on construction considers simplicity through the critique of false construction pretending to follow the ancient construction techniques respecting building materials. The chapter on simple cladding traces the appearance of the building’s exterior from solid walls to a covering representing the character of the building that was independent of the structure. The interiors chapter returns to themes similar to economy by studying the decorations and décor suited to the room’s activities. Finally, simplicity was a high standard unifying purpose and appearance, thus becoming a standard in which designers used to measure their ability to approximate the idea of being simple defended through history, publication, and a sense of modesty.

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