A Bookish Biography

January 12, 2012

A Bookish Biography

Photo: John Dolan

One of Hugh’s first books, The Preservationist’s Progress (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was a collection of essays and profiles. It was singled out by The New York Times Book Review, which said of it, “The Preservationist’s Progress brings emotion to the literature of historic preservation… . It is an eloquent brief for the integration of fragile cultural artifacts into the modern world.” A companion volume, How Old Is This House?, is a primer on determining the age, character, and quality of an older home through an examination of physical, documentary, and stylistic evidence.

In later books, the focus shifted to exploring specific historic buildings – and, in particular, dwellings – as a means of understanding the profound human instinct to create not only shelter but expressive, artistic places to live. The research and writing of Wright for Wright (Rizzoli) provided an opportunity to journey into the life of one of America’s favorite geniuses. The book, written in collaboration with photographer Roger Straus III, is an architectural biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, and examines the buildings Wright designed for himself and his family in the context of his own eventful life.

Thomas Jefferson, Architect (Rizzoli) is a visual and textual reconsideration of Jefferson’s designs, including not only the major works (the Virginia Capitol, Monticello, and the “Academical Village”) but all his other known buildings, as well as a sampling of those created by the coterie of Virginia builders Jefferson trained.

Another densely illustrated volume, Houses of the Founding Fathers (Artisan/Workman), journeys to the homes of forty of America’s Founding Fathers in order to examine those men in their domestic contexts. The book blends storytelling, brief biographies, and social history, all the while offering a larger sense of the revolutionary era.

Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson (Bloomsbury) blends narrative history and biography. It examines the early days of American architecture as recounted by scholar Fiske Kimball (1888-1955). Kimball rediscovered Thomas Jefferson as architect (the Virginian’s built work had been largely attributed to others), and himself helped found the discipline of architectural history in the United States before becoming director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the nineteen-nineties, Hugh Howard designed and built a house for his family. His award-winning memoir, House-Dreams (Algonquin) recounts the construction of that Federal Revival home, an experience that was at once emotional and intellectual, familial and historicist, and hard physical work.

Among his other books are Colonial Houses: The Historic Homes of Williamsburg (Abrams), an overview of the more modest housing stock at Colonial Williamsburg; Natchez: Jewel of the Mississippi (Universe), an examination of the extraordinary mansions of the wealthiest town in antebellum America; and Writers of the American South (Rizzoli), a tour of the homes of twenty-two southern writers, ranging from the current homes of Pat Conroy, Allan Gurganus, and others to the museum houses of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Margaret Mitchell.

The Painter’s Chair: American’s Old Master Paint George Washington (Bloomsbury Press, 2009), examines the early days of American painting. A group portrait of Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, Edward Savage, and Gilbert Stuart, The Painter’s Chair also offers a look through the painters’ eyes at the indispensable Washington. Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War revisits the events of the poorly understood War of 1812, using the points of view of President Madison and his remarkable wife, Dolley.

Hugh’s writings have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, House Beautiful, Traditional Home, Biblio, Adirondack Life, Travel and Leisure, Esquire, Preservation, Early American Life, and many other publications. He was founding editor of The Eastfield Record, an occasional periodical from the Historic Eastfield Foundation, and served as writer, researcher, and scout for a number of television specials broadcast on the A&E Networks. A trio of programs called In Search of Palladio spent six hours examining the designs and influence of Renaissance Italian architect Andrea Palladio from Venice and the Veneto to eighteenth-century England and on to America.

Before deciding to devote full time to writing, he was vice president of the New York Times Book Company and graduated magna cum laude from Tufts College. Hugh Howard and wife Betsy divide their time between  Columbia County, New York, and New Hampshire’s Upper Valley, where they are visited, now and again, by their grown daughters Sarah and Elizabeth.