American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
National design
Mercantile cities and the grid

John R. Stilgoe

Everyone recognizes checkerboard America. Like a great geometrical carpet, like a Mondrian painting, the United States west of the Appalachians is ordered in a vast grid. Nothing strikes an airborne European as more typically American than the great squares of farms reaching from horizon to horizon.

Only the fields are noticeable from 20,000 feet. At lower altitudes flyers discern among them the scattered farmsteads connected by ruler-straight gravel and blacktop roads. They marvel at the pattern and scrutinize the fields and farmsteads, wondering what crops show up so yellow at midsummer and worrying that the farmers might be lonely. Few look closely at the lines that hatch the countryside below; the lines seem accidental, the result of pastures abutting wheat fields and the building of roads. Almost no one perceives the regular spacing of the lines or guesses that the lines predate the fields and structures.

Section lines, like lines on graph paper, made the grid and make it still. They objectify the Enlightenment in America. Late in the eighteenth century they existed only in surveyors’ notebooks and on the rough maps carefully stored in federal land office drawers. Here and there a blazed tree or pile of stones marked an intersection, but otherwise the lines existed only as invisible guides. Not until farmers settled the great rectangles platted by the surveyors and began shaping the land did the lines become more than legal abstractions of boundaries. Along them farmers built fences to mark their property limits and to divide livestock from corn, and along many they built roads too. Now and then a historically minded flyer, often a foreigner intrigued by the geometric regularity of the countryside below, swoops down and hedgehops above a section line, following it as Wolfgang Langewiesche did in 1939. “First it was a dirt road, narrow between two hedges, with a car crawling along it dragging a tail of dust. Then the road turned off, but the line went straight ahead, now as a barbed wire fence through a large pasture, with a thin footpath trod out on each side by each neighbor as he went, week after week, year after year, to inspect his fence. Then the fence stopped, but now there was corn on one side of the line and something green on the other.”1 On and on Langewiesche flew, following the half-abstract, half-physical line across pasture land and arable, through a small town, and on into farms again. “When I climbed away and resumed my course,” he remarked half-wonderingly, “I left it as a fence which has cows on one side and no cows on the other. That’s a section line.”2 Like many amateur pilots, Langewiesche appreciated section lines because they run rigidly north-south, east-west; despite being an

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