Booking Your Trips

Architectural guidebooks add joy to the journey.

Here's an interesting bit of news about Omaha: It has more historic buildings today than it did 30 years ago. That's the conclusion I reached after comparing Building for the Ages: Omaha's Architectural Landmarks, a guidebook published in 2003, with Omaha City Architecture, which appeared in 1977.

Good job, Omaha! If you can sustain this growth spurt in landmarks, you'll soon have more old buildings than new, and the books will just keep getting thicker. That's fine with me, because if there's one thing I love, it's an architectural guidebook—especially when accompanied by a comfy chair, a good reading light, and snacks within easy reach.

Comparing examples from different periods, as I did with the two from Omaha, can be interesting in itself, but the basic purpose of these Baedekers is to get you out of your chair and into the street. That means (this is particularly worth noting now that vacation season is upon us) that a good guide can provide the spark for a memorable—even startling—travel experience.

It was such a volume that turned me on to the fact that Buffalo, of all places, is a knock-your-socks-off paradise for architecture buffs. And if not for various other manuals I've pored over, I might never have laid eyes on a turn-of-the-century Vedanta temple that mixes Edwardian bay windows with a crenellated corner tower and an eye-popping array of exotic domes (it's on Webster Street in San Francisco); or a 1920s apartment building tricked out in nautical motifs—porthole windows, bollards, and a lighthouse on the roof—because its owner loved the sea, even though she was an Army wife (it's here in Washington, a few blocks from my office—who knew?); or a community where tropical vegetation provides a lush backdrop for clusters of houses designed to look as if they were transported from Normandy, China, and various other faraway places (that's Coral Gables, Fla.).

Most of my volumes have yellow Post-It notes sticking out of them, each one representing a stop on the Ultimate Amazing Building-Watching Tour I hope to begin someday. (I figure it'll take about five years, plus untold numbers of vitamins.) When I find myself in St. Louis, for example, I'll know exactly where to go: At the intersection of Grand Boulevard and 20th Street, there's a 19th-century water tower in the form of a 154-foot-tall Corinthian column. If the real thing is as impressive as my guidebook leads me to believe, it's worth a special trip—and the guidebook is worth every penny I paid for it.

Even one that doesn't send you rushing for your suitcase can be just as valuable. One of my favorites is a modest volume called Canton: The Architecture of Our Home Town. I have two reasons for being fond of it. First, it was written by a good friend from grad school days. And second, it does a really nice job of illuminating—even celebrating—the human-scale history embodied in the buildings of an "ordinary" town in western North Carolina.

Photos show the houses, churches, schools, and stores that line Canton's streets—simple buildings, sturdy and unpretentious examples of what usually gets described (if anybody takes the trouble to describe it) as "vernacular architecture." But it has significance, as the epilogue points out: "By finding the meaning in each structure … we begin to comprehend the needs, values, and choices that shape the town where we live." In fact, Canton looks a lot like many other towns. This little book simply lays it out on the page, letting us see it for what it is: a place where people built a legacy in which their long-ago lives are embodied, a legacy of brick and wood and stone that can inform and anchor us if we let it.

If you ask me, that's the best thing any guidebook—whether it deals with Chicago or Copenhagen or Canton, N.C.—can hope to do: encourage us to see and cherish things we might never have noticed otherwise.

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