Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

Building Harrisburg: The Architects and Builders, 1719–1941

by Ken Frew
published by the Historical Society of Dauphin County and the Historic Harrisburg Association, 2009; 396 pages, cloth, $75.00

Ken Frew spent thirty years researching and writing Building Harrisburg: The Architects and Builders, 1719–1941, and the investment of time and effort, as well as considerable talent, has resulted in a magnificent (and weighty) tome of nearly four hundred pages brimming with more than 350 photographs, architectural drawings, and renderings. Building Harrisburg looks at more than two centuries of the capital city’s architectural history. The book opens with a discussion of the city’s origins as a colonial era trading post and ferry landing and continues with a survey of the buildings and structures erected throughout the twentieth century.

The book graphically illustrates that Harrisburg was no stranger to the larger Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York architectural firms, which were designing important buildings in the city as early as the nineteenth century. In addition to discussing the architects and their commissions, the author also examines their clients and patrons, as well as the bureaucrats and politicians who provided the financial means and mission for Harrisburg’s architectural evolution. Written in a jocular style that makes for an eminently enjoyable read, biographical sketches of architects and builders provide fascinating insight into their achievements, goals, frustrations, professional jealousies — even occasional run-ins with the law.

“In the small market of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, clients were the last to see much difference between the academically trained architect and the designing tradesman,” the author contends in his introduction to Building Harrisburg. “Harrisburg had a history of being provincial in its buildings. Settled in the main by Germans (its English founder and a few prominent other families were the exception rather than the rule), there was a frugality to nineteenth century Harrisburg that seemed ready to spill over into the twentieth century. As late as 1885, the city’s most talented and progressive practitioner, John C. Smith, who had come from Manchester, England at the age of thirty, complained that ‘with few exceptions an architect was looked upon as a useless article.’” But Frew refutes this charge eloquently and with a plethora of images that graphically dispels Smith’s sentiment.

Building Harrisburg: The Architects and Builders, 1719–1941, is an outstanding addition to the literature of Pennsylvania history and architecture. The author’s exhaustive research, coupled with rare and vintage images (many unpublished until now), stunning contemporary photography by Ellen M. Siddons, and thoughtful design by Christina Lauver make this book a “must have” for individuals interested in architecture, architectural styles, city planning, neighborhood development, and historic preservation. Building Harrisburg proves true the time-honored epithet, “a labor of love.”


In the Service of Art: A Guide to the Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

by Cheryl Leibold
published by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2009; 76 pages, paper, $24.95

Philadelphia’s venerable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, established in 1805, is the nation’s first school of art and museum. Nearly every major American artist has taught, studied, or exhibited at the Academy, including Thomas Eakins, Cecelia Beaux, John Sloan, Robert Henri, Peter F. Rothermel, Violet Oakley, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Alice Neel.

As early as 1857, the Academy’s leadership recognized it possessed a cache of rare documents which illuminated the early history of art in Pennsylvania, and so its board of directors purchased a safe to protect these rare papers. This collection of records is unique in the history of American art. The other major art institution of comparable age, New York’s National Academy of Design, founded in 1825, has lost much of its recorded history, making the Pennsylvania Academy’s records of singular importance.

Cheryl Leibold, who has written about the Academy for Pennsylvania Heritage, recently completed In the Service of Art: A Guide to the Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to facilitate the use of the collections and to increase awareness of the rich resources for American art scholarship in the Academy’s archives. The author is well qualified; she has served as Academy archivist for nearly twenty-five years.

In the Service of Art
offers a detailed survey of the types of documents the Academy safeguards and makes available to students and scholars of art. In the mid-1950s, the Archives of American Art, then a newly-formed branch of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., recognized the value of the Academy’s archives and microfilmed a large portion of its nineteenth-century records. The institutional records are organized into record groups according to established archival practice. Each major division within or affiliated with the institution constitutes one record group, and subdivisions within records groups are called series. Printed matter, such as newsletters and brochures, is separated from correspondence or other documents in each record group. In each series, records are arranged chronologically and, as much as possible, in the arrangement established at the time of their creation.

Record Group 1: Management begins with the charter and founding members and includes the board of trustees, the Pennsylvania Academicians (a group of artists charged with supervising the early life school and assisting with exhibitions), and the secretary, managing director, and director. Record Group 2 is devoted to the museum and contains the papers of the curator, director, conservator, and registrar, as well as documents pertaining to the permanent collection, exhibitions, and educational programs. Other record groups pertain to the school, special events, administration, buildings, the women’s board, and manuscript groups.


A Pocket Guide to Pennsylvania Snakes

by Walter E. Meshaka Jr. and Joseph T. Collins, with photographs by Suzanne L. Collins
published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2009; 51 pages, paper, $4.71 ($3.00 each for orders of ten or more)

Of the more than 2,300 species of snakes that inhabit the world, 154 species are native to the United States and Canada. Pennsylvania claims twenty-two species of snakes — the most diverse group of reptiles in the Commonwealth. Twelve of these snakes are found throughout all (or much) of Pennsylvania. Three species have a primarily western distribution in the Keystone State, and two — the smooth earth snake (Virginia valeriae) and the eastern rat snake (Scotophis alleghaniensis) — are restricted to its eastern quarter. Five species have a range in the Commonwealth divided into eastern and western populations. Only three species are venomous: the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), and Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus).

Walter E. Meshaka Jr., senior curator of The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Section of Center for North American Herpetology, authors of A Pocket Guide to Pennsylvania Snakes, note that all Pennsylvania species are permanent, year-round residents that do not migrate far from suitable habitat. They also dispel many popular (but incorrect) beliefs about the much-maligned creatures. Discussion of each species includes an extensive description of physical characteristics, including coloring, head shape and size, length, and habits, such as breeding, preferred habitats, food choices, and the size of litters. Stunning color photographs by Suzanne L. Collins illustrate each of the species discussed.

This pocket-sized guide is an invaluable resource as a library reference or in the field as a companion for easy identification on hikes and outdoor adventures. The book concludes with information about snakebites, a checklist of Pennsylvania snakes, and an explanation of herpetology, the academic study of amphibians, turtles, reptiles, and crocodilians. The book was produced by a partnership of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Powdermill Nature Reserve, and the Center for North American Herpetology.


Our State Parks: Western Pennsylvania

by Christopher T. Rolinson, edited by Michael Caggeso
published by StartPoint Media; 142 pages, cloth, $68.95

A diminutive but visually powerful book, Our State Parks: Western Pennsylvania features striking photographs by Christopher T. Rolinson, assistant professor of photography and photojournalism at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. The book was launched in 2006 when the author, teaching nature photography, took his students out of the classroom and into the great outdoors to shoot on location in the western part of the Commonwealth. To his surprise, some of the students were unaware of the wild and scenic places, and their perceptions of Pennsylvania did not include the wilderness. From that day on, he was “compelled to create a full color photography book that would promote this beauty to Pennsylvanians and citizens beyond.”

Rather than present Pennsylvania as a wilderness that no longer exists, Our State Parks reveals, through photography and experiential text, the magnificent beauty and weather that abounds in this part of the Commonwealth. Western Pennsylvania’s expansive geographic size is rich with nature, scenery, and space. Between Lake Erie and the Maryland border, and from central Pennsylvania to the Ohio and West Virginia borders, there are several climate zones and distinctive topography.

Our State Parks: Western Pennsylvania highlights twenty-six state parks, four state forests, two national wildlife refuges, and one national forest. The book “is not meant to be a guide,” the author asserts in his introduction, “but rather an incubator and motivator,” adding that he hopes “the images will inspire readers to become even better stewards of our wild places by putting on their shoes and taking a hike or a bike or a boat in search of beauty within Pennsylvania.”