Author: Howard Mansfield, with photographs by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Publisher: Bauhan Publishing, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-87233-186-0

Sheds are simple constructions upon which the author has built complex meditations. Howard Mansfield, historian-preservationist-philosopher, has expanded a chapter of his Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter (2013) into a pictorial survey of a familiar sight in New England, the boxy add-ons to the built environment that provide spaces for particular functions, or a series of functions. The materials, sizes, and purposes of sheds vary, but their qualities of flexibility, adaptability, and agelessness are the same.

Mansfield lets his exploration of ideas wander over the varieties: meeting houses, connected farm buildings, covered bridges, summer cabins, bob houses (known elsewhere as ice fishing shacks), sugar houses, even A-frames. He mentions “anti-sheds” (abandoned and falling down by stages), and repurposed “war sheds” (Quonset huts). He explains why bridges became covered, and plain meeting houses morphed into churches with spires. He recalls that the competition of Midwestern farmers prompted New Englanders to spruce up their outbuildings and make them more efficient by attaching them to one another. He describes how lakeside structures often are either floated or drawn over ice to serve another purpose on the opposite shore.

The author has gone beyond standard research to harvest comments of architects and local builders. He has probed for meanings and feelings about these shelters. The covered bridge are like tree-houses, hiding places with views. “A barn is a tool….a big workbench….It has a topography.” A-frames may be economical but they have “cathedral pretensions.” Family cabins are annual touchstones. Post-war, Quonset huts became the “Coca-Cola of the landscape.” As their functionality evolves, sheds might be light or dark, closed or open, dry or humid, quiet or noisy.

Morrissey’s photographs are of high quality. At first I noticed repetition, but gradually I realized the slightly altered perspectives added to my arm-chair experience of being in the landscape. My lasting complaints are just quibbles. The author calls sheds “fragile,” but demonstrates otherwise. I like better his introductory observation that “Sheds are reticent. They stand back; they’re demure,... They let life flow on through.” I didn’t like a couple chapters very much. The one on trucks as shelters veered off course. The “dreamspace” with its expansive model train setup seems a misfit: Can an underground concrete house with many rooms to indulge a hobby be considered a shed? The chapter on teahouses – very special sheds -- should have stopped short of discussing ceramics.

On a more functional level, I found the horizontal format awkward, flopping in my hands as I had to lift the book off my lap to read the generous text. Having dealt with book design myself, I can only say that it is very difficult to match text with multiple photographs on pages in a well-coordinated way. The content here is splendid and important, and the paper it’s on had to be coated, which means expensive. In this age of publishing, I might have skipped the obsolescent coffee table book approach and made a DVD supplemented with a smaller format, hardcover book, perhaps a square, with the text on the left, the photo on the right. The tourists visiting New England would love it!