Abigail Van Slyck
Dayton Professor of Art History
Associate Dean of the Faculty
Joined Connecticut College: 1999
Smith College, A.B.; University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D.
Gender issues in architecture
Vernacular architecture and cultural landscape studies
Spaces of childhood
Professor Van Slyck's research focuses on American architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular attention to commonplace building types constructed to house influential social institutions.
With the support of grants from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Spencer Foundation, she studied summer camps for children, organizations that have been entrusted with socializing millions of children since they first appeared on the American landscape in the late 19th century. Although camp buildings do not fall within conventional definitions of the term architecture, a close consideration of their form and use offers special insights into several aspects of American culture in the 20th century: attitudes about gender roles, notions of health, ideas about nature, and perceptions of Native American peoples.
This research resulted in a book, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960 (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), in which she examines the intersections of the natural landscape with human-built forms and social activities. In particular, she addresses changing attitudes toward such subjects as children's health, sanitation, play, relationships between the sexes, Native American culture and evolving ideas about childhood.
The book has received these awards:
- Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History, 2006
- Abbott Lowell Cummings Award, 2008, from the Vernacular Architecture Forum, which recognizes outstanding books published about North American vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes
- Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians
The research also resulted in the following publications: "Shaping Modern Boyhood: Indian Lore, Child Psychology, and the Cultural Landscape of Camp Ahmek," in Depicting Canada’s Children, edited by Loren Lerner (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009), 27-48; "Housing the Happy Camper: Tents and Cabins at Minnesota's Summer Camps," Minnesota History 58 (Summer 2002), and "Kitchen Technologies and Mealtime Rituals: Interpreting the Food Axis at American Summer Camps, 1890-1950," Technology and Culture 43 (Winter 2002).
At Connecticut College, Professor Van Slyck directs the Architectural Studies Program, an interdisciplinary course of study that seeks to prepare students for further work in architectural history, architectural design, historic preservation, and a wide range of related disciplines.
She is the recipient of the College's 2009 Nancy Batson Nisbet Rash Faculty Research Award, presented annually to a faculty member selected on the basis of outstanding scholarly or artistic accomplishments.
In 2006, Van Slyck earned an Award of Merit from the Connecticut League of History Organizations (CLHO) for an exhibition she spearheaded and created with students: "Commerce and Culture: Architecture and Society on New London´s State Street" at New London's Lyman Allyn Art Museum. The exhibition documented the architectural and social development of New London´s major commercial avenue, and grew out of a project in Van Slyck´s senior seminar. It related the specific details of New London architecture to larger trends in American architecture and urbanism.
Van Slyck teaches a number of courses aimed at introducing students both to the substance of architectural history and to changes in the field's methodologies, including:
- architecture, 1400-present
- architecture since 1945
- American architecture
- domestic architecture of the U.S.
- and gender and architecture.
In addition, she has instituted advanced courses that incorporate both history and design, using them as complementary modes of architectural investigation.
Also an expert on the history of Carnegie libraries, Van Slyck has traveled widely to advise community and governmental groups on the adaptive reuse of these historic buildings. Professor Van Slyck also has a long-standing interest in the history of public libraries as projects around which Americans debated the relationship between culture and class, as some of the first workspaces for middle-class women, and as some of the first public buildings to devote substantial space to children's use.
Her publications on this topic include Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920 (Chicago, 1995); "'The Utmost Amount of Effectiv [sic] Accommodation': Andrew Carnegie and the Reform of the American Library," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 50 (December 1991), which won the Society's Founders' Award; "The Lady and the Library Loafer: Gender and Public Space in Victorian America," Winterthur Portfolio 31 (Winter 1996); "A New Chapter," introduction to a Building Type Study on recent library design, Architectural Record (October 2000); and "On the Inside: Preserving Women's History in American Libraries," in Restoring Women's History Through Historic Preservation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). In 1993, Professor Van Slyck was awarded a Fulbright senior scholar award to study Carnegie libraries in New Zealand. In 1996, that research culminated in" Knowledge is Power: Carnegie Libraries in New Zealand," an exhibition at the National Library of New Zealand.
She recently completed a term as President of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, and has served on the national board of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH).
Abigail Van Slyck came to Connecticut College in 1999 after serving for a decade on the faculty of the University of Arizona where she was an associate professor of architecture, art history, and women's studies.
"All buildings - the bland as well as the beautiful - can speak to us about the people who made and used them, if we learn to ask them the right questions."
- Abby Van Slyck