Building the American Dream; Architecture and Our Way of LIfe

Building the American Dream; Architecture and Our Way of LIfe
Ellen Wilson: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Two to five class periods


Ellen Axson Wilson was both an artist and a competent architect, being interested all her life in both painting and architectural design.  She was also interested (and quite active, as First Lady) in improving the lives of those less fortunate than herself and her contemporaries.  Thus, the link between architecture and human well-being was present in her life and works.


Students who participate in this activity will learn something about the historic architecture of their own towns, about the regulations and restrictions on architecture and construction in their own towns, and on the ways in which architecture models particular ways of life.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Materials about the history (architectural and otherwise) of the town you live in Materials about building codes in the town you live in, and how they have changed


1.  Divide students into several smaller groups.  Ask each group to make a list of everything they know about the history of their own community.  Ask groups to share their lists, and to assess where there are “holes” in their knowledge.  Assign students to research missing information.
2.  Using the website, “Architectural Styles of America” (see below) as a starting point, ask students to spend some time looking at the types of architecture in their own town.  One possibility would be for students to take pictures (ideally, digital) of interesting buildings, both residential and commercial.  When they have done so, ask students to answer the following questions:

  • What do the older buildings look like?  Why do you think they are designed in the way they are?
  • What about the newer ones?  Are there many differences in architectural style?  Why might that be? 

3.  Then, have students study some of the building codes of their community, perhaps inviting someone from the city building or zoning department (commissions) to talk with students on this subject, including a discussion of changes in these restrictions over time and the reasons for those changes.
4.  Ask students to discuss the regulations, particularly with respect to the following:

  • Why do local governments impose guidelines?
  • What kinds of limitations on ingenuity or creativity do the restrictions impose?
  • Do students think current restrictive practices are reasonable and just?  If not, why not? 

5.  Finally, ask students to develop their own set of local architectural guidelines for their community.  In either a paper or a presentation, students should explain:

  • How (or if) their community should regulate architectural styles 
  • How (or if) the city should regulate such plans as street width, land use for parks, lighting
  • What criteria (if any) the city should use to balance residential, commercial, and public space
  • In what ways (if any)  their guidelines demonstrate the way of life of their community

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by creating posters or PowerPoints or photo montages of students’ work for display for the whole school.  The lesson could also be extended to other classes in the high school, e.g., social studies, economics, art, industrial arts.

Sources & Resources:

Architectural Styles of America
This lesson plan was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University, using some adaptations from a lesson on Frank Lloyd Wright designed by Betsy Hedberg,  and called "Architecture for the Masses"

Architecture for the Masses