A Charlotte Mason Education, Architecture, Art, Beauty, Book of Centuries
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Studying Architecture in the Context of a Charlotte Mason Education by Jennifer Stec

When we began homeschooling, it never crossed my mind that architecture would be a component of our study, and it certainly didn’t occur to me that we would find it to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of our education.

We were introduced to the idea of studying architecture four years ago by Kerri Forney, who many of this blog’s readers know as the purveyor of wonderful living books at the annual CMI conference.  We had already started to read Virgil Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World, and Kerri suggested that his three small books on architecture, sculpture and painting would be a wonderful supplement to our studies. Virgil Hillyer was the Headmaster at Calvert School in Baltimore. A teacher at heart, he was the author of many child’s histories.  He co-wrote the series on art with one of the science and art teachers at Calvert School, Edward Huey.  They worked together for seven years on the series, bringing to a child’s attention the oft neglected works of fine art, sculpture and architecture.

After four years of observing the fruit of architecture study, I believe that it should be a part of every child’s education because it helps the child develop a fuller appreciation for all other subjects.  When a child has studied architecture, he is unafraid of the Pythagorean theorem because he has seen it before in Egypt’s Great Pyramids and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris.  In his U.S. History class, he can understand how a young John Quincy Adams could eavesdrop on fellow House members as they met in Statuary Hall because of the Hall’s elliptical ceiling.  When he reads Howard Pyle’s King Arthur and His Knights, he knows that a portcullis is the huge latticework gate that is dropped across the gateway of a castle to bar intruders.  He can visualize the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s day because he knows that Tudor architecture was popular during Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

After building a good foundation in architecture (pardon the pun), children take delight in pointing out architectural terms in the books that they read. They love to discover that their house has dentil molding, casement windows, a fanlight, or arches and keys above their windows.  They begin to look for elements of architecture in the neighborhood and cities they visit.  By including a study of architecture in our schools, we are creating well-rounded citizens.  We are not only exposing our children to the standard “reading, writing and arithmetic,” but encouraging a child to become “a master of much knowledge besides.”

Consider this comment from Charlotte Mason’s Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education:

In the great (and ungoverned) age of the Renaissance, the time when great things were done, great pictures painted, great buildings raised, great discoveries made, the same man was a painter, an architect, a goldsmith and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did he did well, all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment. Let us hear Vasari on Leonardo,––

“Possessed of a divine and marvellous intellect and being an excellent geometrician, he not only worked at sculpture . . . but also prepared many architectural plans and buildings . . . he made designs for mills and other engines to go by water; and, as painting was to be his profession . . . he studied drawing from life.”

Leonardo knew nothing about Art for Art’s sake, that shibboleth of yesterday, nor did our own Christopher Wren, also a great mathematician and master of much and various knowledge, to whom architecture was rather a by-the-way interest, and yet he built St. Paul’s. What an irreparable loss we had when that plan of his for a beautiful and spacious London was flung aside because it would cost too much to carry it out! Just so of our parsimony do we fling aside the minds of the children of our country, also capable of being wrought into pleasances of delight, structures of utility and beauty, at a pitifully trifling cost. It is well we should recognise that the business of education is with us all our lives, that we must always go on increasing our knowledge. 

Let us re-read one particular sentence.

All that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment.

How beautiful would it be to have children who daily meditate and take joy in the knowledge they are acquiring!  Creating this sense of joy and passion for learning is exactly what we as parent-teachers aspire to do.  A feast of living books on a variety of subjects give us the best opportunity of accomplishing just that.

A Suggested Method for Studying Architecture

Beginning with the pyramids of the ancient Egyptians, authors of A Child’s History of Art: Architecture, Virgil Hillyer and Edward Huey, bring to life the people and cultures that gave rise to the greatest civilizations on earth.  We learn about ziggurats like the Tower of Babel, obelisks such as the Washington Monument, the Greek Parthenon, Alexander’s Lighthouse, and Roman arches and aqueducts. Children are introduced to a plumb line, a level and a carpenter’s square. They learn the difference between a “capitol” and a “capital.”  Have you ever wondered what is the difference between a Doric, an Ionic, and a Corinthian column? Your children will be able to identify them out the car window once you read this book.


Suggestions for the Weekly Study of Architecture

  • Each week, we read approximately half of one chapter.  We are usually able to complete the reading in one day, sometimes two if there are many new terms to introduce (as was the case with cathedral architecture).  There are 29 chapters, which translates into spending 12 to 18 months with this book.  If this sounds like a long time, it is and should be.  We have over 5,000 years of architecture to cover! Spending time with the people and places and buildings in this book ensures we appreciate them in their context and do not rush through what they have to teach us.
  • After reading through the passage one time, the children narrate the reading.  Since there is more than one child in our school, each child narrates in turn without repeating information previously shared.  Occasionally, we narrate through drawing instead of verbal narration. An example of this may be drawing Gothic and Roman arches and comparing/contrasting the two.
  • When the reading and narration are complete, we look at the black/white pictures in the book. However, the internet is a treasure trove of pictures and additional contextual information.  For example, enter the search term obelisk, and one will see hundreds of wonderful examples. Or you could visit your local cemetery, where it is almost certain you will see an obelisk memorial.  Time permitting, we use Google Earth to virtually visit Notre Dame in Paris or Il Duomo in Florence, Italy.
  • Approximately every other week, we update the timeline on our wall or, for older children, their Book of Centuries.  If we have studied a particularly famous building (e.g. White House) or period of architecture (e.g. Baroque), we may paste a picture of the building or an example of the time period on the timeline.
  • Outside of the classroom, we visit local buildings that are examples of the architecture that we are studying. Resources for locating architectural elements in your city are as close as your internet search engine.  Input search terms like famous landmarks, important buildings, or architecture in (your city/state), and you may find a surprising list of neo-classical or modern buildings within a short drive of your home.  Websites such as http://www.ranker.com/, http://www.greatbuildings.com/, and http://www.favoritearchitecture.org/ provide lists of famous buildings and what period of architecture they reflect.
  • As we plan trips, if there is an architectural landmark on the way, we make an effort to visit. Last year when we visited family in Nashville, we took a few hours to visit the Parthenon. This may be the closest we ever get to visiting Ancient Greece!  As we drive around town, even around neighborhoods, we encourage the children to spot architectural elements.  On one stretch of road leading from our home into downtown Lexington, Kentucky, we pass four different types of architecture: English Tudor, Gothic, Richardson Romanesque and Georgian Colonial.  The kids have made a game of it now: “Mom! Gothic arch to the left!  Georgian fanlight to the right!”

It is a great joy to introduce children to great architecture and its themes in literature, mathematics, science, history, music and art.  Children who study architecture begin to observe architectural elements in picture study, in reading and in book illustrations.  Even composer study takes on a new depth when a child relates the “ornamentation” of Baroque music that is also common to Baroque architecture.  In time, the elements of architecture become part of [their] daily thought and enjoyment.

The image of the columns came from this website:  http://www.hasdhawks.org.

©2013 by Jennifer Stec


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. I had planned, in my own scope and sequence, to study architecture in high school-age. I had planned it to be the art/picture study/appreciation for that time frame. Would you suggest this study to be in addition to picture study? Or is it supplementing history? And it sounds like you’re introducing it early. Would you say that’s better? What age would you suggest is a good time to start? I’m doing Year 2 of AO with my two oldest boys, and we’ll be using Hillyer’s history book, that’s what caught my attention in this post. We also have David MacCaulay’s books (I have loved those ever since I discovered them in high school). Thanks. 🙂

  2. Hello sixsmoothstones —

    Thank you for your question. Yes, I would introduce it earlier if you are able. I introduced this to my children when they were 6 and 9. They were able to easily follow the narrative and narrate either orally or in drawings. The integration of architecture with the history spine (whether Child’s History of the World or another history spine) is so beneficial. From mud huts and gurts to the pyramids of Egypt, from Algonquian wigwams to Greek temples, from Roman aqueducts to the Byzantine churches of Constantine’s reign, and so on up to the Empire State Building and Hoover Dam, I think you will enjoy how well this book tracks with your study of history from the ancients to the modern. If you are pressed for time, you could certainly do this instead of picture study because, after all, you are studying art history, artists and their art/architecture. Who could deny the artistry of Sir Christopher Wren or Frank Lloyd Wright? 🙂

    We spent around 20-30 minutes a week reading/narrating and then looking at examples of the architecture. We are now working our way through Hillyer’s book on Painting, and I hope to write a blog on that at the end of the year.

  3. Jen, I loved this piece. Thank you for it.. My daughter who was CM educated has studied classical architecture in NYC for the past year at the Beaux Arts Atelier. I was able to tag along with her class at their week long drawing and painting tour of Rome earlier this summer. My CM educator training stood me in good stead as I soaked up the beauty and wonder of classical architecture and the artists who created it. There are some really wonderful old books to introduce children to classical architecture, I read Hillyer before the tour and found it most helpful.For older children the “World of” series on individual artists is widely available and is fascinating. Thanks again.

  4. mestehlik says

    Lory, I thought you might enjoy this article. Definitely food for thought. I wish I had done more architecture study with my kids for all the reasons the author mentions in this article. I’ll bet Ellie would love it and it would only take maybe a half hour a week. The Hillyer and Huey books she used may be hard to find. Pretty sure they are still OOP. I always check bookfinder.com. You also might be able to find a good substitute if they are unavailable or pricey. Lmk what you think!

  5. I have AO Year 6, Year 4, and Year 1 children (in addition to a preschool-age and 1-year old) at home with me — with all the different history threads going on, should I just start at the beginning with them all, or try to match up the arch. reading with each child?

  6. Karyn Feuling says

    We have started a coop this year and I am privileged to teach the architecture part. The kids range in ages from 6 to 11. I have chosen Chicago skyscrapers to start with because this is the area where we live, I like to introduce each building with the architect. The challenging part has been to find living books about these Chicago architects. Would you have any suggestions for books? Thanks so much!

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