A Place for Us: Vernacular Architecture in American Folk Art

By Stacy C. Hollander



Following the War for Independence and in the wake of the French Revolution, it was fashionable for foreign visitors -- and sometimes expedient for the French nobility -- to travel extensively throughout the new American republic recording their views and observations. Scathing commentaries often cut the upstart country down to size: One Baron Hyde de Neuville wrote, "This society which has neither a past nor a history draws from foreign annals of glory and fame.... Demosthenes, Cicero, Pompey, etc. have all given their name to a certain extent of territory, so that in looking at a map of the United States, one believes that the land was the patrimony of all the great men of antiquity. The names of the towns and villages are no less pompous. We are now only twelve miles from Rome and will spend the evening in Paris. We have passed close to Palmyra, and in detouring a little, we shall arrive easily at Pampelona. You see that one travels here a deal of road in a very little time. Nevertheless, do not be seduced by these brilliant names; the Paris of America is only a hole with twenty or thirty houses."[1]

Though foreign travelers wrote with amused contempt of disheveled yards, haphazard housekeeping, and uncouth social customs, they could not help but be impressed with the natural resources of the fertile country and the energy and achievements of everyday Americans as they developed the landscape. The very aspirations that led to classical place names were indicative of a national character of impatient upward mobility. Among the by-products of these ambitions were structures originally intended only as temporary shelters. For, rather than improving upon existing homes, families tended to move into entirely new residences as economic circumstances improved. Their houses descended, in turn, to those who could not support major renovations, and, as one writer put it, "..most dwellings remarkably unchanged and clearly reflective of their place in time, a kind of paradox -- permanence in impermanence."[2] A second, perhaps even more important legacy, is the rich body of American folk art made for and used by these families that traces three centuries of changing architectural patterns.

The significance of the architectural record represented by American folk art has long been recognized by architectural historians. Chroniclers of daily life, the artists we call "folk" today have preserved the way America looks since at least the eighteenth century. In addition to the beauty of the many forms this expression takes, and its value in terms of visual documentation, folk art often positions the buildings within the broader context of a community's priorities as manifested in individual residences and the development of farmsteads, town plans, commercial enterprises, and institutional settings. The depictions were made by professional and amateur artists, and were inspired by various motivations -- pride, nostalgia, decoration, commerce. It is interesting though not surprising, to note that several important changes had already taken place in American architecture by the time that artists and artisans began to turn their attention to the built environment in the mid-eighteenth century. When Rufus Hathaway painted the waterfront properties of his father-in-law, Joshua Winsor, in about 1795, both were well aware of the impression of wealth produced by the solid Federal facade. Emphasising the calculated role of the painting as a witness to his material success, Winsor is shown proudly surveying his substantial holdings with the keys to his storehouses held in his hand.

The act of building is in itself an assertion of dominance over nature. This fact was not lost on early colonists, for whom each building was a battle in the war to tame a wilderness and thrive in a new land. Descriptions of the initial hardships that had to be overcome by the settlers lend a special air of sympathy to later displays of wealth: "Thise [settlers] in New Netherland and especially in New England, who have no means to build farm-houses at first according to their wishes, dig a square pit in the ground, cellar fashion, six or seven feet deep,...case the earth inside all round with timber, which they line with the bark of trees or something else to prevent the caving in of the earth; floor this cellar with plank and wainscot it overhead for a ceiling, raise a roof of spars clear up and cover the spars with bark or green sods, so that they can live dry and warm in these houses with their entire families for two, three and four years."[3]

The need for such primitive shelter did not end with the close of the seventeenth century; it continued through the eighteenth century and was repeated in the western frontiers as the twentieth century approached and pioneers struggled anew in a virgin landscape. For each person or group of people who moved into an unknown and often harsh environment, the creation of a sense of familiarity and a feeling of belonging was established most successfully through architecture. It is this sense of place that is captured so evocatively in the many folk art expressions that preserve the seaports, townscapes, and rural and urban architecture of American life and society.

The preoccupation with architecture as a symbol of economic security, progress, and status is clearly communicated in the vast numbers and variety of media that received artistic embellishments with architectural themes. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, these portrayals occurred mostly on interior architectural elements such as fireboards, overmantels, and painted walls, in expressions that were both localized and personal. By the mid-1800s, however, the sentiments had become regional and national, and architectural images appeared on virtually every type of decorated material, from stoneware to tinware and from schoolgirl samplers to painted furniture. The growing sense of stability as the cultivated landscape developed encouraged paintings of architectural vistas in unprecedented numbers. Paintings and drawings of prosperous farms laid out in colored patches throughout agrarian regions of the country were proof of economic attainment and a statement of permanence. Cultural and geographic considerations that determined the appearance of farm acreage -- plans of crops and fields, tree lines, fence forms, relation to water, placement of roads and buildings -- were captured by itinerant artists who worked on commission and by local residents enthralled by the order and beauty of their surroundings.

Over time, the forms and emphases of art about architecture changed radically, reflecting not only popular taste as disseminated through published lithographs, but also the increasing density of the population and the built landscape. Even artists' perspectives gradually shifted, moving from direct, head-on images of residences and land-holdings to long-distance prospects and elevated bird's-eye views, perfect for highlighting the sprawling towns that now dotted the landscape, as well as institutional complexes and extensive factory plants. Many manufacturers even commissioned portraits that detailed every type of building and activity related to their product and the original paintings frequently formed the basis for lithographs that were published later. Commercial architecture became an important feature in the American landscape, especially in small towns trying to compete in larger markets. Jurgan Frederick Huge's painting of the Burroughs Building in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for instance, appears to be a faithful rendering of the imposing commercial elevation. With its handsome stores below (including a tea shop with a shop figure in the window) and elaborate ornamentation above, the Burroughs Building conformed to a commercial building type that had developed specifically to give an appearance of importance and excitement to the street and to impart a feeling of economic growth. On the less traveled side street, however, the ornamentation is substantially scaled down, and the older residences once again come into focus.

Architectural imagery in folk art has always tended to portray the exceptional rather than the mundane. Those who could afford to commission paintings of their homes and land-holdings also owned homes worthy of the attention. Especially in the twentieth century, when the lines are so sharply drawn between the urban and rural architectural landscape, artists such as William Hawkins have been attracted to the competitive skyline, where innovative buildings vie with one another for dominance. In contrast, the paintings of rural artists like Clementine Hunter and Nellie Mae Rowe reveal the more retentive and conservative nature of their architectural environments. Nevertheless, the majority of the structures portrayed in American folk art are typical of a period, place, and form, and provide insights into common architectural solutions.


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