A Place for Us: Vernacular Architecture in American Folk Art

By Stacy C. Hollander



The notion of common architecture raises issues regarding the term "vernacular" that are analagous to issues in the debate over terminology in the field of American folk art. According to author Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built, "vernacular" has been in use by architectural historians since the 1850s and was borrowed from linguists.[4] One model that folklorist Henry Glassie has proposed for studying folk tradition in architecture also looks to linguistic structural principles to diagram the infinite possible expressions of a prescribed "architectural grammar."[5] Brand points out that any child asked to draw a house will invariably sketch a one-story rectilinear box with two windows, a central door, and a pitched roof with chimney seen on end. A perfect description of the Cape Cod house, this model embodies the very idea of "houseness" and helps to explain the longevity of vernacular form. Eminently functional, inexpensive to build and maintain, the conservative Cape Cod was above fashion and always in demand. Or, as architect Thomas Hubka phrased it, "Folk designers start with the unchanging and accommodate change."[6]

The most persistent American building traditions were introduced by the dominant colonial immigrant groups, primarily the English, the German, and later the Scots-Irish. The establishment of culture hearths -- those centers of settlement that originated and dispersed architectural traditions through later migrations -- provided the wellspring of architectural forms that spread across the expanding republic from New England, the middle colonies, and the Tidewater South. It was the commonality based on shared cultural and building traditions that allowed people in a locale and its extensions to recognize the organization of interior space, or flow, inside each other's homes.

Vernacular architecture -- "architecture without architects" -- is accomplished through a shared understanding of proven architectural conventions between a builder and his client. This contract for a Manhattan house constructed in 1648, for instance, contained all the information the builder needed to comply with his client's wishes: "Farmhouse 60 feet long and on each side a passageway throughout, the frame 24 feet wide; 11 feet high in front, 12 feet high in rear, rear part one foot above the ground. Front room 24 feet square with cellar under it. Tongue and groove attic floor, wainscot front room, all around; 2 [built-in] bedsteads, one in front room, one in chamber; a winding stair, so that one can go from cellar to attic; front gable perpendicular and rear gable truncated [jerkin-head]. Window in front room to have casing with transom and mullion; also a mantel piece. Roof of split rafters and nail-on laths, and on each beam a loft bent."[7]

In Dutch New York there was already some thought given to town planning, general appearance, and fire prevention. In 1676 Governor Edmund Andfros decreed that "All new buildings fronting on the street shall be substantial dwelling houses, not less than 2 rooms deep and not less than 18 feet wide, being built in front on the street of brick or quarry stone and covered with tiles..."[8] The impression of solid brick did not mislead all visitors to New York, however: In 1749, Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm observed: "Houses built of both wood and brick have only the wall towards the street made of the latter, all the other sides being boards. This peculiar kind of ostentation would easily lead a traveller who passes through the town in haste to believe that most of the houses are built of brick."[9]

In contrast to characteristic Dutch orderliness, early New England homes indicated a lack of regard for the immediate surroundings and for the physical plant of the buildings. In 1818, William Cobbett wrote that there was "a sort of out-of-door slovenliness.... You see bits of wood, timber, boards, chips, lying about, here and there, and pigs tramping about in a sort of confusion."[10] What was not apparent to the casual observer was the orientation of the main (lengthwise) axis of the home along the points of the compass to provide maximum light and warmth: the living quarters, often, were oriented toward the south and the kitchen toward the north.[11] These earliest buildings were constructed of heavy timber frames covered with wood sheathing, a medieval technique that had been largely abandoned in timber-poor Europe, but that was revived in the New World because of strength, ease of construction, and availability of wood. Life was centered around the massive fireplace that was usually located in the middle or at one end of the building. The most common plan was a single-pile (one room deep), one- or two-room, one- or one-and-a-half-story home; this was the "architectural building block from which various linear plan folk dwellings originated."[12]

The Georgian form which was introduced in the middle of the eighteenth century, radically changed the attitudes of Americans toward both external appearance and internal privacy. The typical Georgian style included an ornamented central doorway symmetrically flanked by windows. The fully developed plan that continued into the Federal period was two stories high, two rooms deep, and two rooms wide, with a central entryway that created a transitional space between public and private areas of the home. The perfectly balanced and often imposing symmetrical facade was now situated to face the road where it could be appreciated by passersby. The new self-consciousness about appearance that is suggested by the symmetry and reorientation of the facade also marked the moment when architectural depictions began to flourish in folk art as proud homeowners began to commission depictions of their beautiful homes in paintings, overmantels, fireboards, and wall murals. It was also about this time that young women began to stitch images of residences and public and state buildings into their samplers or to paint them on sewing boxes, worktables, and other small decorative pieces. For Young America, portrayals of her government seats and wealthy residences were tangible statements of freedom and the triumph of the democratic process.

The important symbolic role that architecture played in the minds of Americans is well illustrated by the reverence that surrounded Mount Vernon after George Washington's death in 1799 and the large numbers of artworks in every medium that displayed its unique silhouette. Mount Vernon was originally built in 1738 by George's father, and in 1758 General Washington began a renovation that would continue for thirty years. The building was raised one story, and smaller buildings known as dependencies were added to the grounds. The main house was expanded at both ends, creating clear divisions between public and private areas. But the major innovation that inspired the now famous view of the residence was the two-story high porch "piazza" running the length of the house on the side overlooking the Potomac River.



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