A Place for Us: Vernacular Architecture in American Folk Art
By Stacy C. Hollander
In 1823, Englishman W. Faux, wrote in his Memorable Days in America that: "Mount Vernon has become like Jerusalem and Mecca, the resort of travellers of all nations, who come within its vicinity. Veneration and respect for the memory of the great and illustrious chief whose body it contains, lead all who have heard his name, to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of patriotism and public worth, and to stroll over the ground which has been consecrated by the repose, and hallowed by the ashes of heroism and virtue. A twig, a flower, or even a stone, becomes interesting when taken from the spot where Washington lived and died, and no man quits it without bearing with him some memento to exhibit to his family and friends."
By the 1820s an architectural revolution -- the Greek Revival -- was well underway; this revolution reoriented buildings from a horizontal to a gable-end presentation. Doorways placed asymmetrically to one side led to a passage the depth of the house that opened into rooms, one behind the other. Meetinghouses and churches were among the earliest types of buildings to adopt this new plan, which was sometimes called end, side hall, or temple front house because of its inspiration from ancient Greek temples. Besides the Cape Cod form, Greek Revival was perhaps the most influential development in American architecture, becoming something of a national style in its many interpretations across the country. Greek Revival mansions with porticoes supported by classical columns -- the prototype of Tara, the archetypal plantation mansion in Gone with the Wind -- came to symbolize all that was gracious and solid about life in the antebellum South. It has even been conjectured that southern architecture embraced the Greek Revival form so completely because it validated slavery through an association with the ideals of ancient Greece -- a slaveholding society with democratic principles.
Greek Revival plantation mansions, however, were the exception rather than the norm in the South, where the average home was generally more modest than its northern counterpart. More usual were small houses with kitchens built separately because of the warm climate, and the saddlebag house which featured two square pens on either side of an open central space with the three parts connected by the floor and the roof. Another form particular to the South was the shotgun cottage, a narrow, one-story building with gable-end presentation that was one room wide but two or more rooms deep. It has been conjectured that this form, which first appeared in New Orleans in the early nineteenth century, can trace its roots to Haitian, and possibly West African origins.
Changes in taste which were readily apparent in the decorative arts, were also described in architectural terms. The complex house amalgams of the late nineteenth century can certainly be viewed, at least partially, as an outgrowth of the principles of the Aesthetic Movement, which had a profound influence on both high-style and folk arts. The central philosophy of this movement was that beauty should be part of everyday life, and the asymmetry of nature was held up as an ideal and was manifested in everything from crazy quilts to Queen Anne-style architecture. The hyperdiversity of late nineteenth-century architectural forms encouraged the proliferation of itinerant artists who could provide precise pencil drawings of these elaborate residences. The format of these depictions was often modeled upon the work of popular lithographers such as Currier and Ives, who produced idealized versions of American scenes. Thus many of the hand-drawn renderings are labeled with the names of the residences and their locations either in a cartouche or in a band along the bottom of the paper. It is through these notations that we can trace the movements of artists such as Fritz G. Vogt, who traveled through areas of upstate New York trading his artistic skills for bed, board, and sometimes a small payment.
In its most essential nature, folk art expresses the concerns of human activity and endeavor, and from a growing sense of place and stability a variety of structures evolved to host these activities -- workplaces, schools, houses of religion. The overwhelming emotion conveyed by the wealth of American folk art illustrating these themes is a pride barely contained within the physical boundaries of the artwork. The power of these images is exemplified in the scrimshaw made by sailors on whaling ships. Isolated from family, friends, and home, on voyages that might last from three to five years, the men could yet maintain a link to distant shores through the memories of homes and towns that they painstakingly etched in ink on whalebone. The sailor's "Sweet Home" is just an earlier echo of Dorothy's invocation in the film The Wizard of Oz, "There's no place like home."
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