American Vernacular

~ an anthropological study of historical American architecture, with an emphasis on the common house ~

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I found "Decopix - The Art Deco Architecture Resource" today while researching Art Deco houses. I recommend taking a few minutes to explore the various menu options, as great pictures are to be found on each page. Warning, though, the "DOA" section is sad...lots of pictures of buildings that have been demolished or altered.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The National Register of Historic Places

If you're interested in learning more about historic places in the United States, then the you'll want to visit the website of the National Register of Historic Places. Their website is absolutely stuffed full with good resources, far too many to detail here. But to highlight:

And there's so much more stuff on that site. I could browse for hours.

Cellar in Connecticut may have been a hideout for runaway slaves

Archaeologists are investigating whether a root cellar in Weston, CT was a waypoint on the "Underground Railroad"--a hiding spot and rest stop for slaves fleeing from the southern states to Vermont and Canada.

The cellar apparently has an unusual L shape, with the leg of the L being a passage that's just 4 feet wide and tall with a small opening, but is 20 feet long veering at a 90 degree angle from the main part of the cellar. The archaeologists have found artifacts that may have been left by former slaves as well.

Root cellars in this area are apparently free-standing "fieldstone structures built into hillsides, [which] stored root crops, such as potatoes and onions, and served as ice houses." This particular one was built during the Revolutionary War.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A pattern for rebuilding in Mississippi

The last few days I have been poring over Mississippi's plans for rebuilding the Gulf Coast cities that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It is exciting to see that, largely, they are advocating "New Urbanist" town designs and reproductions of historic Gulf Coast architecture styles. (For explanations of New Urbanism, look here and here.)

Looking over the Mississippi Renewal project's final reports is fascinating. These little places (ranging in population from about 6000 to 70,000) are determined to re-invent themselves as walkable, sensible, charming towns that don't get sucked back into suburbanism and "big box" city planning.

I find especially wonderful the architectural pattern book they have produced to illustrate the kind of development (both in terms of urban planning and building styles) that they want to see in their cities. It's got so many wonderful pictures, plus really great explanations of different principles of design and styles.

Friday, January 13, 2006

National Trust President Urges New Orleans Mayor to Reconsider Controversial Rebuilding Proposal

The president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has written a letter urging New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to reconsider the city's controversial rebuilding process, specifically the proposal to make neighborhoods prove their ability to rebuild.

From the letter: “At the very least, I would urge that building permits be allowed in the city's nineteen National Register Historic Districts, which contain 38,000 historic structures. We have concluded that every single one of these historic districts can and should be rebuilt, and that the overwhelming majority of damaged structures within their boundaries can be repaired. These are the Creole cottages, shotgun houses and historic bungalows that constitute the heart and soul of New Orleans. These are the neighborhoods most important to the identity of New Orleans, and they must be allowed to lead the city's neighborhood recovery effort.”

The National Trust has initiated several programs to assist homeowners in rebuilding historic properties, including one which will enable low- and moderate- income owners of historic homes in the city to begin the process of making them livable by providing grants of up to $40,000.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Giving credit where it's due

I credit this book by Henry Glassie with seeding my fascination with historical architecture. I haven't read the book in years, but it was the one and only book that I had to read for a college class that I kept after college was over. It's packed away somewhere now, lost in the 15 years of disorganization since college, but I need to either get a new copy or find my old one soon and re-read it. (I notice that Glassie has some other books available on Amazon as well...hmm. Will have to check those out.)

What I took away from this really well-written, interesting, (but) scholarly work is that what we build, especially our common house forms, tells stories about us. And when we look at old houses, we can see into the daily lives, hopes, fears, dreams, loves, and values of the people who lived there. We can get to know people who died hundreds of years ago, when we study their houses.

For example (and this is completely off the top of my head, paraphrasing from a book I haven't read in at least 12 years), historically speaking, if you look at the homes built by European-Americans versus those built by African-Americans, basic room sizes are different. The basic room square of African-Americans was 8x8 feet, and the basic room square of European-Americans was 10x10 feet. If you had put an African-American in a 10x10 room, s/he would feel uncomfortable; ditto for a European-American in an 8x8 room. Culturally, they were acclimated to expecting a room to be a particular size, and were comfortable with that size. (This is similar to the "cultural distance" phenomena in physical interactions between people; some cultures train people to stand or sit closer together when interacting, and some farther apart, which can lead to confusing social discomfort when cultures collide.)

Now imagine what the modern American householder, proud owner of a nice suburban home with garage in front and open floorplan, will feel if you put him/her in a shotgun-style home where rooms are small, few, and connected linearly. There will be discomfort, because our cultural understanding of home and how it should work has completely changed.

I also recall discussion in the book of fenestration placement--where the windows and doors go on a house, and what that means.

All in all, really fascinating stuff, and I highly recommend it.

Controversy over rebuilding in New Orleans

Homeowners in New Orleans are angry about recommendations made by the city's recovery commission to put a four-month building moratorium on most of New Orleans and create a powerful new authority that could use eminent domain to seize homes in neighborhoods that will not be rebuilt.

The whole situation seems very difficult to me. On the one hand, the city has some very important concerns: From a civic standpoint, it's poor policy to allow rebuilding in areas where flooding during Hurricane Katrina was extreme, it's happened before, and it's likely to happen during future hurricanes; and it's poor urban planning to allow residents to trickle back into a neighborhood that may never fully repopulate, where individual houses would be left standing in a wasteland of unusable space.

On the other hand, for some residents of these neighborhoods, their houses are not just personal homes. The neighborhood itself, the fabric of community, is an important part of their lives. If their neighborhoods do not open for redevelopment, then their communities will cease to exist. And that's really a tragedy for those residents, and a tragedy for America as a whole when we struggle so continually with this question of how to make community happen. (Information about the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, one of those affected by the rebuilding plans, is here.

I wonder what kind of positive solutions could be worked out here. What if residents and businesses and churches could be moved within the city as a whole? Rebuilding neighborhoods could happen, just not in the same physical location as previously. It would take a lot more work than just paying homeowners the fair market value for their homes and letting them end up where they may, but it seems to me that community is worth the work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

400 years of American architecture

While 400 years isn’t much when compared to the antiquities of Europe, the Middle East, India, or Asia…well, heck, it’s what we’ve got so far, and it’s quite a bit longer than I’ve lived on this earth.

Here’s a recent article about archaeology at the Jamestown colony in Virginia. This is where architecture starts: a basic need for shelter, a human effort to put some kind of building up for a utilitarian purpose.

What I find particularly fascinating about the whole thing, though, is the fact that what we build reveals us–who we are, how we think, and what’s important to us.

And that’s what this blog is about.