Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. American Architectural Geography: Part II, Form

 

One popular way to approach American architecture is to distinguish between form and style. Form, the thinking goes, involves the large-scale arrangement of elements within a building, whereas style is inherent in applied ornamentation. The placement and sizing of rooms, the positioning of door and window openings, the divisions of a structure’s facade — all these are elements of form. Of course, form can be related to style, as in the case of hip-roofed Italianate buildings designed to resemble the country houses of northern Italy, but the connection isn’t an absolute one. For readers’ sake, I’ll assume that the dichotomy makes sense, and I’ll devote most of this piece to the subject of form. The conversation on style will have to wait for another day.

. . .

Suppose I asked you to sketch the floor plan of a house. Not any house in particular; just a house. You might draw a garage. You might connect the garage to a kitchen and a laundry room. You might label one of the rooms “great room,” and you might envision its twenty-foot ceiling and equally tall (and uncleanable) windows. It probably wouldn’t occur to you to separate the garage from the house entirely, and it certainly wouldn’t occur to you to place the kitchen on the second floor and the bedrooms on the first. Out of the infinite number of possible room arrangements, you’d probably choose a well-worn one. In other words, you’d make assumptions about the way your would-be home ought to be laid out. You’d default to what you know. People in the past made similar assumptions, and they, too, often defaulted to what they knew. This, I think, can account for the persistent (though not inevitable) formal differences between regional building traditions in the United States.

So, just what are those regional differences? I wish I could gather them into a nice, neat list, but life is never so simple. I’ll settle for a few generalizations, and then I’ll give some examples of common forms used in American residential architecture before World War I.

First, a few meta-differences. People in various parts of the country seemed to have varied ideas about form and proportion. To the trained eye, the architectural tradition in the Upper South, for example, has a definite je ne sais quoi, as does the New England one, and so on. One has the sense that builders in the Upper South, states like Kentucky and Tennessee, constructed their residences from components of standard size and shape.** Accordingly, it’s often easy to divine interior room arrangements from exterior appearances. Things tend to be more complicated, though, in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. Germans and Quakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere had a habit of shoehorning unpredictable assortments of rooms into their creations, as did some New Englanders.

Two houses of similar age and style—left, the circa-1836 Queen House in Bardstown, Kentucky; right, the 1828 Knott House in rural Greene County, Ohio. The Queen House’s plan is eminently predictable (though I left out many details); the Knott House’s . . . well, good luck getting that from the exterior. (To create the floor plan, I consulted photos from a real-estate listing.)

Time also matters. Before the Civil War, houses tended to be formally simple based fundamentally on the rectangle, maybe with an ell or wing appended. But the mid-century picturesque movements introduced asymmetry and irregularity as ideals,* and improved building technology made more complex plans feasible for more people. Soon, Americans, especially Americans living west of the former colonies, started diverging from the traditions of their forebears. Jutting bays and oriels of all shapes and sizes started sprouting from walls, and the trusty rectangle disintegrated into a multitude of impossible-to-describe shapes. Many houses, and especially urban houses, of the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s made use of what I like to call “foyer” plans — irregular clusters of rooms spiraling out from a foyer or stair hall, itself often placed at the front corner. (One good, though humble, an example is Ronald Reagan’s childhood home in Dixon, Illinois.) In the twentieth century, plans became even more complicated even as exteriors re-simplified. Take a look at a Sears kit-home catalog from the 1920s, and you’ll notice the breakdown of almost all predictability in space planning. Still, traditional plans persisted. In the 1910s, people in parts of rural Virginia were building things that looked as if they might date from the 1850s or 1860s. Older forms also made occasional resurgences under the guise of revivalism, though rarely were revivalist buildings academic enough to be indistinguishable from their sources of inspiration.

. . .

In colonial America, most housing was modest and impermanent. A typical residence might consist of a single room topped by a sleeping loft. In areas inhabited by English settlers, more complex dwellings used arrangements like the hall-and-parlor plan (two rooms, often unequal in size, placed side-by-side) or the central-chimney plan common in New England, where the cold climate necessitated an internal source of warmth. By the eighteenth century, among the elite, “open” plans based around formal stair passages and hallways had started to replace earlier “closed” plans, in which rooms led directly into other rooms. As neoclassical influences seeped in from mainland England, the so-called Georgian plan, four rooms arranged around a central passage or hallway, became the gold standard for home design. The full Georgian plan was especially popular in the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and parts of the coastal South, whereas people in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Scots-Irish-settled areas of southwestern Pennsylvania often lopped off the rear chambers, instead of placing two rooms on either side of a central passage. In general, builders in these parts of the country preferred linear plans, multiple rooms wide, but only one room in-depth, though Pennsylvania’s Scots-Irish had the odd habit of Georgianizing their houses as they moved westward. But that’s a tangent, so never mind. Universally popular, especially in dense urban neighborhoods, were side-passage plans, which featured either one or two rooms placed on one side of a stair passage.

Clockwise from top left: a hall-and-parlor-plan stone cottage in Kentucky (with a later log addition); a Georgian-plan tavern along the old National Road in Lafayette, Ohio; a one-room-deep central-passage house in Morrow, Ohio; two side-passage houses in Gratz Park, an affluent Lexington, Kentucky neighborhood.

As New Englanders moved into upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania, they developed what might have been the most persistent of the nineteenth-century residential building types, characterized by its use of intersecting perpendicular wings. In its typical incarnation, this plan features a front-gabled section and a wing jutting from one side. The resulting house usually has a T- or L-shaped footprint. But, sometimes, two wings project from the front-gabled block, giving the building a cross-shaped plan. After the Civil War, pattern books and architectural periodicals picked up versions of these plans, and they became nationally popular, though especially in the Upper Midwest. At the same time, the more irregular forms I’ve discussed elsewhere gained a foothold. All the while, older and simpler plans held on, particularly in poorer parts of the country.

Four variations of the form described above. Clockwise from top left: a Gothic-inflected farmhouse in Pickaway County, Ohio; a circa-1845 Greek Revival dwelling in Jonesville, Michigan (Hillsdale’s sister city); a circa-1890 house in Richland County, Ohio; and an Italianate farmhouse in Huron County, Ohio. Note the stylistic diversity.

Of course, the story is more complicated than this. (I could go on about two-story porches and three-part Palladian plans, but I’ll spare you those details.) Germans in southeastern Pennsylvania had their own idiosyncratic building tradition, and so did the Dutch in New York. Nineteenth-century foreign immigration from Germany and Scandinavia brought new plans and forms into the United States. As populations moved westward, they carried their architectural norms with them, but they also abandoned those norms to varying degrees. As time passed, and as populations mingled, ethnic and regional architectural traditions lost their distinctiveness. Pay a visit to an antebellum city in Ohio or Indiana, and the connections to earlier east-coast building traditions are obvious. But try to divine the ethnic or regional identity of an Iowa town’s settlers from their architecture, and you’ll risk failure.

In any case, I’ve rambled quite enough. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You might just be a masochist.

* Irregularity and asymmetry have always been part of architecture. But they weren’t explicitly aestheticized until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when English philosophers began developing a theory of the picturesque. Before then, irregularity was associated with folk architecture, whereas professional architecture tended to follow the neoclassical ideals of symmetry and order.

** In the 1970s, a group of folklorists and historians, inspired by structuralism and Chomsky’s work on linguistics, even tried to develop quasi-mathematical formulas to describe the ways builders in particular parts of the country designed their homes. A good example of this kind of study is Henry Glassie’s Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, which contains sentences like, “[T]he ability to design the Georgian type 17 . . . required the addition of only rules I.C.2b and c; III.C.1c.1, C.2a.1, D.1e.1b, D.1f, and D.2a; IV; V; and VIII.B.2b.” Riveting! What does it mean? Don’t ask me! Glassie may have overdone things, but he has a point: By virtue of their practical training — and by virtue of the fact that carpentry involves mathematics — builders tended to follow certain geometric rules, and these rules varied over time and from place to place.

Published in History
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 21 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    Also, the octagon!

    • #1
    • August 3, 2020, at 7:12 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Also, the octagon!

    There is one close to here in either Washington or Shelby Twp., Michigan.

    • #2
    • August 3, 2020, at 7:37 AM PDT
    • Like
  3. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Also, the octagon!

    There is one close to here in either Washington or Shelby Twp., Michigan.

    Is this it?

    Russell Kirk grew up near an octagon-shaped house (since demolished, alas), and he talks about it in A Program for Conservatives:

    When I was a very small boy, I used to lie under an oak on the hillside above the mill-pond, in the town where I was born, and look beyond the great willows in the hollow to a curious and handsome house that stood on the opposite slope, away back from the road, with three or four graceful pines pointing the way to it. This was an octagonal house, its roof crowned with a glass dome — a dignified building, for all its oddity. Well, the county planners have chopped down the willows and converted the land round about the old mill-pond into what the professional traffic-engineers and town-planners think a ‘recreational area’ should look like: a dull sheet of water with some dwarf evergreens to set it off. And the octagon-house was bought by a man with more money than he knew how to spend, who knocked the house down . . . and built upon its site a silly ‘ranch-type’ dwelling vaguely imitated from Californian styles. As Thoreau used to buy all the farms round Walden Pond in his fancy, so I had made myself, often enough, proprietor of the octagon-house in my mind’s eye. But I do not care to look upon the spot now. The old genius is departed out of the town and the country about it. We do our best to assimilate every community that retains something of its peculiar character to the proletarian cosmopolis of modern mass-society.

    • #3
    • August 3, 2020, at 7:51 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  4. Arahant Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):
    Is this it?

    Yep.

    • #4
    • August 3, 2020, at 8:05 AM PDT
    • Like
  5. Arahant Member

    Kephalithos: Suppose I asked you to sketch the floor plan of a house. Not any house in particular; just a house.

    Getting back to this, my first inclination would be to ask a lot of questions. I have been a data modeler and process modeler, and being a good architect is similar. One has to understand how the building will be used. One can offer design patterns as suggestions for the unsure client, but in the end, it gets tailored.

    Kephalithos: It probably wouldn’t occur to you to separate the garage from the house entirely, and it certainly wouldn’t occur to you to place the kitchen on the second floor and the bedrooms on the first.

    Well, no, if it’s the plan for my own house, the library is on the first floor. The kitchen and dining room are on the eleventh or twelfth. I haven’t decided. My office is on the fourteenth floor, or at least it is numbered as such, but really, it’s the thirteenth. It’s a quarter of the size of the other floors and has a terrace as the rest of the area of the twelfth floor below. Did I mention this is a twelve-sided tower?

    • #5
    • August 3, 2020, at 8:13 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My area was settled by Germans, so houses often took the Germanic style of exposed cross-timbers until about the 1990s. But in recent decades individual home design has given way to cookie-cutter subdivisions and, increasingly, apartments. They don’t even keep the trees anymore. Homes built in the 1970s and 80s vary much more. 

    Here are some pictures of my great (x2) aunt’s house in Newberry, South Carolina which has since been destroyed. I only visited once. At that age, we kids thought the best thing about it was the McDonald’s nextdoor. 

     

    • #6
    • August 3, 2020, at 8:21 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  7. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    My area was settled by Germans, so houses often took the Germanic style of exposed cross-timbers until about the 1990s. But in recent decades individual home design has given way to cookie-cutter subdivisions and, increasingly, apartments. They don’t even keep the trees anymore. Homes built in the 1970s and 80s vary much more.

    Here are some pictures of my great (x2) aunt’s house in Newberry, South Carolina which has since been destroyed. I only visited once. At that age, we kids thought the best thing about it was the McDonald’s nextdoor.

    That’s quite a house. Such a pity it’s gone to that great city in the sky!

    • #7
    • August 3, 2020, at 8:58 AM PDT
    • Like
  8. Old Buckeye Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Also, the octagon!

    Keph, you must know about the octagon on 224 in between Tiffin and Findlay (if it’s not on 224, then it’s on 12 in between Findlay and Fostoria–I traveled those two routes so often, they’re one and the same in my memory). It may be gone by now.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    • #8
    • August 3, 2020, at 10:29 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    Old Buckeye (View Comment):

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Also, the octagon!

    Keph, you must know about the octagon on 224 in between Tiffin and Findlay (if it’s not on 224, then it’s on 12 in between Findlay and Fostoria–I traveled those two routes so often, they’re one and the same in my memory). It may be gone by now.

    I’m familiar with the one in Tiffin. There used to be another on a rural road southwest of Tiffin, but it’s been gone for more than a decade.

    Seneca County is an architectural jewel, by the way.

    • #9
    • August 3, 2020, at 10:39 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Arahant Member

    Old Buckeye (View Comment):
    Keph, you must know about the octagon on 224 in between Tiffin and Findlay (if it’s not on 224, then it’s on 12 in between Findlay and Fostoria–I traveled those two routes so often, they’re one and the same in my memory). It may be gone by now.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Octagon_(Heidelberg_University)

    • #10
    • August 3, 2020, at 10:47 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. Old Buckeye Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Old Buckeye (View Comment):

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Also, the octagon!

    Keph, you must know about the octagon on 224 in between Tiffin and Findlay (if it’s not on 224, then it’s on 12 in between Findlay and Fostoria–I traveled those two routes so often, they’re one and the same in my memory). It may be gone by now.

    I’m familiar with the one in Tiffin. There used to be another on a rural road southwest of Tiffin, but it’s been gone for more than a decade.

    Seneca County is an architectural jewel, by the way.

    This one sat all by itself out on the highway. Like I said, maybe gone by now. It’s got to be at least 25 years since I’ve driven that route.

    • #11
    • August 3, 2020, at 10:47 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Arahant Member

    And more generally, a list.

    • #12
    • August 3, 2020, at 10:52 AM PDT
    • Like
  13. Old Buckeye Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    And more generally, a list.

    The one I’m talking about isn’t on there and I can’t find it online either. Musta’ been pretty insignificant. 

    • #13
    • August 3, 2020, at 11:14 AM PDT
    • Like
  14. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    I have found a lot of worthwhile information in Virvinia and Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses. It is comprehensive and still in print. My 1984 edition is well used, and it apparently has been updated but I have not seen the 2015 edition. It has a nice section on Octagon houses.

    Old House Journal used to have a feature called Remuddling, where they attempted to discern the original house after a sometimes-catastrophic remodel. Eventually they ran out of remuddles to feature.

    Perhaps the most unique house I stumbled across is the Stickney House in Bull Valley, Illinois. It was built by George Stickney, a farmer and merchant who is considered the first white settler in McHenry County. An Italianate style home built using unique Wisconsin “Cream City” brick, it has a large footprint, measuring 38′ x 38′, and was built over a period of seven years.

    The distinguishing feature of the home is a function of the Stickney’s interest in Spiritualism. George and Sylvia Stickney’s home has no interior corners. Even the front door was curved. The second floor contained a full-length Ballroom where the Stickney’s would host seances. The link above has an original floor plan. The house is still standing and is being used partly as the Bull Valley police department. There is also a foundation trying to restore the house.

    Here are some pictures I took and one that shows the original porches.

    The original front door itself was curved as well. The current door is not original.

    (Edited to add pictures.)

    • #14
    • August 3, 2020, at 11:18 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  15. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment): Perhaps the most unique house I stumbled across is the Stickney House in Bull Valley, Illinois. It was built by George Stickney, a farmer and merchant who is considered the first white settler in McHenry County. An Italianate style home built using unique Wisconsin “Cream City” brick, it has a large footprint, measuring 38′ x 38′, and was built over a period of seven years.

    Oddly enough, I know this house. And you’re right; it’s one of the most unique houses . . . anywhere, really.

    The cream-colored brick used in the Milwaukee area makes for beautiful buildings — especially when combined with Italianate ornamentation.

    • #15
    • August 3, 2020, at 12:04 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    Old Buckeye (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    And more generally, a list.

    The one I’m talking about isn’t on there and I can’t find it online either. Musta’ been pretty insignificant.

    Hmm. This is a mystery. The most accurate list is Kline and Puerzer’s Octagon House Inventory, but nothing on it matches your description. (It’s not complete: I know of at least one house not included.) I also opened some old aerial photos (from the 1950s and 1970s) and scanned 224 and 12 between Tiffin, Findlay, and Fostoria, but I didn’t see anything octagon-shaped.

    • #16
    • August 3, 2020, at 12:17 PM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.
  17. David Carroll Thatcher
    David CarrollJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Also, the octagon!

    I am happy to say that I helped save the octagon house in Circleville, Ohio.

    • #17
    • August 3, 2020, at 2:05 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  18. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Also, the octagon!

    I am happy to say that I helped save the octagon house in Circleville, Ohio.

    And thanks for that!

    • #18
    • August 3, 2020, at 3:40 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. The Reticulator Member

    The internet was kinda boring tonight until I came across this article.

    Regarding those T or L shaped houses, where a main rectangle had a smaller rectangle join it at right angles, the main rectangle was often built with tight-grained, old growth timber, maybe pine in central MN and oak + pine in my part of Michigan. The second rectangle was added later, and by that time the original old-growth timber was used up, and second-growth timber might be used, perhaps shipped in from somewhere. The old-growth timber was much more resistant to rot. The result was that a hundred years later, the add-on wing of the house might have more trouble maintaining its form than the original rectangle. I’ve owned two old houses that followed that pattern, one in MN and one here in Michigan.

    • #19
    • August 4, 2020, at 9:11 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  20. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    The Reticulator (View Comment): Regarding those T or L shaped houses, where a main rectangle had a smaller rectangle join it at right angles, the main rectangle was often built with tight-grained, old growth timber, maybe pine in central MN and oak + pine in my part of Michigan. The second rectangle was added later, and by that time the original old-growth timber was used up, and second-growth timber might be used, perhaps shipped in from somewhere. The old-growth timber was much more resistant to rot. The result was that a hundred years later, the add-on wing of the house might have more trouble maintaining its form than the original rectangle. I’ve owned two old houses that followed that pattern, one in MN and one here in Michigan.

    That’s interesting, and it raises an important question: To what extent were additions (or what seem to us like additions) planned during original construction. I have the feeling, after looking at tons of old houses, that owners often built with the knowledge that they’d made certain future changes. But, of course, it’s hard to confirm this, since I can’t exactly ask them, can I?

    • #20
    • August 5, 2020, at 4:55 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. The Reticulator Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):
    That’s interesting, and it raises an important question: To what extent were additions (or what seem to us like additions) planned during original construction. I have the feeling, after looking at tons of old houses, that owners often built with the knowledge that they’d made certain future changes. But, of course, it’s hard to confirm this, since I can’t exactly ask them, can I?

    I’ve wondered that, too, and have wondered just how much time separated the addition of the 2nd wing of these houses. It wasn’t always just the obtainable timber that changed. Sometimes there is evidence of that construction practices had changed by the time of the 2nd wing. But I sometimes have trouble imagining just how our house could possibly have worked without that second wing. Think stairs to nowhere.

    • #21
    • August 5, 2020, at 6:14 AM PDT
    • 1 like