Southern vernacular housing

On a recent trip to rural Virginia, I was particularly struck by the beautiful simplicity of a few of the typical vernacular housing types. I am not talking about the Georgian-red-brick-with-white-trim nor the more contemporary vernacular of manufactured housing. The simple, white-painted wood framed and sided houses of rural Virginia are so simple and straight-forward that they end up being a bold, clear statement in the lush green landscape.

What I saw consisted largely of two types: two-story, single-room deep houses with or without porches and gable-broken front eaves; and, one-story, four room hip roofed houses with integral porches. Both demonstrate the best aspects of vernacular housing – a continuity of building type and building and material technology, and environmental responsiveness.

It is hot and humid in rural Virginia. In the pre-air conditioned South, establishing and maintaining cross ventilation was paramount. The two-story, flat front houses are usually one-room deep allowing for each room to have front and back windows. A central stair and hall is commonly found running right down the middle of the building maximizing the amount of usable space vs. circulation. Most of these houses sport some amount of front porch, shading lower windows as well as providing for an exterior room to escape the heat of the house.

There are two variants of this type: the flat-front and the gable-front. The flat front houses are as simple as they come, most likely balloon-framed right up to the eave, windows stacked over windows. The gable-fronted versions have a small sense of grandeur lent by the partial gable that marks the center of the house and the location of the front door. This is technically a gable, but as it does not serve an attic space nor even a sloping ceiling in the central stair hall, it is really more of a sign of entry and mark of house-proud.

The other common housing type is the hip-roofed, single-story house that completely encompasses a porch under the form of the hip roof. The porch here is not an after-thought but a real extension of the space of the house to create an outdoor room. Again, this shelters front-facing windows from the sun, provides a shady, outdoor room and establishes a site of social interaction. These houses will sometimes have a kind of low-ceilinged second floor, but most often that little front dormer is used to pull the heat of the house up into the roof and out.

Both of these housing types are of course white – the cheapest paint available but also the best at reflecting the heat of the sun. Except for clearly defined porches, they do not have large overhangs to shade windows. This lack of deep eaves may be a response to the lack of available electric lighting at the period of construction. Deep overhangs protect from direct sunlight but also create deeply shadowed interiors, that along with Southern dampness, would make for long, dank winter days.

I love these houses. They are so simple and frank. They stand up from the landscape, not afraid of being a house, a mark of occupation and maybe even civilization. They are not at all ranches – they don’t ramble or flap large wings, they don’t shirk away from their “house-ness”. And of course like all vernacular buildings, they are not trying too hard for your attention. They are a part of their culture, their society. They are not screaming for recognition or uniqueness or even their owner’s desires. First and foremost, they are of a place.

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main street vs. walmart

In small rural towns all over the United States, there are a lot of empty storefronts. These great little main streets have a wealth of simple, pedestrian-scaled buildings that, if not already empty, are small, locally-owned family businesses barely hanging on. Where has the hardware store gone? How about the pharmacy, little dry-goods store, bank, optician, deli, coffee shop, gun shop, and green grocer?

If they are at all like Farmville, Virginia, and in my experience many of them are, they are located in one, massive building, about the same size and length, out by the bypass – Walmart. There’s plenty of parking, the prices are cheap, and it’s air-conditioned. And it may be the death of small town America.

In a recent week spent in Farmville, I went up and down Main Street, into the fine Walker’s Diner and some local shops and also out to the Walmart (the only place to left to buy a fishing rod). The interactions between customers and owner/employees at the local shops was significantly more meaningful and humane than anything I witnessed at the big box store. I know I am beating a dead horse, and that almost everyone decries this loss of the local, small-scale businesses, but it is quite a different thing to see and feel it on the ground than to read it in the news or hear about it anecdotally.

I have spent a fair amount of time in my career as an architect, working within, writing and administering building guidelines meant to bolster and restore once vibrant small retail downtowns. Committees, boards, architects, owners, and citizens fret over the size of storefront windows and sign bands whenever a new addition to a cherished old-timey Main Street is proposed. My advice to myself and to the rest: just look at the storefronts of Farmville, almost perfect in the scale and variety, warmth and details. And almost all in jeopardy.

white church | red church

We recently spent some time in south central Virginia, amid the sultry heat and humidity and the simple, often beautiful architecture of the rural South.  Amidst all the famous and historical Georgian style houses and institutional buildings, what struck me the most was the apparent material and formal typologies of the local churches.  Although certainly not all religious buildings follow these patterns, the vast majority of rural churches were firmly in either the all-red-brick or all-white camps. I will admit to not being familiar with either the fine distinctions among different Baptist dominations nor the history of white and African-American churches, but the temptation is to think that the material selection is driven more by economics than anything else. Looking closely at the form of these buildings it appears that these buildings are slow accumulations over time – a simple, gabled worship hall extended by the addition of later front porches and narthex and in some cases, brick cladding. Throughout this part of Virginia, the typical Georgian brick with white trim is the most revered, the style and materials of Jefferson’s Monticello, James River plantations and grand country houses.  The simple, white vernacular buildings are of a later date, post Civil War, and reflect maybe lesser economic means but also a much more sophisticated response to a hot, sunny, humid climate. What is most interesting may be that although there is a strong contrast of materials used in these buildings, the basic form of a gabled front with a gabled porch is identical. Whether on a busy road or deeply tucked into heavy, thick woods, the axial entry and center aisle seems to never vary. And I wouldn’t bother trying to open up a paint store here, maybe just a warehouse of 5-gal tubs of white paint would suffice.

white church | red church

We recently spent some time in south central Virginia, amid the sultry heat and humidity and the simple, often beautiful architecture of the rural South.  Amidst all the famous and historical Georgian style houses and institutional buildings, what struck me the most was the apparent material and formal typologies of the local churches.  Although certainly not all religious buildings follow these patterns, the vast majority of rural churches were firmly in either the all-red-brick or all-white camps. I will admit to not being familiar with either the fine distinctions among different Baptist dominations nor the history of white and African-American churches, but the temptation is to think that the material selection is driven more by economics than anything else. Looking closely at the form of these buildings it appears that these buildings are slow accumulations over time – a simple, gabled worship hall extended by the addition of later front porches and narthex and in some cases, brick cladding. Throughout this part of Virginia, the typical Georgian brick with white trim is the most revered, the style and materials of Jefferson’s Monticello, James River plantations and grand country houses.  The simple, white vernacular buildings are of a later date, post Civil War, and reflect maybe lesser economic means but also a much more sophisticated response to a hot, sunny, humid climate. What is most interesting may be that although there is a strong contrast of materials used in these buildings, the basic form of a gabled front with a gabled porch is identical. Whether on a busy road or deeply tucked into heavy, thick woods, the axial entry and center aisle seems to never vary. And I wouldn’t bother trying to open up a paint store here, maybe just a warehouse of 5-gal tubs of white paint would suffice.