Americans in the early national period used vernacular architecture—everyday structures such as houses, barns, and stores—to implement fundamental changes in everyday life. Economic recovery in the late 1790s initiated a building boom that would substantially transform America's built environment and would begin to realize, however incompletely, an emergent national identity. Increasing specialization, standardization, and the myth of efficiency would characterize the architecture of vernacular landscapes in this new national identity even as persistent regional and ethnic identities preserved local distinctions.
The houses of Americans in the early nation were characterized by more complex floor plans than previously, plans that bespoke specialized room function and the separation of spheres—public from private, entertainment from work. By the later eighteenth century, many elite English Americans occupied houses with a central passage flanked by equally sized chambers. The passage acted as a social buffer protecting the best chambers of the house from direct entry by social inferiors. Also by the end of the century, one of the best chambers was dedicated entirely to the social ritual of dining, a conspicuous consumption unavailable to the majority of Americans who occupied much smaller one- or two-room houses. During the housing revolution of the early nineteenth century, however, a greater percentage of Americans availed themselves of well-built houses, often with central passages and dedicated room use, or at the very least the separation of cooking from living spaces. The common nineteenth-century solution of an ell—a one or two story wing typically extending from the rear of the house—mediated the often-conflicting desires to dedicate entire rooms—dining rooms and parlors—near the front to polite social exchange and the increasing concern for efficiency in household industries and, in rural instances, farm management. By the 1820s, the rear ell became the bridge from the polite house to the industrial sphere of the rear work yard or the agricultural sphere of the farm.
The increasing specialization associated with the house was also realized on the larger scale of the farm. One or more small barns, an array of subsidiary structures, fences protecting gardens from free-roaming livestock, and fields unbounded by visual markers characterized the mid-eighteenth-century farm. Responding to the rhetoric of agricultural reform and improvement, early national farms were—to twenty-first-century eyes—more orderly and highly articulated, with fences separating fields of differing crops from pastures and larger multifunctional barns. The Pennsylvania bank barn, which either exploited a natural grade or included an earthen ramp to allow convenient and direct access to two levels, allowed multiple specialized functions all under a single roof and became increasingly widespread in the mid-Atlantic over the nineteenth century. The lower level was usually a stable that opened into an enclosed yard, while the upper level included a threshing floor and hay mows. The second level often reached beyond the lower to provide shelter to livestock in inclement weather. Mirroring changes in the farmhouse and the farmscape at large, the barn became a center of compartmentalized efficiency. On southern plantations, another reform took place as earthen-floored slave cabins of log or more traditionally African materials, including mudwalled houses, were replaced by raised and floored cottages employing English-derived timber-framing methods and aligned in orderly rows and streets.
competitive efficiency and the city
The city also underwent a reconstitution in the early national period. The expanding grid of the city, for example, promised unfettered circulation. While eighteenth-century shops often claimed only the street-front rooms of merchant's houses, the early-nineteenth-century store had entire floors displaying goods. Furthermore, merchandise filled bay windows and spilled onto the sidewalks. The rational system of the urban grid was also realized in the increasing numbers of larger, institutional buildings—prisons and hospitals—employing rows of identical cells or rooms. The city hotel—grand, economically exclusive, and offering abundant private rooms—began in the 1790s to replace the common tavern with its undifferentiated common rooms and shared sleeping chambers. The enticing myth of efficiency would characterize not just these buildings' forms, but their production as well. The invention of the nail-cutting machine in the 1790s, the brick-pressing machine in the 1810s, and the increasing standardization of timber scantling meant that early-nineteenth-century building materials were mass produced, stockpiled, and delivered to building sites in unprecedented quantities. The slimming of essential framing members and the increasing use of nails instead of time-consuming joinery realized efficiency in both labor and materials.
ethnicity and complexity
But even in the midst of such sweeping changes, America's rich cultural diversity tempered pressures toward uniformity. Colonial English, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, Spanish, Africans, and others left complex architectural legacies that imprinted the American landscape. Germanic immigrants, for example, often constructed a Flurküchenhaus, a two-room log or stone house with a stube (stove room, the main chamber) only accessible through a side kuche (kitchen). Variants usually included a kammer (private chamber) behind the stube. The facade of the typical German house, therefore, was typically asymmetrical, with a principle entry door into the küche hugging one edge and an off-center chimney stack. But beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing well into the next, German Americans
began to abandon external signs of their ethnicity and construct houses that more closely approximated the Georgian architectural vocabulary of their elite English counterparts, including symmetrical facades with centrally located doors, end-wall fireplaces, and brick construction. Patterns of German American house planning, by contrast, persisted through the nineteenth century. While acculturation did not mean the eradication of German identity, it did mean that early-nineteenth-century German Americans believed these new house forms negotiated the changing cultural and political context of the new nation more successfully than those forms derived from the Old World.
But cultural exchange in the new nation was not always a migration towards an English-Georgian architectural ideal. Early-nineteenth-century Americans in the coastal regions of the American South from North Carolina through Louisiana constructed one-story houses on a raised basement. These houses had two or three central chambers and multiple exterior doors and were enclosed on one, two, or all sides by galleries. This creolized house type and its many variants probably derived from the Spanish and French Antilles, where an English-Georgian architectural vocabulary held little sway. While widespread Georgianization was certainly a critical factor shaping the domestic architecture of the early national period, regional identities often enjoyed the upper hand in determining the ways broad national forces impacted architectural form. Place by place, America's early-nineteenth-century vernacular architecture spoke to extraordinary changes in everyday life, changes that moved privacy, improvement, and systematic efficiency—however slowly and incompletely—to the center of an emergent national identity.
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Louis P. Nelson