Vernacular Architecture

views updated

Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture is defined as the ordinary buildings and spaces constructed, shaped, or inhabited by a particular group of people. Vernacular architecture characterizes a place by giving it a specific social identity. Consequently, vernacular architecture is more than a segment of the man-made environment; it also entails an overall perception, a sense of place. Vernacular buildings and landscapes are especially important in the study of African-American history and culture, because, as a group, African Americans left very little in the way of written documentation about the intimate day-to-day features of their domestic experiences. Encoded within any artifact is its designits cultural baseas well as evidence of manufacture and useits social narrative. Vernacular architecture, while a diffuse sort of data demanding cautious interpretation, affords scholars entry into the spatial realms established by certain groups of African Americans.

The Africans brought to the United States during the seventeenth century were, contrary to dismissive prejudicial stereotypes, fully equipped with the conceptual and technological skills required to build their own houses. Forced to labor on plantations along the shores of the Chesapeake and in the Carolina low country, they responded to the need for reasonable shelter by constructing small mud-walled dwellings. Archaeological remains indicate that these houses were generally rectangular in shape, and from various written accounts one can further surmise that they had roofs covered with a thatch made from tree branches or long grasses. Looking like houses straight out of Africa, these buildings did not pose, at first, the threat to a slaveholder's sense of command that one might suppose. Similar rectangular buildings with earthen walls and thatched roofs were commonplace in the British Isles, where they were usually identified as cottages suitable for the peasant classes who performed the bulk of the agricultural labor. The African houses with clay walls were thus allowed to stand for at least a generation.

The colonial period was characterized by a syncretic encounter between African and British cultures that fostered what the Africans would likely have interpreted as an opportunity to carry out their own ideas about house and home. What remained hidden within these buildings was an African feeling for appropriate space; the dimensions of the rooms were set according to the codes that their builders carried deep within their cultural personalities. In much of West and Central Africa, houses are built with small square rooms averaging ten feet by ten feet. That these same dimensions were discovered in the earliest slave quarters, constructed with either earthen walls or hewn logs, suggests perhaps an African signature and a significant degree of cultural continuity. Where Europeans saw only a small house built by people of little consequence, the enslaved Africans saw a good house constructed according to an appropriate and familiar plan. That its rooms were the right size for their style of social interaction should be seen as a subtle, but important, means of cultural preservation.

Overt African expressions of all sorts were met with increasing hostility over the course of the eighteenth century as planters initiated thoroughgoing campaigns to "improve" their properties. Even slave quarters were upgraded as slaveholders had new houses constructed with wooden frames covered with milled boards. Mud-walled houses, however, were still encouraged by some planters both for quarters and other service buildings. Robert Carter of Virginia, for example, in 1772 asked his slave dealer to find him an artisan who "understood building mud walls an Artist, not a Common Laborer." But the appreciation of such skills was clearly on the decline by the middle of the nineteenth century. Sometime around 1850, James Couper, owner of Hopeton Plantation in Georgia, discovered that his African slave Okra had built an African hut plastered with mud and thatched with palmetto leaves. Upon learning of its existence, he had the building torn down immediately.

Nevertheless, mud continued to be used in the building of chimneys into the early twentieth century when bricks could not be obtained and when small outbuildings intended as animal shelters, particularly in the Sea Island areas of South Carolina, were still covered with a thatching of palmetto branches. While this can be seen simply as the methodology of poor people who had to make do with the materials that were easily available, African memories should not be discounted.

By 1860, 2.6 million blacks were living on plantations all across the South, and close to two-thirds of them were held on the larger estates in groups of fifty or more. Thus, the plantation was not only a familiar place in the black experience, it also provided a primary context in which a distinctive African-American identity would take place. An extensive repertoire of African-American cultural traits was nurtured in the quarters' communities where blacks lived largely in the exclusive company of one another. The testimony of former slaves who lived at such places describes their quarters as "little towns."

These were black places that were not merely left to the slaves, but were also, as repeated testimony confirms, places claimed by black people. Similar to the hidden African values found in the early slave houses was the sense of territorial imperative expressed by African Americans living on plantations. Out in the quarters, the fields, the work spaces, and in the woods at the margins of the plantation, too, some slaves reappropriated themselves. One Mississippi planter reported with a discernible measure of dismay that his slaves took pride in crops and livestock produced on his estate as theirs. With such possessive territorial gestures, slaves defined space for themselves.

In addition to distinctive expressions of music, oral literature, dance, folk art and craft, religion, and kinship that evolved within the plantation context, slave communities also developed sets of house types. While their designs most often had to be approved by the slave owners, slaves saw their various clusters of cabins as important buildings. Even when they were little more than simple, severe boxes, they were still homeplaces. The historian Leslie Howard Owens has recognized that the vigorous culture created by enslaved African Americans was contingent, in large measure, on a secure sense of place. "The Quarters," writes Owens, "sometimes partially, sometimes entirely, and often mysteriously, encompassed and breathed its own special vitality into these [social] experiences, frequently assuring that bondage did not snuff out the many-sided existence slaves created for themselves" (Owens, 1976, p. 224).

Under the watchful eyes of planters and overseers, quarters' communities were fashioned that contained a variety of housing options. All these house types were derived from the basic square room known as a "pen." A single pen could stand alone as a one-room cabin or could be combined with other pen units to form larger houses. Single- and double-pen cabins were the most frequently used, but also common was the "dogtrot cabin" (two pens with a wide passage between them). Occasionally, two-story houses were provided; these buildings were basically double-pen cabins stacked one on top of another. These houses, meant to provide shelter for four slave families, resembled a building type known as the I-house, the dwelling form used as residences by the majority of planters. Larger slave quarters were sometimes created by linking smaller cabins into a single structure; four- and six-pen barracks were built in this way. In the French areas of southern Louisiana, slaves were housed in distinctive buildings with relatively exotic features that one might expect to see in Quebec or even Normandy. During the 1820s on the larger rice plantations along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, a specialized quarters house was developed that had an asymmetrical three-room plan consisting of one narrow but deep general-purpose room that was flanked to one side by two smaller bedrooms. The loft, which could be entered by a ladder from the larger room, was intended as a sleeping area for children. Referred to as "tenement houses," dwellings of this sort were built in either single or double configurations.

By 1860 most slave housing was constructed with wooden frames that were covered with siding. Nevertheless, many were also being built with tiers of cornernotched logs, in brick and stone masonry, and, in coastal Georgia and Florida, with tabby concrete. In addition to this variety of building techniques, slave quarters, particularly those within sight of the planter's residence, might be finished in one of several fashionable styles. Touches of Grecian, Gothic, or Italianate decoration might be added to the windows, doors, and eaves. One sees in slave housing the extensive efforts by slave owners to impose their willindeed, their cultural valuesupon their human property. These persistent attempts at discipline and control resulted in the architectural assimilation of African Americans, at least with respect to building repertoire.

By the mid-nineteenth century, blacks were thoroughly familiarized with Euro-American building forms and construction techniques. Significantly, the cabins used as quarters on plantations were not exclusively plantation structures; the same buildings were used by white yeoman farmers as residences on their modest holdings. As slaves became accustomed to living in and building these houses, they transformed themselves essentially into black southerners. When some of them were able to acquire their own land after 1865, they usually chose a standard plantation building, such as the double-pen or dogtrot house, as the model for their new homes. What was different was that now they occupied both halves of the house, whereas previously a whole family had been confined to only one room. Further, they appended all manner of sheds and porches to their dwellingspersonalizing touches that expressed a sense of self-empowerment and a degree of autonomy plainly suppressed in the slave cabins that were, on the outside at least, merely unadorned boxes with roofs. On the plantation a slave quarter was an outbuilding in which property was sheltered. With the end of the plantation era, black builders transformed quarters into homes, a significant social achievement.

Throughout the nineteenth century, white and black vernacular traditions merged into a single regional entity, so that differences along racial lines were manifested more as a function of relative wealth than as a matter of design choice. One instance will serve as an example of the merger of cultures in the saga of African-American vernacular architecture. Sometime around 1910 an unknown black farmer living near Darien, Georgia, built what appeared to be nothing more than a slightly larger-than-usual single-pen house with a mud-and-stick chimney at one end. But the house was actually a miniature version of a planter's house, consisting of four rooms divided by central passageway. Black notions of appropriate form and the highbrow southern ideal had become thoroughly integrated.

There remained, however, one African-American house form that signaled an alternate tradition: the shotgun house, a building one-room wide and three or more deep, oriented with its gable end to the front, stood apart from dwellings derived from the Anglo-dominated plantation system. This house owes its origins to the free black people of New Orleans, a population shaped by a massive infusion of Haitian refugees in 1809. With the arrival that year of more than 4,000 Haitian blacks, 2,060 of them free people of color, the city developed a decided black majority. In such a context, free black citizens were almost equal in number to whites, and thus there was ample opportunity for them to exercise a greater degree of cultural autonomy than might be found in other places. When they commissioned contractors to build houses, it is not too surprising that the Haitians requested a building style familiar to them. The shotgun house had a history on the island nation of Sainte Domingue (known today as Haiti) reaching back to the early sixteenth century and had been used as a mode of housing for both slaves and free blacks. Occasionally referred to as a maison basse, or "low house," examples were built in all sections of New Orleans, but most of them were concentrated in the Creole districts downriver and north of the French quarter.

Since almost all houses that come from European-derived traditions have their doorways on the long side, the shotgun, with its primary entrance located on the narrow gable end, was an immediately distinguishable building form. It was recognizable as both different and African American, and the name "shotgun" (locally explained as deriving from the possibility of shooting a shotgun through the house without hitting anything) may derive ultimately from the African word to-gun, meaning, in the Fon language of Benin, "place of assembly." These black cultural associations had become totally obscured by the turn of the twentieth century as more and more shotguns were constructed as homes for white people. Even the name was lost when the house was relabeled a "Victorian cottage."

However, hundreds of shotgun houses are still to be found in the black sections of southern towns and cities from New Orleans to Louisville, from Jacksonville to Houston. Indeed, one of the distinctive markers of the black side of town in the South is often the presence of rows of shotgun houses. This continuity, however, seems to stem mainly from the lack of economic power among contemporary blacks. Since more thin, narrow shotgun houses can be crammed into the confines of a piece of property than other house forms with wider frontage, they are the most profitable choice for rental speculators. Lower-income black people find themselves being exploited, then, by means of an artifact that once stood out as a sign of cultural difference.

As a result of the great migration of rural southern blacks to northern cities during the first half of the twentieth century, three-fourths of the African-American population in the United States could be found in urban settings by the end of the century. Contemporary black vernacular architecture thus consists mainly of buildings occupied by black people rather than buildings that they have constructed for themselves. Like most Americans, they have become consumers of domestic structures rather than creators of them. Nevertheless, through various means, principally with flowering plants and decorative painting schemes, some blacks are able to give their otherwise bland and conformist architectural settings some distinctive flourishesoften touches reminiscent of southern experience, of life "back in the country." To some extent, this type of behavior recalls the reappropriation of space first practiced in the plantation context. This is an efficient strategy, for it allows one to make rather bold claims of ownership without actually having to invest the resources required for construction. It is a marking strategy rather than a design strategy, and one that achieves important psychological benefits while husbanding one's limited economic assets.

See also Africanisms; Migration/Population, U.S.


Borchert, James. "Alley Landscapes of Washington." Landscape 23, no. 3 (1979): 210.

Edwards, Jay D. "The Origins of Creole Architecture." Winterthur Portfolio 29, nos. 23 (1994): 155189.

Edwards, Jay D. "Vernacular Vision: The Gallery and Our Africanized Architectural Landscape." In Raised to the Trade: Creole Building Arts in New Orleans, edited by John M. Vlach. New Orleans, La.: New Orleans Museum of Art, 2003, pp. 6194.

Ferguson, Leland. Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 16501800. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Hardwick, M. Jeff. "Homestead and Bungalows: African-American Architecture in Langston, Oklahoma." In Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture VI: Shaping Communities, edited by Carter L. Hudgins and Elizabeth Collins Cromley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997, pp. 2132.

Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 17401790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Reprint, 1999.

McDaniel, George W. Hearth and Home: Preserving a People's Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Mooney, Barbara B. "The Comfortable, Tasty, Framed Cottage: The Emergence of an African-American Iconography." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 61, no. 1 (2002): 4867.

Owens, Leslie Howard. This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Upton, Dell. "White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia." Places 2, no. 2 (1985): 5268.

Vlach, John Michael. Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Vlach, John Michael. "The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy." Reprinted in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976, pp. 5878.

Vlach, John Michael. "'Us Quarters Fixed Fine:' Finding Black Builders in Southern History." Reprinted in By the Work of Their Hands: Studies in Afro-American Folklife, edited by John Michael Vlach. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985, pp. 161178.

Westmacott, Richard. African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

john michael vlach (1996)
Updated bibliography

About this article

Vernacular Architecture

Updated About content Print Article