Early Vernacular Plan Houses
An example of a hall and parlor plan house in the home of Hugh Rogan in Sumner County, known as Rogana.

Early Vernacular Plan Houses

For early houses in Tennessee, three house plans were common: the central passage plan, the hall-parlor plan, and the Penn-plan. The central passage plan, also called an I-house by cultural geographers, is a house with two rooms on either side of a passage, usually built to two stories. When the central passage house is two rooms deep, it is often called a Georgian plan. Although they are similar, scholars believe that the I-house and the Georgian-plan house developed for very different reasons that reflect social attitudes. Moreover, a great deal of experimentation in house forms occurred around 1800 to produce a large variety of house types. The result of this experimentation was a decided preference for a two-story, two-room house divided by a central passage.

Early examples of central passage houses in Tennessee date from the 1790s, but this house type did not become popular until the second quarter of the nineteenth century, when it finally began to replace the hall and parlor plan. Two-story central passage houses were often framed, but many brick and stone examples survive.

Scholars once believed the passage to be a response to the southern climate, where large central spaces running the depth of the house were built to catch cool summer breezes. This did not explain, however, the popularity of the I-house in other areas of the country. Scholars of eighteenth-century Virginia agree that the gentry introduced the passage as a means of enforcing their own notions of social hierarchy. The passage, which usually contained a staircase, served as a circulation space. It created a buffer between the public and private spaces of the interior and allowed access to rooms without having to pass through other rooms.

Central passage houses often had a wing, or ell, built perpendicularly to the main house giving the entire plan the appearance of an L or T in shape. These wings often contained kitchens and other service rooms. Scholars continue to investigate the significance of these ells, but it appears they were built in an effort to accommodate the presence of slaves as they served the household. The ell allowed the master to observe the coming and going of slaves even as he maintained a segregation and hierarchy of both space and race. Although these theories of the central passage and ell might apply to some regions of the South, scholars have yet to systematically study this house type in Tennessee, especially in East Tennessee where fewer slaves were held.

Some scholars have identified minor aesthetic developments with the appearance of the central passage in Tennessee. For example, the central passage house usually has the placement of the chimney on the outside of the gable wall in houses built of brick or stone. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, chimneys were placed inside the gable walls of brick and stone houses, creating recesses that received closets or stairs. As early as 1797, however, some builders preferred exterior chimneys. In general, the central passage house is associated with newfound wealth based on a growing antebellum economy and a desire on the owner’s part to present a facade to the world that announced his success and place in society.

“Hall and parlor” is the modern term architectural historians use to describe a house that was one room deep and two rooms wide. The plan derives from medieval Welsh and English types and was common in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia. Settlers moving down the Shenandoah Valley and into the Tennessee Valley brought this house type with them and reproduced it with a few variations in frame, brick, stone, and even log construction. The hall was the larger of the two rooms and was the center of household activity. It always had a fireplace in the gable end, and it provided a circulation space for sitting and eating. Often the head of household slept in the hall. A stair, usually enclosed and often located in one of the corners next to the fireplace, gave access to a loft used for sleeping. A partition often divided the loft into two sleeping areas corresponding to the hall and chamber below. The parlor, or chamber as it was more often called in the eighteenth-century South, was more private and used primarily for sleeping. The parlor often had a fireplace and door to the outside on the gable end.

In Virginia, the hall-and-parlor plan generally gave way to the central passage plan during the late eighteenth century, and scholars agree that the introduction of this central passage signaled the desire of Virginians to regulate more closely visitors’ access to their domestic spaces. In Tennessee, however, the hall-parlor plan was remarkably persistent through time, and surviving examples of it date from as late as the 1820s. During the eighteenth century the facade of the hall-parlor plan was expressed as three asymmetrical bays in a window-door-window arrangement. As early as 1797 John Hays at Antioch arranged the three bays of his substantial brick house symmetrically, giving the illusion that the interior had a central passage. The symmetrical fenestration on Hays’s hall and parlor house might be an attempt to present a fashionable face to the neighbors. Should those neighbors have visited Hays, however, they would have entered directly into his domestic living space. Hays’s juxtaposition of a symmetrical facade and traditional, asymmetrical room arrangement shows how the house embodied Hays’s notions of his place in Middle Tennessee society. Clearly Hays sought to portray himself as a fashionable and even discriminating man of taste. His ideas of spatial hierarchy, however, differed little from those of his neighbors, many of whom probably built log houses of the same type.

The Penn-plan is another example of house types represented in Tennessee’s architectural history. The plan is named for the room arrangement that William Penn recommended to Quaker immigrants to Pennsylvania in 1670. Penn’s explicit instruction for a house thirty feet long and eighteen feet wide, partitioned near the middle and at the end of the house, describes a number of houses still extant in East Tennessee, though historians have not found conclusive documentary evidence linking this house type to Penn’s ideal. Nevertheless, the Penn-plan is well represented among the many types that settlers brought with them in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Penn-plan is a variation on the hall-and-parlor plan in which the smaller of the two rooms is divided by a partition parallel to the long wall. The two smaller rooms normally share a chimney and have fireplaces set diagonally in the corner of each room. Most surviving examples of the Penn-plan are two stories accessed by stairs located next to the fireplace in the corner of the hall. The house is usually built of stone and banked into a hill so that one of the long facades is three stories. Eighteenth-century examples of the Penn-plan have kitchens located in the basement, a practice common in Pennsylvania, where the plan originated.

The earliest house of this type found thus far is the stone house Thomas Embree built south of Jonesborough ca. 1790. As late as 1830, however, Aaron Hoffman built a frame Penn-plan house near present-day Kingsport. These later examples of the Penn-plan show a preference for removing the kitchen from the house proper, building it perpendicular to the rear and connecting it to the house by an open passage. This segregation of service areas follows the trend of most southern builders, who sought to define more clearly the spatial limits of white and black members in their households and might indicate that Hoffman held slaves. Historians need to study further the development and demise of the Penn-plan to determine its ultimate significance within the social landscape of Tennessee.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Early Vernacular Plan Houses
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 18, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018