The Stencil House, also known as the Johnson-Dillon House, is a log house featuring an elaborately stenciled interior. Built sometime after 1830, the house was originally located near Hardin Creek and Eagle Creek in rural northwestern Wayne County. To ensure its protection, concerned preservationists relocated the house in 2002 to the Ames Plantation in Fayette and Hardeman Counties. Though little is known about the house’s owner or the painter, its construction and the painted designs make the Stencil House one of the most intriguing examples of Tennessee’s vernacular architectural heritage.
The National Park Service recognized the importance of the Stencil House in the 1970s. Staff from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a program that documents America’s diverse architectural heritage, photographed the house’s exterior and interior and researched the property’s ownership. According to the HABS report, the house was likely built by John W. Nunnely, who owned the property by 1830. Over the years, the farm has passed down through several generations to include the extended families of Johnson, Dillon, and Morris.
This one-and-one-half-story log central hall plan house has an enclosed central passage between the two log rooms (or pens). While following a typical plan, the house’s sophisticated construction features make it an uncommonly well-built and conceived pioneer-era log house. For example, the sash-sawn floor joists are mortised into the sills instead of merely being laid onto them. The ceiling joists, second-floor boards, and exterior weatherboards are all fashioned with a decorative bead along one edge. The lath underneath the paneling is pegged rather than nailed on. Also, the rafters are not only half-lapped and pegged at the ridge, they are reinforced by horizontal wind braces that are half-lapped and dovetailed into them. In addition, tie logs at the top of the end walls are pegged into the top plates in order to keep them from spreading apart.
The painted designs, however, give the house its nickname. Stenciling has enjoyed popularity in America since the late eighteenth century. Historically, it provided a pleasant burst of color in otherwise drab interiors and was less expensive than the imported wallpapers it imitated. The arrangement of stencil motifs into vertical repeating sections resembles wallpaper, and the linear designs forming the frieze are reminiscent of wallpaper borders. The Stencil House follows this tradition and shares stencil motifs and colors with other documented interiors from the same period.
The Stencil House’s central hall is covered in horizontal paneling on its walls and ceiling. The upper half of the walls and the ceiling are painted white. A very faint blue dot applied consistently but randomly over the entire white surface creates a colorful background design for the stenciling. The painter used six different medallion-shaped floral designs for this room. Arranged vertically in random groupings of four, the floral designs are separated by a vertical stack of diamonds acting as a divider (an “upright”). A large repeating leaf design adorns the frieze while a smaller repeating leaf design appears directly above the chair rail. At either end of the central hall are two sets of faux painted double doors. Their golden background with dark brown marks set on a diagonal resembles tortoiseshell, a popular finish frequently imitated by artists.
A second decoratively painted room, to the left of the hall, has similar paneled walls. As in the hall, the white walls have a faint blue dot pattern applied freehand. This room contains a different selection of stenciled designs. Each wall section features, from top to bottom, a weeping willow tree, a pineapple, and a floral spray. Arranged vertically, these stencil designs are separated by an upright in a vine pattern. A prominent repeating swag and tassel design adorns the frieze while a small leaf design continues along the top of the chair rail.
Like many decorative painters of this period, the identity of the Stencil House painter remains unknown. Of the identified stencilers of this period, most were men who traveled regionally plying their trade. The Stencil House painter was obviously aware of the work of his contemporaries. The work resembles that of Moses Eaton Jr. of New Hampshire, the best-known stenciler of the early nineteenth century. Common motifs and designs are not surprising as patterns were freely shared amongst those in the profession. Other examples of stenciled interiors in Tennessee utilizing the same colors and patterns as the Stencil House suggest the possibility that the painter worked throughout the region. Additional research and the discovery of other decoratively painted interiors may shed more light on this fascinating and ingenious nineteenth-century craft.
Michael T. Gavin, “Building with Wood, Brick, and Stone: Vernacular Architecture in Tennessee, 1770-1900,” in A History of Tennessee Arts, ed. Carroll Van West (2004); Anne-Leslie Owens, “The Decorative Painting Tradition in Tennessee Interiors, 1830-1890,” M.A. thesis, Middle Tennessee State University, 1995