Vernacular Domestic Architecture

The majority of Tennessee residences were neither designed nor built by architects or master craftsmen. Nor were they designed with one particular architectural style in mind. They do, however, fall under the rubric of “vernacular architecture.” This term is used broadly to describe housing forms that include true or folk vernacular houses, houses that imitate academic styles, and houses produced by industrialization and cultural standardization. For example, the elaborate or “high style” designs of the early Victorian era required skilled artisans to complete ornamentation in brick or stone. As a result, only the wealthy could afford to hire architects, builders, and craftsmen to complete these houses. However, the emerging middle class could rely on designs shown in the popular press, magazines, or plan books. Instead of handcrafted elements, their houses were constructed using stamped metal or cast plaster molds. By the early twentieth century, the standardization of lumber size, the availability of catalogues of standard millwork, and the publication of house plan books made the vernacular interpretations of conventional academic styles easier.

In addition to the use of design elements that mimicked academic styles, vernacular house styles adapted to such regional variations as the local landscape, available building materials, and the skills of local craftsmen or builders. This type of domestic architecture also includes houses found in locally produced plan books, pre-cut houses from mail-order catalogues, and houses built for planned communities and company towns. Vernacular houses may also be houses constructed as speculative buildings in streetcar suburbs and suburban areas of the major cities.

The description of vernacular types generally focuses on the exterior form of the house, although the original form may have undergone change, particularly on the rear elevation. The number of stories, the style of roof, and roof orientation are primary features used to define the forms. Exterior materials and construction methods are sometimes used to help define a vernacular form.

Two important floor plans dominate Tennessee vernacular architecture: the hall and parlor plan and the central hall plan. One of the earliest floor plans for Tennessee houses is the hall and parlor plan and its variant, the three-room plan, sometimes called the Penn plan. Generally found on most extant eighteenth-century houses and early nineteenth-century houses, the hall and parlor plan consists of two rooms. One room served as the more formal and public parlor, while the second room was used as the living and sleeping space for the family. In the Penn variation, one room was partitioned into two smaller rooms. This floor plan may also have included a corner chimney, an indication that the house was constructed around the turn of the eighteenth century in Tennessee. Existing hall and parlor plans may be difficult to recognize because additions to the building sometimes disguised the original floor plan. As its name suggests, the central hall plan is composed of a center hall flanked by at least one room on each side. The hall, unlike today’s halls, was a wide space that could function as a reception area or, more likely, living space for the family. At least one of the side rooms served as a formal, public parlor, with the other rooms reserved for family use.

Tennessee vernacular buildings are typically defined by four basic traits: materials used, construction techniques, shape of building, and design elements. Stone houses were generally constructed in East and Middle Tennessee in the period 1780 to 1820, with some construction as late as 1850. Settlers from Pennsylvania and Virginia often built or owned these homes. The houses are customarily two stories in height, with a central passage or hall and parlor plan. They feature side gable roofs, some with gable returns, and facades with multi-light, double-hung windows and three or five bays arranged symmetrically. Typically the houses have Federal- or Greek Revival-style embellishments, which are seen in entrances with sidelights and/or transoms. Interior doors and fireplaces may also show elements of Federal or Greek Revival designs.

Houses constructed of hewn logs held together by corner notching and mud or wood chinking were built primarily in East and Middle Tennessee in the 1780s and 1790s, though some log houses were common as late as 1900. Log houses are not always recognizable when exterior logs have been sheathed in weatherboard and interior walls have been covered with plaster or wood. The width of a building’s walls can indicate that it is a log structure. Log houses are divided into four sub-types based on their exterior form: single pen, dog trot, saddlebag, and double pen. Single pens were one- or two-story rectangular or square buildings, featuring gable roofs, stone pier foundations, and stone chimneys. The dog trot house was usually one story with two single pens of the same size separated by an open hall or breezeway, which may have been enclosed at a later date. Many were built on stone pier foundations and have gable roofs and stone chimneys. Saddlebag construction consisted of two adjacent single pens with a central stone chimney, stone pier foundations, and gable roofs. The double pen was a one- or two-story residence consisting of two adjacent single pens with two exterior stone chimneys and was constructed with stone pier foundations and gable roofs.

The braced frame house, also called the post and beam or heavy timber frame, was one or two stories in height, rectangular in plan with a gable roof, and featured wall posts and beams supported with diagonal braces that were often hand hewn. Spaces between the posts and beam were filled with nogging such as brick. Frequently covered by weatherboard, these houses were built before 1860, and several examples can be found in Knoxville and Knox County.

Many styles of houses are classified by form and design features that were popularized during specific eras. An early example is the Cumberland House, the name of which originated in Middle Tennessee. This one- or two-story house, erected with logs or braced framing, is characterized by two single-leaf entrances on the facade leading into two separate rooms. Rectangular in plan, the house has a side gable roof and weatherboard siding and either a center chimney or two gable end chimneys.

One- and two-story I-Houses date from the early nineteenth century, but continued to be built until the 1900s. They are primarily frame, with gable roofs and stone or brick foundations. The three- or five-bay facades are symmetrical in design, and often there are two gable end chimneys. The interior plan of the I-House is likely to be central hall, although early I-Houses may have a hall and parlor plan. Many I-Houses contain Greek Revival, Italianate, sawn or milled wood trim or Colonial Revival embellishments which can be contemporary to the house or later additions.

In Middle and West Tennessee, Piano Box Houses were erected from the mid-nineteenth century into the early part of the twentieth century. The name for these one-story houses derives from their similarity to square, or box-shaped, pianos. The houses feature rectangular plans with integral porches and various embellishments.

The Gable House includes at least three different forms: Center Gable, Gable Front, and Gabled Ell House. The Center Gable House was built between 1850 and 1890. As the name implies, the distinguishing feature is a center gable that extends from the wall on the facade, sometimes called a dormer wall. This gable is generally smaller or narrower than the primary roof gable. The roof is a side gable roof but may be a cross gable roof if the facade center gable extends to the roof ridge. The facades may also have paired gables or tripled gables. Because of the gables, these houses are considered to reflect a Gothic Revival influence. Gable Front Houses were constructed in cities and planned communities circa 1870 to 1930. Generally two-story with a weatherboarded frame, they occasionally feature one- or two-story porches. The Gabled Ell House, found in both urban and rural Tennessee, consists of a gable front section with a side gable section attached at right angles to produce an L-plan or T-plan. The Gabled Ell House is sometimes called an Upright and Wing House or a Gable Front and Wing House because of its shape.

Shotgun Houses were built in urban and rural areas and as worker housing or tenant housing circa 1860-1930. They have narrow rectangular plans with gable front or hip roofs. Shotgun Houses are one to four rooms deep, occasionally with a side hall or no interior hall.

Queen Anne Influence Houses, circa 1880-1920, are weatherboarded frame but can be brick or stone veneer. The one- to two-and-one-half-story houses are characterized by complex rooflines and massing. They feature a variety of stylistic ornamentation, and later versions display strong elements of the Colonial Revival style.

The Pyramid Roof House was built circa 1900-1930 as worker housing in both rural and urban areas. It is generally one story in height and is characterized by a steeply pitched hip or pyramidal roof. The frame house is usually weatherboarded and built on a square plan with four rooms.

Bungalow Influence Houses, circa 1895-1935, are most often weatherboard frame or brick veneer, although stone, stucco, and shingles are also used. The houses are rectangular or irregular in plan with interior floor plans that are often open and informal. Although most are one or one and one-half stories in height, there is a variation called Airplane Bungalow that has a one-room second-story addition. Roofs are hip or gable and are characterized by a low pitch and overhanging eaves. Bungalow Influence Houses may have varied stylistic elements, including Craftsman or Colonial Revival. Memphis has a large number of bungalows with different characteristics and variations of the basic form.

The Four Square House, circa 1900-1940, is two stories with a square or near square plan. The frame house can be sheathed in weatherboard or brick veneer; sometimes stone or rock-faced concrete blocks are used as a surface treatment. They have a hip or pyramidal roof and at least one central dormer on the facade. The facade porch is one story with a gable roof or half-hip roof and generally covers the facade or three-quarters of it. The interior plan has four rooms and a side stair on each floor. The Four Square House was a popular plan book or mail order house.

Between 1915 and 1940 many communities expanded into suburbs. New houses were often built as revivals of earlier styles in the new neighborhoods. The common feature of these Period Revival Influence Houses is not the form as much as the fact that all are modern vernacular adaptations of academic styles. They evoke the feeling of the earlier styles, but their use of materials and floor plans differs. These house forms include the Cape Cod Revival House, the Tudor Revival House, the English Cottage House, and the Colonial Revival House.

The Minimal Traditional House is an early to mid-twentieth-century (1930-50) house. As the name suggests, it has minimal characteristics of other styles, such as Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival. It has a rectangular plan and a roof that is generally side gable. The house is frame and can be covered with wood siding, brick, or stone veneer. Usually one or one and one-half stories, the details or embellishments appear flat and are often only around the porch or entry. The gable roof has little or no overhang. Chimneys are wide and are sometimes found on the facade. Considered the forerunner of the Ranch House, a very popular suburban and rural house type from the 1950s to the 1970s, this house can be found throughout the state.

Suggested Reading

The Vernacular Architecture Forum publishes a Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture series that contains articles on vernacular design; Herbert Gottfried and Jan Jennings, American Vernacular Design (1985) and American Vernacular Interior Design (1993); John A. Jakle et al., Common Houses in Americas Small Towns (1989); James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell, House Styles in America (1996); Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (1984)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Vernacular Domestic Architecture
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018