Vernacular Log Type Houses

The log house is perhaps the most enduring architectural icon associated with Tennessee. Scholars continue to debate how the knowledge of log construction was diffused through the cultural patterns of the colonial South, but it is generally agreed that Scandinavian settlers first introduced log construction into the Delaware Valley during the 1630s. German settlers brought their own forms of log technology when they arrived in Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century. Anglo-Americans and the Scots-Irish adopted log construction as they moved south and west during the middle and late eighteenth century. These settlers from the British Isles, however, used very different floor plans in adapting log construction to their needs, producing the now familiar log building types. Although these types are most commonly found in log construction, they were also built in frame, brick, and stone.

The single pen is the basic log house. To make a single pen, builders join four walls by cutting or notching the log ends in such a way that they interlock when laid horizontally. There are variations on these notches, but the most common are the v-notch, the full-dovetail, and the half-dovetail. Henry Glassie identified two basic shapes of single pen structures, the square and the rectangle. The square single pen derives from British tradition and has a gable roof parallel to the front with an end chimney at one of the gable ends and single door on the front. The rectangle pen is Scots-Irish in origin and also has a gable roof parallel to the front with an end chimney in one of the gables. The rectangle pen, however, has both a front and back door and, usually, a window to one side of the front door. John Morgan found the rectangle to be the most common shape in his study of log houses in East Tennessee. These pens had dimensions ranging between eighteen by thirteen feet and thirty-six by eighteen feet. Most commonly, they had one and a half stories, but a few were one story, and fewer still had two stories. In some cases, the first story was divided into rooms by a partition made of boards laid vertically or horizontally. Limestone is easily available in much of the Upland South, and builders in Morgan’s study usually chose this stone for their chimneys, although they sometimes built chimneys of brick and, in a few surviving examples, of sticks and mud.

The saddlebag-type house, so called because it looks like a saddlebag draped over a house, is made by adding another pen to the chimney gable of an existing pen. The gap on either side of the chimney is used as a passage or filled by closets and stairs to the loft above. The roof line might be continuous, or it might be of different heights, reflecting the addition.

The dogtrot is made by adding another pen opposite the chimney gable of an existing pen and leaving an open passage between the two. The two pens and passage are covered by a continuous gable roof and the new pen has a chimney on the gable end opposite the passage. The new pen usually has a door opening onto the passage, but it might have only a door opening on the front, or both. Dogtrots were more often built in one building campaign, however, with doors to both pens opening onto the passage. Morgan identifies this type primarily in southeast and Middle Tennessee.

The Cumberland house, named for the Cumberland Plateau where this type is most often found, is a dogtrot without the passage. Like the old pen, the new pen has a door on the front wall and possibly a new door cut to connect the two pens. A continuous roof covers both pens and the new pen usually has a chimney opposite that of the old pen.

Single pen construction lends itself to the building of additions. Some telltale signs of an addition are an interrupted roof line, a different notch, a different species of tree used to make the logs, different dimensions, or a different shape of the new pen. It was not unusual, however, for a builder to put up a multi-pen dwelling in one building campaign. Morgan found at least one-third of the multi-pen dwellings in his study to be the result of one building campaign. The question then arises whether the different types developed because of the additive nature of pen construction or whether the types were always recognized, thus making additions conform to accepted types.

Log houses remained popular through the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth century. Although the house type endured over this period, construction techniques and cultural attitudes changed dramatically. Log houses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are generally inferior in their construction and finish. The logs are usually not hewn and the notches not carefully fitted. This change in attitude is a result of the way people viewed their relationship with a particular place. As the economy of Tennessee diversified and as more people took employment outside the home and away from the farm, the home lost its role as the basic economic unit. Time once devoted to the careful hewing and notching of logs for a house was now spent in wage work at factories or mines. Log construction became a temporary solution to housing needs, a prelude to the new balloon-frame house technology that wages could buy. Cultural attitudes toward log construction changed accordingly. People began to associate log construction with inferior materials and craftsmanship and sought to disguise their log houses by cladding them in weatherboards or other types of siding. The significance of log houses will be better understood as scholars study such social evolutions in their local context.

Suggested Reading

Terry G. Jordan, American Log Buildings: An Old World Heritage (1985); Charles E. Martin, Hollybush: Folk Buildings and Social Change (1984); John Morgan, The Log House in East Tennessee (1990); James Patrick, Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897 (1981); Dell Upton and Michael Vlach, eds., Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (1986)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Vernacular Log Type Houses
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 23, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018