Fireplaces were essential in Early American homes, providing heat, light, and a hearth for cooking, as well as a family gathering place.  In Colonial America, they were usually wide, deep “walk-ins” without much of a mantel.  Those in the homes of Dutch settlers were often wider than tall, while the English settlers built them to be smaller and less spacious.

By the 1700’s, homes commonly featured chimneys, though not everyone was convinced of their virtues.  Benjamin Franklin wrote, “The upright heat flies directly up the Chimny.  Thus Five Sixth at least of the Heat (and consequently of the Fewel) is wasted, and contributes nothing towards warming the Room.”

Benjamin Franklin thought that chimney back drafts were causing illnesses.  He said, “Woman particularly from this Cause (as they sit much in the House) get Colds in the Head.” Ben went on to develop alternative fireplace designs, including the Franklin stove.  Despite hi best efforts, however, the fireplace and its chimney were firmly entrenched in American architecture.

In the mid-Atlantic and northern states, central chimneys served fires in two or more rooms on several floors, to maximize the amount of heat a house retained, while homes in the south used fireplaces at the far ends of the houses to reduce heat buildup.

Until the 1800’s, fireplaces were purely practical affairs.  Heading into the mid-1800’s, however, they became the focal points if the main living areas, with carved mantels and other decorative elements.

In English homes, plain or bead-edged paneling usually surrounded fireplaces from the floor to the ceiling.  Dutch homes hung curtains above the fireplace.  Some homes using blue and white Delftware tiles or the book-matched paneling on either side of the fireplace.  The Federal and Greek Revival-style mantels featured swag, star, or shell accents.  The mantles and hearths of many historic Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia were made from King of Prussia marble, quarried in nearby King of Prussia.

In the early 1800’s, size and shape changed the emergence of the “Rumford Fireplace.” Sir Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford, designed a smaller, shallower affair that was taller than is was wide, with sharply angled sides sloping into a narrow chimney.  It threw more heat back into the room, exhausted smoke more efficiently and eliminated back drafts.  This is the construction design used in most modern masonry fireplaces today.

After the Industrial Revolution, more and more fireplaces featured cast iron arched surrounds with decorative embellishments.

The decorative elements of fireplaces became increasingly ornate with the addition of overmantels, as well as columns and glazed tiles.  In the early 1900’s, design aesthetics reverted to a more rustic and natural style when the “back-to-nature” effort fueled the Arts and Crafts movement.  Today, although practically anything goes, fireplaces remain the sentimental hubs of American homes.

 

At first glance, porches and doors may seem like no more than a way to get in or out of a home or business.   But there is much more to these architectural gateways.  They are frequently exemplary examples of carpentry that give us a peek into the artisanship of our architectural history and have a quality of craftsmanship difficult, but not impossible with the right skills and knowledge, to reproduce today.

The entrance of a house often defines its architectural identity more than any other element.  This is particularly true on the facades of Colonial townhouses (sometimes referred to as row houses), where the flat facades can easily run into each other.

In Colonial and early-American porches and doorways, elements of several different architectural styles can be seen.

  • The Post-Medieval English Style (1600-1700) can be seen in transom lites and drop finials (those that project downward).
  • Dutch influences show up in elevated wooden stoops, eaves, and slender turned columns with square bases.
  • The French tendencies find there way into our entrance architecture with raised paneled doors and arched brick lintels.
  • Our very own early Colonial entrances are more pragmatic – with simple triangle pediments and smaller porch platforms.
  • Late Colonial entrances became more expansive and decorative – with curved brackets, keystones, and decorative sunbursts above the doors, as the Georgian and Federal styles made their way to center stage.

When evaluating the significance of your historic porch, there are two important questions to ask:

What did your entranceway look like originally?

More often than not, changes were made to your porch that may not reflect the original architecture of your house.  You can consult with a contractor that specializes in historic architecture to evaluate any necessary restoration work.  Early photographs, insurance maps, tax records, documents at historical societies or libraries, house histories, and physical evidence can all be used to make a determination of what the porch would have been originally.

What historical evolution has your porch or doorway experienced?

There is a great debate in the preservation world – is it more important to preserve the original architecture of a building or to honor the architectural evolution it experienced over the years?  This is not an easy question (and in cases of historic sites it is often tied to the period of historical relevance) and it is up to you, as steward of your building, to determine what you think is the right answer.  Determining what architectural evolutions your entranceway has experienced may help you decide which preservation approach is important to you. 

Exploring the answers to these two questions will help you define which architectural features make up the character of your entranceway, how it contributes to the overall architectural fabric of your historic building, and which period of architecture you want to preserve.

Keep in mind that if you live in a historic district any changes to the exterior of your house must first have approval from your local historic commission (often if you are not making changes or you are just repairing/maintaining this can be done at the staff level without a hearing).

 

Greg Huber from Eastern Barn Consultants and Past Perspectives joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss:

  • How barn styles varied from region to region 
  • What makes barn construction unique
  • The type of barn Danielle had never heard of

We also discussed the services Greg offers documenting barns and researching house histories, the barn tours and seminars, and the books he has written.  

Contact info:

Greg Huber, Architectural Historian

610-967-5808

[email protected]

Books:

The Historic Barns of Southeastern Pennsylvania: Architecture and Preservation Built 1750-1900

Bio:

Gregory Huber – of Past Perspectives and Eastern Barn Consultants

• Gregory D. Huber is an independent scholar, consultant and principal owner of both Past Perspectives and Eastern Barn Consultants, historic and cultural resources companies that are based in Macungie, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.
• His special focus is in House Histories and Barn Histories of historic homesteads in southeast Pennsylvania and beyond.
• A student of early vernacular architecture since 1971, Huber has specialized in pre-1850 barn and house architecture of Holland Dutch in New York State and northern New Jersey and Pennsylvania Swiss-German and certain English settled areas of the northeast.
• Huber’s latest book – out in August 2017 – The Historic Barns of Southeastern Pennsylvania – Architecture and Preservation – Built 1750 to 1900 has reached Number One Book on the Amazon Best Seller list in its specific category – Vernacular Architecture
• He is author of more than 270 articles on barn and house architecture and is co-author of two other books and editor of another book – Barns – A Close-up Look.
• He has lectured to more than 225 audiences and led dozens of barn and house tours in several states of the northeast.
• He is available for historic homestead consultation work on old houses and barns.

 

 

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950.

 

Traditional/Vernacular Mode 1638 – 1950

Buildings constructed in the Traditional/Vernacular mode fall into this broad category due to the cultural origins of their design, rather than their period of construction.  While buildings within this tradition were built in great abundance in the early European settlement days of our state, the forms continued to be used and replicated with some frequency until roughly the turn of the twentieth century.  Some traditional forms such as meetinghouses and one room school houses continue to built today, especially within certain religious sects.

Traditional/Vernacular buildings derive their form and design from a commonly shared tradition of construction. Buildings that fit into this category are not architect or pattern book designs where appearance is dictated by contemporary stylistic trends. Rather, buildings of this type reflect the ethnic or regional heritage and cultural traditions of their builders.

Traditional/Vernacular buildings are often direct links to the building practices of the European medieval past, employing the basic construction techniques of that era. They were often strictly utilitarian structures, built from affordable and readily available materials to satisfy basic and immediate needs.  A Traditional/Vernacular form may also be chosen for cultural reasons, not because it is the only available design option, but out of respect for past tradition. Certainly, buildings of this type were intended for both short term and long term use. For many reasons, economic, cultural, and environmental, these basic vernacular buildings continued to be built far beyond the settlement period for Pennsylvania.

The Traditional/Vernacular category is a rather broad umbrella, covering a wide variety of building forms based on common cultural past designs. Floor plans and site orientation can be important elements in identifying vernacular design, since simple vernacular forms were often later enhanced by high style architectural details. The distinctive building types commonly seen in Pennsylvania include: log buildings, post-medieval English inspired buildings, Pennsylvania German traditional buildings, meetinghouses, schools  and agricultural outbuildings.

The architectural description “vernacular style” is often used to describe all non-architect designed buildings, or hybrids displaying bits and pieces of various styles. This term is used to describe workaday urban housing forms like row houses and duplexes and also utilitarian single family dwellings lacking any particular stylistic elements. It is also used to refer to barns, summer kitchens, springhouses, smokehouses, and other agricultural outbuildings. In truth, vernacular buildings include a wide array of structures across a long span of time. They are an important part of our state’s architecture heritage; they tell the story of most Pennsylvanians – the “common folk” of our state. For that reason these types of buildings are sometimes referred to as “folk architecture” as well.