Residential Vernaculars

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Brick vernaculars pervade the American northeast. Here, see the spread of brick vernaculars associated with the Mid-Atlantic (white) and elsewhere in the Northeast, mainly New England (red).

Nothing says “Mid-Atlantic” quite like the brick rowhome. The standard residential architecture of the region, it pervades both large cities and small in the regions dominated by Philadelphia and Baltimore — cities like Trenton, Easton, Lancaster, York, Harrisburg, and even Martinsburg, VW. Outside of this region, it is rarely found at all, stick-built wooden architecture being much more common. Or at least … so goes the stereotype.

This is … not entirely true. Actually, the Mid-Atlantic rowhome is unique in that, of the antebellum urban vernaculars (these were almost exclusively masonry, for very practical reasons), it achieved the furtherest spread. Where the Boston rowhome is limited to central New England, where the New York brownstone is limited to the New York region, where neither the Charleston, Savannah, or New Orleans vernaculars spread inland to any great extent (or perhaps any extent at all), the Mid-Atlantic rowhome was the progenitor of early urban vernaculars throughout the Ohio River valley and even as far south as Richmond, Va.

Why was this? Historical factors are clearly at play here. While the Mid-Atlantic rowhome spread far, its spread was ultimately checked. Stick-built residential construction proliferated in the Midwest, especially after the Civil War. Vernaculars in towns like Galena, Ill., show this transition: some plots have rowhomes; others, stick-builds. Yet, for a period early in American history, the Mid-Atlantic brick rowhome would have looked like it would become the standard American urban vernacular. To understand why this didn’t happen, we’ll have to understand two major factors — first, why the Mid-Atlantic vernacular traveled so far so fast, and second, where the stick-built style came from.

The Erie Canal: Not the Only Trade Route

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The Mid-Atlantic region (blue) was antebellum America’s most important center of early trade routes. Here we can see the Great Wagon Road extending from Philadelphia into the Shenandoah Valley; the C&O Canal from D.C. west; the overland trade route that ran from New York to Richmond; the Pennsylvania Canal & Portage Railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh; and the Ohio River trade route from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.

In American history classes nationwide, we emphasize the importance of the Erie Canal, and the role it played in linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes through the Mohawk Valley, the lowest and widest gap through the Appalachians. But the canal was hardly the first major transportation route into or through the mountains.

In fact, at the time it was built, Philadelphia was perhaps the nation’s biggest hub of major trade routes into the territories. The Great Wagon Road led from Philadelphia down through the Shenandoah Valley to Roanoke, and branches led deep into the North Carolina Piedmont and the Kentucky hills. Trade routes along the fall line directly linked Philadelphia with Baltimore and Richmond. Canals and turnpikes knitted together piedmont Pennsylvania. And of course, the Pennsylvania Canal ran up the Juniata River and down the Conemaugh, with the early rail portage across the Allegheny Front between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown. Pennsylvania, not New York, not Maryland, not Virginia, had direct access to the Ohio Valley.

This, in turn, affected early settlement patterns. Pennsylvania’s frontier region was settled mainly by Scots Presbyterians, whose friction with Philadelphia Quakers drove the state’s early politics. Scots populations migrated down the Great Wagon Road and into the Ohio Valley, setting up shop in the highlands, and developing the roots of modern Appalachian culture; meanwhile, traders developed market towns and cities along the trade routes — the major roads and rivers. The Ohio, relatively more direct, connected with the Mississippi, and located in a climatically warmer region, was more accessible for early Midwestern settlement, and naturally more favored in the first waves of westward expansion. And so, developed by Philadelphia traders and financed by Philadelphia finance, cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis quickly took root. Indeed, the trajectory of these more Philadelphia-centric cities can be tracked simply by following which early Ohio River cities favored rowhomes … they are almost completely absent in Louisville, a handful of examples remaining in riverfront neighborhoods east of the downtown, but are instead pervasive in, for example, St. Louis.

The strange thing about all of this, though, is that the Erie Canal and settlement of the Lower Lakes should have favored the widespread propagation of a New York vernacular, one that would be difficult to distinguish from the Mid-Atlantic one. But it didn’t. Instead, the vernacular that spread — first along the Lower Lakes, then throughout the Midwest, and finally from coast to coast — is of a style that has no basis at all in any of the early urban vernaculars. (This is because wooden construction was either tacitly discouraged or actively outlawed, on account of it being a fire hazard. Masonry is fireproof.)

And that, in its turn, means that this vernacular had to have been innovated almost entirely from scratch, somewhere somewhen in America, before it could even begin to propagate. Where did this happen? And when?

Tracing the Stick-Built’s History 

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The stick-built first appears as an urban vernacular in Mohawk Valley cities developed alongside the Erie Canal. From here it expands into the Lower Lakes and Southern Tier; into the North Woods and central Midwest; and later even into New England (as the three-decker). By the 1920s, the only regions still building in their original vernaculars were the Mid-Atlantic (airlite rowhome) and Deep South (shotgun house).

The first places wooden urban construction in the modern style occur seem to be in upstate New York, particularly along the Erie Canal. The earliest development phase of central New England’s cities use the same (brick) urban vernacular being used Boston at the time — an example is Rational Urbanism‘s Steven Shultis’ house. Prior to the 1820s, the only urban American wooden vernaculars were to be found in the Canadian Maritimes, and even then, these were still primarily rowhouse vernaculars, more similar to Scandinavian wooden vernaculars than anything else.

Nor does this new Mohawk Valley vernacular take after the New England farm, despite both being executed in wood. The New England farm vernacular is actually quite distinct: a long, rangy compound that integrates house and barn, giving a warm winter space (close to the barn) and a cool summer one (close to the road). Further south, the Mid-Atlantic farm vernacular favors stone farmhouses where good stone is available, although wood frame is used for barns. (It would seem that, in the Mid-Atlantic vernacular, masonry is always the preferred building material.)

Interestingly, this house type, called a gablefront house, is noted for two things (at least, according to Wikipedia): 1. developing during the 1820s, and 2. coinciding with the Greek Revival architectural period. But I would here suggest a third, and much more essential, condition leading to its emergence. A stick-built gablefront house is cheap to build. Very, very cheap. It’s well suited to the Mohawk Valley of the era — a series of rapidly expanding small cities lying alongside the Erie Canal, an early wild west. Unlike rowhomes, which require established brickmakers and skilled bricklayers to construct, this new gablefront style propagated rapidly throughout the Mohawk Valley because you only really needed carpenters to put it together — carpenters that your town already needed anyway.

So, while brick was clearly regarded as a premium building material through the Victorian period — this Mohawk Valley innovation, the gablefront house, got carried west into the Lower Lakes region, and from there expanded throughout the Midwest, including into the Ohio Valley. And during the same era, a similar architectural style, the shotgun house, proliferated throughout the South. And in New England, developers innovated the multifamily variant of the Mohawk Valley vernacular into their iconic triple-decker.

But what really drove the gablefront and its derivatives from being a regional style to a national one was a major innovation that happened at the turn of the 20th century: the mail-order house. This innovation first developed in Michigan, and when it was included in the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, it made wooden houses the go-to for new residential development, nationwide. Only in regions with their own deeply entrenched vernaculars was this resisted (such as the Mid-Atlantic airlite). By 1920, outside of the Northeast, almost all residential construction was based on the Mohawk Valley gablefront vernacular that had emerged just a century prior.

The Rise of the Tract

Colonial and early American housing was all one-off. Farmers either built their houses entirely from scratch or expanded on their family compounds as need be. Urban houses were all custom or semi-custom; land was usually subdivided before it was improved.

True rowhomes were the very earliest example of tract housing in the U.S., emerging in Philadelphia in the 1820s. Rowhomes could be built entire blocks at a time, purchased en bloc, improved, and then sold off; while this innovation quickly spread to other brick-vernacular cities, it was slow to develop in the emerging Mohawk Valley vernacular. Before the proliferation of the streetcar, these far-younger cities — still in their first phases of development — sold off parcels individually, to be improved individually. Even in the nascent streetcar suburbs, developers were mainly middlemen — buying the land, making improvements, and subdividing it into individual lots for homeowners. Construction services, while offered, would have been tangential to their core business at the time.

Richard Saunders of The Corner Side Yard has suggested that tract housing in the stick-built style didn’t really arise until the rapid expansion of Detroit in the early 20th century — a period when the city grew from a population of just over 200,000 (at the time, Cleveland was probably the eastern Lower Lakes’ beta city) to just under 2 million in 50 years, largely due to the attractiveness of the young auto industry. The only way developers could even hope to meet this demand was to build fields of housing, selling the house rather than the plot (as was more common in the early 19th century). The development of the mail-order house, quite literally a house that could be built from a kit with minimal skill, likewise occurred in Michigan at the beginning of the 20th century, likely as a response to the intense rapid growth of cities like Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Fort Wayne.

We can argue, then, that the orthodox narrative — that the modern subdivision is derived from the Levitt brothers’ towns — smacks of Northeastern bias. Actually, this bias is revealed when one looks at the history: the Levitt brothers were just one of several developers that innovated the same style in different parts of the country. California has its own distinct tract-development history, and it’s unlikely that the first developers there were influenced by the Levitts in any way. But they could have been influenced by the prewar Detroit solution — that is, selling a house in a subdivision rather than a plot — an innovation which changed the very face of how suburban development occurred in America.

Map file found here.


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