by Ron Diener - April, 1996
Log construction of folk design and folk tradition in the inland portions of America were of three general types, depending a great deal on the origins of the builders.
The corners of the log structures were either coped (the upper log carved out to fit the lower log), notched (both adjoining logs trimmed for fitting), or blocked (adjoining logs mortised for locking in place). The more carving that was done at the ends of the logs, the more the tendency to initiate rot and spoilage of the wood.
The chinking of the logs was done with moss and/or mixtures of moss with clay and straw. Years later, as various cements and mortars became available, they were also applied to this use.
The roofing was commonly thatch. In some areas where there were straight-grained hardwoods, shake shingles were made with froe and mallet. They were soaked and applied wet, because when dry they could not be pierced with a nail without bending the nail back on itself or without splitting the shake itself. A third roofing material was bark slabs, laid on poles, fastened with nails and/or tied with rawhide.
Chimneys were made of logs, with "fireclay'' linings that could not and did not protect the wood from flame when the clay cracked or opened. Thus, these chimneys were built outside the log walls. The firebox of the fireplace was clay-lined, as thick as eight inches deep.
The building design, such as it was, tended to follow the rudest concepts of "enclosure,'' with special care to exploit any and all loft space. Larger structures were thus made of multiple enclosures, rather than a larger enclosure divided into "rooms.''
The logs were either chinked (moss, straw, clay) or plastered to a smooth surface with bousillage (straw, cow manure, clay).
The roofs were usually made of shake shingles over posts (some shakes as long as four feet). Occasionally a thatched roof was made. But frequently the thatched roof was thought of as a temporary expedient until good shakes could be split.
Fireplaces were made of stone, as often fully interior as exterior in relationship to the outside walls. The French were the earliest to experiment with stoves and ovens, both in urban and in the rural/folk settings. Thoroughly adequate, if not masterful, stone pointing and masonry were commonly known and practiced.
The basic folk design of the structure was rectangular with sufficient space for subdividing into rooms. The roofline was gabled in such a way that the front entrance and rear entrance, together with a house-long porch area, could be covered by extending the roof well beyond the walls of the structure. This design left a large second-story space, divisible into more rooms.
The logs were peeled and squared, then fitted by mortising. The interstices of the log framing were filled. There were three techniques of such fill. First, brick was used, with plastering interior and/or exterior an option. Second, pointed (i.e., squared with chisel and mallet) stone was applied with an interior plaster. Third, rubble stone was used together with an interior and exterior plastering applied at the same time as the stonework.
Fireplaces were central to the construction, often with a single flue or two flues serving multiple mantles and fireboxes.
Roofs were commonly thatched, later replaced with terra cotta tile if the owner could afford the additional expense. Generally speaking, shake shingles were not trusted because of fire hazzard.
The most common design was that of the central European Hof. The house occupied one of the narrow ends of a larger rectangle, with a parallel building on the opposite narrow end. Walls joined the two buildings, with a gate on each side for a team or hitch to pass through the courtyard. The building opposing the house was used for animals and storage, with roofing and roofline complementary to that of the house.
The house was thought of as two large rooms with a lower and upper story, or Etage. These larger rooms could be subdivided with hanging walls (not load-supporting) of lighter material - occasionally even cloth or hides.
A major change took place in the immigrations into these lands of the New World after 1848. Large numbers of university educated men came from those areas where the revolutions of that year failed - Germany, Italy, France, as well as other central and east European capitals.
They applied scientific principles to building and construction. They thought of their physical pied-a-terre as a place of experimentation, not as bothered by tradition or continuity as their contemporaries.
They did, of course, take on important professional and civic responsibilities in the New World (one of their number, Carl Schurtz, was a member of Lincoln's cabinet). But large numbers of them were intimidated because of their poor or highly accented English, and preferred not to confront or compete with the Yankees. They turned to farming, shopkeeping, merchandising and manufacturing, usually in their own ethnic communities with their own ethnic foods, dress and language.
They tended to influence domestic architecture profoundly wherever they went. And that influence stemmed chiefly from their examples, rather than through an imposition of ideas or concepts. They build round or octagonal barns, turreted dormers (long before Victorian styles), hillside solar-assisted homes, and many creative and innovative styles and designs.
But before them, others had come, in waves, as unrest after unrest swept Europe.
In 1736 the Moravians from Bohemia (via Saxony), as followers of Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf, came to the New World to help fill Penn's Woods with dissidents. This, the largest of several groups from central and eastern Europe, also led the way for many others: Mennonites, Brethren, chiliastic communities, communistic settlements.
In 1745 unrest in Ireland helped to feed the shores of the New World with new stock.
The hunger and over-population of Frankish Germany in the 1740s and 1750s pushed its lesser inhabitants both east and west to the Volga River regions of Czarina Ekaterina (Katherine "the Great''), as well as to upstate New York, the marshes of New Jersey, coastal Delaware and deep into Penn's Woods.
Unrest in the Pyranees led lesser nobility of both southern France and northern Spain to come to the New World after 1763, together with their entourages who quickly abandoned their masters after their arrival on the Western shores.
More unrest in Ireland brought more refugees in the 1770s and 1780s.
Ambitious adventurers of the Low Countries from the lowly stow-away peasants to the rather wealthy younger sons of nobility and even royalty left their homelands to find their fortunes in south Asia, the Orient and America between 1785 and 1810.
The French Revolution and its sequela to the fall of Napoleon pushed out wave after wave of persecuted, tormented and threatened Frenchmen to help settle both the United States and British America (Canada), men of means and of talent and of education.
All of them, each and every group, had its special imprint on domestic architecture, folk architecture, the design and the style that are not really a "design'' or a "style'' at all, but rather the simple repetition of the known and familiar. But the repetition of the known and familiar often had to take shape in unknown or new materials. Thus domestic folk architecture developed in spite of itself.
This article was written by Ronald E. Diener historian and story-teller.
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