April, for those of you who don’t follow obscure monthly designations, is both National Volunteer Month and Keep America Beautiful Month! There’s always a lot going on across our communities this time of year, and I hope that many of you will get out to help. Preservationists can do their part as well. This week I want to talk about something called the “vernacular threshold.”
This term comes from vernacular architecture, a style that we all know, but we don’t know that we know. Ronald Brunskill, a British architectural historian, defines it as “a building designed by an amateur without any training in design, with function being the dominant aspect, and local materials used for construction.” Think old farmhouses. They’re built by the farmer, their family, and their neighbors. They’re designed with only one thing in mind, using it as a farmhouse, and they’re built entirely out of local brick, stone, or lumber.
Compare this to “polite architecture.” This is what people are talking about when they say federal style, Greek revival, or gothic, among others. Think plantation houses, mansions, and buildings in downtowns. These are generally designed by an architect, maybe not someone famous, but somebody who went to school for that purpose. They’re also designed to impress their neighbors.
Now, the vernacular threshold is when a certain type of building is about to disappear. This is more of a problem for vernacular architecture than polite for two reasons. First, vernacular architecture tends to get replaced as needs change. Second, we’ve placed polite architecture on a pedestal. Think about Mount Vernon, Monticello, Oak Alley, and all the other mansions that we’ve turned into historic sites. Think about historic downtowns. How many simple farmhouses from before the Civil War do you think we’ve saved? The answer is not very many. They’re usually only saved because of something bigger, like a battlefield.
Now you’re probably thinking, there’s no way we’ll ever see farmhouses disappear. You’re not wrong, but we will see different types of farmhouses disappear. Take our area for example. Before prefab became an option in the 1950s, do you think we built our homes exactly the same as communities in Maine? Or California? Or even the same as the Eastern Panhandle? No. We used different types of wood, we laid them out differently, and we certainly didn’t build them with protection from a hostile army in mind. By the time Mason County really took off, threats from the British, French, or Native Americans were basically gone. There’s even differences between vernacular homes of the Upper Ohio Valley, Mid-Ohio Valley, and Lower Ohio Valley. All were settled at different times and by different groups of people.
Here in Mason County, nearly all of our historic buildings are vernacular. Outside of downtown Point Pleasant, I can probably count on one hand the examples of true polite architecture. The only one that really comes to mind is Bartow Jones’ “Mount Vernon on the Kanawha” along Old Route 35. The rest of Mason County’s architecture is either a blend of polite and vernacular or just straight vernacular architecture, and it needs to be documented.
Preservationists, and even volunteers, can do their part by documenting vernacular homes before they’re destroyed and by advocating to save them. This adds to the historical record of our county, giving us information that no written document can. It can tell us about the background, culture, lifestyle, and religious beliefs of the families that built our region. Even if we can’t save these buildings, sometimes they’re just too far gone or they don’t fit modern needs, they need documented.
Though, I think we can all agree that these historic, unique homes are much nicer to look at than prefabricated “cookie-cutter” houses. But who knows? Perhaps in a hundred years, those may be the best example of our generation’s vernacular architecture.
Next week, we’ll talk about cleaning up cemeteries and restoring old headstones.
Information from Brunskill’s “Invitation to Vernacular Architecture” and my own experience in historic preservation.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be in May, with a date and location to be announced next week.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.