American Style: The American Farmhouse
I’ve been featuring different forms of architecture for a while under a series we call American Style.
It’s been a quest to learn just what “American” architecture is, and as I’ve shown time and time again, it’s all born of different influences, just like this continent is.
A sprawling landscape invaded by settlers from the 1600s on, much of what surrounds us dates to other places and times, all modified and adapted for our purposes, resulting in a land filled with more architectural variety than anywhere else on the planet.
Today, we’re honoring the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, with a look at a home seemingly as American as apple pie: The Farmhouse.
Built for Place and Function
If you look for the “farmhouse style,” you soon discover that there is no specific form. It’s a question of function rather than style. It is a house which sits on a farm.
Style-wise, things evolved considerably with the advent of railways. As the railroads spread across the land, farmhouses changed from being basic homes made of materials from the land on which they were built (Cobb-style homes and log cabins, etc) to using planed lumber or bricks, giving us the homes we’re used to seeing dotted across farmlands today.
These can include anything from the “Carpenter Gothic” style made famous by Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting through to Georgian, Victorian, Swiss chalet-style homes, and much more.
Using ready-made carpentry materials meant homes became larger to accommodate the growing families many farmers had. Look at my family and its agricultural roots — both my parents grew up with as many as seven siblings. You can’t have that in a cabin.
Common structural traits of farmhouses
Growing families and rugged rural life dictated a larger home with ample storage and task-oriented rooms would be best for a farm homestead. They’re typically 1.5 to 2 storeys and often start at three bedrooms.
Building materials had more to do with location than they did the style. Some did indeed bring in exotic products, but pragmatism was the order of the day and most worked with what could be found/made nearby or via a train-trip away. Bricks would be used where you’d have populations of German descent, for instance, since they were famed for masonry.
Dormer windows and pitched roofs are common in farmhouses of all styles. Shutters are popular too. A farmhouse without a chimney, that would be an odd sight indeed. Frequently, they feature center chimneys which mean the fireplace or hearth really is the heart of the home. More than one chimney wouldn’t be a surprise, as you might often find an “end” chimney in what was frequently an adjacent room or set of rooms (frequently the kitchen and its companion rooms) that would create a “T” or “L” shape to the home.
More traditional farmhouses tend to be pragmatic builds that keep embellishments to a minimum inside and out. The main importance was a very keen focus on practicality and function.
A Fine Historical Example
This passage from 1852’s Rural Architecture: Being a Complete Description of Farm Houses, Cottages, and Outbuildings by Lewis F. Allen gives a very dry but illuminating description of what it considers to be an ideal design of a farmhouse of that era, the golden age of the American farmhouse:
“This house is, in the main body, 36×22 feet, one and a half stories high, with a projection on the rear 34×16 feet, for the kitchen and its offices; and a still further addition to that, of 26×18 feet, for wash-room. The main body of the house is 14 feet high to the plates; the lower rooms are 9 feet high; the roof has a pitch of 35° from a horizontal line, giving partially-upright chambers in the main building, and roof lodging rooms in the rear. The rear, or kitchen part, 87is one story high, with 10 feet posts, and such pitch of roof (which last runs at right angles to the main body, and laps on to the main roof,) as will carry the peak up to the same air line. This addition should retreat 6 inches from the line of the main building, on the side given in the design, and 18 inches on the rear.
The rooms on this kitchen floor are 8 feet high, leaving one foot above the upper floor, under the roof, as a chamber garret, or lumber-room, as may be required. Beyond this, in the rear, is the other extension spoken of, with posts 9 feet high, for a buttery, closet, or dairy, or all three combined, and a wash-room; the floor of which is on a level with the last, and the roof running in the same direction, and of the same pitch. In front of this washroom, where not covered by the wood-house, is an open porch, 8 feet wide and 10 feet long, the roof of which runs out at a less angle than the others—say 30° from a horizontal line. Attached to this is the wood-house, running off by way of L, at right angles, 36×16 feet, of same height as the wash-room.
Adjoining the wood-house, on the same front line, is a building 50×20 feet, with 12 feet posts, occupied as a workshop, wagon-house, stable, and store-room, with a lean-to on the last of 15×10 feet, for a piggery. The several rooms in this building are 8 feet high, affording a good lumber room over the workshop, and hay storage over the wagon-house and stable. Over the wagon-house is a gable, with a blind window swinging on hinges, for receiving hay, thus relieving the long, uniform line of roof, and affording ample accommodation on each side to a pigeon-house or dovecote, if required.”
(Read the entire book as part of the “Gutenberg Project” here.)
Common Layout Features
There’s no sense living on a farm if you don’t like to eat, so kitchens were always a prime space in the home. Large kitchens with considerable working space and a proper stove, usually with some windows, made it easy to spent the long hours cooking and cleaning, in the days when you’d pluck your own chickens and butcher your own cattle, along with preserving harvests for the winter months ahead. As mentioned in the Allen passage above, you’d need a pantry, a buttery, and all kinds of “offices” of the kitchen.
That pragmatic purpose-filled life of the American farmer meant there’d be a formal space for entertaining at the front of the house, but more casual and living spaces at the back. With the mucky, dirty business of working the land, it made sense to keep spaces separate so maintaining the home could be done more simply.
The dirty jobs of farmwork are why most farmhouses feature generous covered porches. It’s what you call a “transitional” feature. Gives folks a place to relax and eat in the middle of a muddy workday on the land, but also provides a place to ditch the mucked-up boots and coveralls after the long day’s done.
The farmhouse today
The practical, comfortable, functional design of the American farmhouse makes it a much-loved architectural style even today. There are no shortages of cinematic and photographic depictions of the farmhouse style. We see the big, comfortable work/life homes as being the epitome of a family space. It harkens us to what we think was a simpler time.
Simpler? Not so much. People of the land worked far harder than we do today, but there was reward and satisfaction that came from working on land, with nature, and enjoying its produce. Food fed the soul, and those big kitchens filled with the bounty of the land often yielded delicious aromas that lingered all the days long. Fresh-baked bread, churned butter, soups made with the heartiest of broths, poultry roasting, fires crackling, pie baking.
For immigrants who came chasing a better life on this continent, the ultimate dream was a spread of land, a comfortable farmhouse, and a bountiful homestead that would always keep their bellies full and hearts content. Driving across the countryside today, it’s hard not to be envious of the seemingly self-contained world that is a proper American Style farmhouse and its food-focused life.
Full bellies and contented hearts
This Thanksgiving, when you’re enjoying your full bellies and contented hearts, take a moment to also thank your farmers, those who toil the land much like their ancestors probably did. Whatever their farmhomes entail, they help to make a little magic happen in our lives. From all of us at BuildDirect, happy holidays to you.