As a child, I made houses of anything and everything (leaves were a challenging, yet ephemerally charming material). I inherited my older siblings’ Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, and a series of dollhouses.
The Lincoln Logs, however, were a favorite – made even more intriguing by the fact that we had an actual log house on our farm. It was a two-story house, and during my childhood, stored hay bales.
It was beyond my permitted boundaries when I was very young – being out of earshot of my mother’s yell or the enormous bell that hung on a post by our house. She summoned everyone to the house with either of those tools, and if you didn’t come when called – you didn’t make that same mistake twice! Still, I made it down to the log house quite often, and by the time I was 10 (with expanded freedom to roam), I conducted “archaeology” on the inside and out of that log house (this consisted of scrutinizing layers of wallpaper and digging up broken bits of china and glass bottles), and futilely waved rags about, stirring up more dust than dispelling.
When I stumbled upon the career of historic preservation and architectural history, I wasn’t at all surprised by the numbers of log houses in Kentucky. Between 1785 and 1824, most houses in the Commonwealth were of log construction. These houses were either square or rectangular shaped, and often only one room. These single room houses (also known as single pen) often gained additions over time, either log or frame. Additions could be added to either side of the existing log house, or to the front or back. An addition extending out to the rear of the house, perpendicular to the main block of the house, is called an “ell” addition.
Many houses in rural Kentucky are log, but from the exterior, appear to be frame houses. Log houses could be clad with siding or left exposed, but the former technique decreased maintenance and increased the comfort level inside the house. Most log houses were meant to be covered with clapboards or weatherboards. Siding also denoted an attention to appearances and status level, as siding required a large investment of labor and money. From the outside, a log house could be indistinguishable from a balloon-framed house built later.
I drove by the Whitlock Log House in Green County a week ago, as I meandered about south-central Kentucky (getting lost is often a positive occurrence in my line of work). Built in the first quarter of the 19th-century, the house appears to have started as a rectangular single pen with a lateral frame addition.
The large, stone gable-end chimney is now gone, and the house appears vacant. When it was listed in the National Register some 30 years ago, it was noted that it was one of the best examples in the county of the single-pen type. Sadly, the documentation did not include any information about the outbuildings clustered around the Whitlock House – it is only in the last decade that these important structures have begun to be uniformly noted and studied.
Kentucky’s built environment tells the story of our state – in every county (and with 120, we have plenty…) there is a place and a building that means something to someone. Beyond the workout my motor skills received with house-building (and house dreaming, as I explored our log house and the tenant houses on the farm), I gained an appreciation of the power of stories. And that is what drives me today – even when I get discouraged or disappointed by bureaucracy and what seems to be a never-ending cycle of demolition – stories inspire, challenge, and delight me. if you know where to look – and can look beyond the surface – stories are in every corner.