Architecture is more than just shelter – and to those of us who love historic buildings – architecture is more than just ornament. Architecture is imbued with symbolism by the people that create and shape it, and historic buildings serve as artifacts of the time in which they were built. In that way, historic buildings represent a physical expression of of a person’s status, or their values and backgrounds, and larger patterns as well, such as social interaction, land use, and community development. So how does the meaning of a house change when it becomes a ruin?
I’ve thought about a lot lately, mainly due to the proliferation of “abandoned” images across various social media platforms. People love pictures of abandoned historic houses, and sometimes the same Kentucky house crops up again and again. The circa 1860 Duncan Hall in Nelson County is one such popular subject.
The two-story, central passage, double pile dwelling was built 1860-1862 for Major Green Duncan, Nelson County Sheriff and a member of the Kentucky legislature. Duncan wasn’t choosing to be avant-garde with his choice of dwelling – the Greek Revival style was well-established in Bluegrass by that point. Clay Lancaster described the style as characterized by “bigness and simplicity compatible with American ambition and directness.”
That directness translated into large proportions and even the building material – brick was more labor-intensive and costly than wood, so a statement about the owner’s wealth was issued just from the exterior cladding. The intention and symbolism of Duncan Hall, when it was built, was one of wealth, power, prestige, (not to mention fashionable), designed to cement Duncan’s place in local society.
The central passage plan had become the fashionable house plan among Kentucky farmers some 20 years earlier. (Kentucky farmers with money, that is.) Interestingly, the names of the builders of Duncan Hall (even the name gives some hint as to how its owner wanted to portray himself) have survived: a member of the Batcheledor family, carpenters who designed and built many houses in the area, as well as Billy Riggs and Billy Gootlen. This is information that is usually lost over the years, unless family archives survive to recount more than just the occupants of a building.
The scale of the house is evident even in the husk that remains. Vacant since the 1990s, lightning struck the abandoned house on August 2, 2009; the resulting fire rendering an evocative shell easily seen from the road.
Now its vacant window openings and haunting visage joins countless other abandoned buildings scattered across the Internet – linked by hashtags and emoticons (#abandoned appears in 4,362,046 posts on Instagram today, while #abandonedplaces has popped up in 1,581,554 posts) and a voyeuristic view of decay.
Ruins have long intrigued people and been a popular subject for artists for centuries. There is a romance linked to symbols of the ephemeral nature of all things, and artists’ depictions of ruins (one of my favorites is J.M.W. Turner’s depiction of Tintern Abbey) highlight the sentimental. The rise and fall of Rome touches a chord with many people – and tourists have flocked to those ruins for much, much longer than the websites chronicling the “ruin” of cities like Detroit.
I wonder, however, how much the posting of abandoned houses like this one actually engages the viewers? What meaning do they take away from heaps of buildings being reclaimed by twining vegetative matter? Is the reaction only one of adjectives (creepy? eerie! spooky! haunted!) or is there any sense of the layers of history and lives that once shaped and existed in these places? And is any trace of the original “message” of the building still left? That assumes, of course, that there was one intent and only one layer of symbolism associated with Duncan Hall – my reading of the house as it was is an indicator of my own values, background, and experience.
Recently, I posted a photograph of a historic one-seat privy on Facebook (it too, long abandoned). Privies served as trash pits for generations and are today valuable data mines for archaeologists. Will we as a culture be known only by what we throw away?
I don’t linger long on abandoned house sites – if only because I don’t care to dwell on how much has been lost by the slow crumble of a physical structure. The allure of moldering piles is understood (I wouldn’t be in this profession if I wasn’t possessed of a healthy imagination) – but I think the bigger question is not why, but how. How do we adding to the cult of the abandoned, and work together to keep our communities and historic buildings functioning, healthy, and adapted for many more decades of useful functionality – I prefer a #preservationwin or #adaptivereuse hashtag over #abandoned any day.
 Clay Lancaster, Antebellum Houses of the Bluegrass, 79.