Peering Behind the Facade

Whenever I am asked to talk about historic architecture, I always stress the meaning of the facade of a building. It doesn’t matter whether it is a house or a store, the facade is the face of the structure, and it is there that the most care, attention, and money is typically spent. The facade is how the people who live in or use the building want to be perceived, but the facade doesn’t always tell the entire story. The rear of a house helps complete the story of a household.

The rear elevation of this dwelling in Wolfe County, Kentucky, looks nothing at all like the facade. Even the roof shape is different!

It stands to reason that the rear elevations of many historic dwellings are remarkably similar – ell addition(s), porches, enclosed porches, perhaps a connected outbuilding or two.

Rear elevation of mid-19th century house, Bourbon County, Kentucky. A series of frame additions lead from the front of the house back, ending in a two bay wide, two story brick portion – that may be the original house.

But sometimes you find very odd little additions, jutting out from every angle. Sometimes you even find the original house!

This is a house with two “back stories” – what looks like a one-story ell is the original house, circa 1815.

The side/rear elevation of the Madison County house pictured above has a front portion dating from the 1840s – when it was built in front of the original house, that original portion became the back of the house.

Here you see some interesting additions to the original house/ell, including the standard enclosed porch, but then some rather creatively shaped walls and dormers…

It isn’t always possible, of course, to see the rear elevation of a historic building. Since it is a more private space, sometimes people don’t want you to see behind the facade.

It’s not just building additions or extensions that you find at the rear of a historic building – all sorts of material culture may be casually curated on a rear porch…

A reader on the Gardens to Gables Facebook page commented recently about the meandering nature of additions to historic houses, which made me begin musing on the subject. Although I always capture each elevation of a building in my day job, it’s sometimes impossible when I’m just out wandering around unofficially. Keeping what I do for a living and what I love to do (which happen the same thing, more or less) fresh and inspiring occasionally means finding new areas of focus – like what is happening around the back of a historic building.

Side and rear elevation of a late-19th century house in Casey County, Kentucky.

Looking beyond the facade ties in well with my mission to spread an appreciation of vernacular architecture and promote the everyday, often overlooked historic places in our communities. So I am going to start having an occasional feature just on rear elevations of buildings – though I’ve been stymied on the best name for this series. If anyone has any thoughts, please share! So far, my favorites are “Back(side) Stories” and “And Now for the B Side.”

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  1. Berle Clay says:

    As always..interesting…the Madison would appear to be a structure that changed overall orientation..say NS to EW….why, always an associated interesting question.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Given the way the road ran, both the Federal dwelling and then the later Greek Revival faced the road – you couldn’t miss the house. Sadly, it was demolished just last month.

  2. Dan Prater says:

    Fascinating…a Potemkin approach to using a house.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      The facade isn’t always deceptive of course – but it is always the best face of any historic building.

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