Perspectives: The Gift of Vernacular Buildings

The month of January found me suspended in a maelstrom of deadlines. The joy I typically find in my profession disintegrated into a frenzy of writing, severe brain strain, and a complete lack of appreciation for the fascinating buildings that were my subject. Then, one email broke through the fog of my stress, and everything else fell away.  I am usually on the ground looking at buildings (save the occasions I climb onto hay rolls, or on top of trucks, or into hay lofts, either exploring or seeking a better vantage point). The point is, I never, ever get to see one of my subjects like this.

The magic of a drone caught this amazing aerial view of the roofline of the historic house.

A drone caught this amazing aerial view of the roofline of the historic house.

I nominated this house to the National Register of Historic Places in December 2015, and it was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on since coming to the University of Kentucky. The house itself is an architectural delight – an architect-designed dwelling from 1907-1909, in the middle of nowhere (otherwise known as rural Kentucky).* The exterior and interior display the mingling  of late-19th century Victorian mixed with the classical elements of the early 20th century. More than the plan and design though, this house, whose angles and shapes are so clearly revealed in the magical image above, is the heart of a most compelling story, one highlighting the strength of family connections, and the redemption of a grand old lady.

The grand old lady herself, under construction.

The grand old lady herself, under construction.

I’d already been treated to two historic photographs of the house, another perspective that we don’t often find when tracing the arc of our subject’s creation. Vernacular architecture, you see, is social history.* It is the story of the builders clinging to the framework of a dome, and the little girls in bonnets down on the ground. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives, and creating a landscape that is extraordinary in its depth and complexity.

When I look at both of these photographs, I take a deep breath, and feel no small measure of happiness in the tiny role I was able to play in the latest journey of this house and its family. I’m so thankful to have gotten to know this dwelling and help in my own way on what has been a bittersweet pilgrimage for the owners, who lost a beloved father – a child of this house – right before Thanksgiving. It’s all about perspective in the end – our buildings and landscapes reflect how we shape and use them – and in turn, they can reflect a lasting image of us, long after we are gone.


*Technically, an architect-designed house is not considered vernacular architecture. I use the term here loosely, to refer to all of the buildings I encounter, that provide so many different kinds of perspective on life, buildings, and the type of story we create by our daily activities. In this case, a non-formally trained architect provided a plan to the family; the plan was then adapted and modified by the local builder, which is in the spirit of what vernacular architecture represents – modifying form and type, style and materials, to fit local traditions, building materials, and function.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. ginny daley says:

    I’m confused. Are you classifying an architect-built home as vernacular? Maybe my understanding of vernacular is off.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Ginny, no, you are correct. The technical meaning of vernacular does not include an architect. I was using the term more loosely, not to refer to just this house, but most of what I study and document. (and perhaps I was less than clear!) This is the only house I’ve ever worked on that had a set of plans – but even then, the plans weren’t followed exactly. So in that sense, this house is an example of a non-classically trained architect (he worked as an apprentice but had no formal education, as was common with many 19th century architects) providing a plan, that was then carried out by a local builder who made changes to that design to suit the site and the owner’s needs (and built with lumber from the farm).

  2. Janet Johnson says:

    I love seeing these old homes and just imagining the stories they could tell and the memories that were made there.

Comments are closed.