Many people would ask what is different about vernacular architecture compared to regular architecture, I know I did. I found it especially challenging to talk about such architecture in a location known for its rolling hills and miles upon miles of flat farmlands as far as the eye can see. The area where the early American settlers started out on their journey to the west. St. Louis, Missouri being known to house the Great arch, the “Gateway to the West” as the term is coined.
So let me define Vernacular Architecture. It’s defined as “structures that groups of people make for daily use—that is, buildings not designed by professional architects but representative of folk culture, produced by members of the community to meet certain needs or desires and guided by the conventions of locality”
Back in the early days of the American expansion of the west, most people didn’t have the skills or technical know-how to build extremely elaborate houses or shops as the settled from town to town. In The mid-west, one might think of Native American Tee-pees or Log cabins as vernacular architecture and you would be correct. Sadly there aren’t many places that still have Native American dwellings still standing. I wanted to see something in front of me, something I could take pictures of and see the vast history about it.
So I’ve driven through the Midwest and around Missouri my whole life and there were some pieces of vernacular architecture around me in plain sight but I never really stopped to realize or admire simply because of the lack of awareness I had. Typical mid-west vernacular architecture are buildings and houses that don’t really stand out as sturdy. Most are single store “cookie-cutter” buildings that are easy to reproduce cheaply and effectively for the growing population heading out west. Other buildings of vernacular architecture are not so much cookie cutter but houses you think of the house that the Beverly Hillbilly’s lived in prior to them obtaining a vast amounts of wealth. They are the houses that look like the ones in the show “Little House on the Prairie” or the old-west style wooden structures you see in western Hollywood movies.
I sadly wasn’t able to adventure far out beyond my little town on behalf of my workload but I was able to get a few buildings that captured the essence of mid-west vernacular architecture. Most of them are wood but some are brick and are still standing to this day. Most places have been modernized and converted into businesses as Missouri is trying to keep its old buildings for the sake of preservation. There are small towns all over Missouri where this style of building is prevalent throughout the town. It makes for a very unique country feel to it. They’re small towns with no more than 2000 people living in them, most of the time even smaller than that.
I know I always overlooked these buildings thinking, “Why don’t they just tear them down? They are an eye sore with no beauty associated with them and are falling a part at the seams” To me most of them looked like out-houses, old run down barns… fire hazards. But after doing my research I can see that I was wrong. Yes, they aren’t the most extravagant building. They aren’t the prettiest or the most well built but each building has a history. Some of them have even stood the test of time and have been in my city since the Civil War. It is relatively recent history compared to other vernacular architecture around the word but that’s ok, its our history, American History. We need to preserve what little heritage we have so that we don’t lose the knowledge as to how we came to where we are today. To anyone living out in the Midwest USA, if you see an old log house on the side of the road, or if you roll through a town with a population of no more than 1000 people, stop by and take a look, it is part of our American History.
Author and Pictures by Mitchell Phelps