Wondering and Learning about the Making of Small Buildings by Largely Anonymous Americans from the Mid-19th to the Mid-20th Century
What about this community of buildings and structures?
Did we know that Americans have so well and imaginatively and lovingly rendered small places?
A remarkably unexplored area of American material culture, they reveal as much about national values and architectural history as about problem solving and clever craftsmanship.
What impelled this architectural townscape and place-making, purposeful and fanciful in equal measure?
When and why this will for small construction, the imperative to move from vision
to rendering to pride of place?
HOW TO DESCRIBE THESE PLACES?
The buildings and structures of American communities and architectural history from mostly the mid-19th through the mid-20th century have been made by largely anonymous persons from imagination, from what they saw or lived or loved, from at-hand materials and in-hand skill. The structures reveal a widely shared desire and ability of makers to render their house, town, or vision -- and significantly yield as well
a clear and manifest area of American material culture and expression.
Most seem to come from a band arching from Minnesota and Wisconsin through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio into Pennsylvania -- source of the largest number -- and New England. The South and West have yielded few. Most are made of wood and other materials readily at hand. Some, testing skill and no doubt patience, are made of tin or less tractable heavier metals. The main colors -- red, green, yellow, and
off-white -- are historically the predominant colors of American folk art as well as
most likely to be found in cans about the garage or workshop.
The years of construction were those in which American guys routinely knew how to make things. Whether gained from dad, shop class, or daily life, ability and confidence were enough sturdily present to make feasible the construction of that house or our local church. Skill and will were nicely matched to those decades of isolate winters and more rural life, few evening activities and other distractions, freedom from electronic obsessions, and the realistic expectation that one -- particularly in the Depression -- made and made do instead of buying. By the 1950s, culture and life changed as Americans found more to do at home and out. Rendering small buildings proved less compelling than television and gizmos, driving about, busyness, and all those new things to buy and be.
Males, traditionally working with harder materials, seem the main makers. Surely they also sought help with finer touches not traditionally found on the workbench. Reflecting the likelihood
of women working in softer materials, wives or mothers could find
lace or doily curtains and nice embellishments for church interiors.
Wondering about origin and reasons is irresistible. Surmised or known possibilities vary: these are projects or displays, models, to accompany early trains, to be arranged with lights and perhaps trains around the Christmas tree, perhaps (remarkably-surviving-it-all) toys, or to document a place of personal or community importance. None appear to be architects' models, doll houses, or birdhouses. Some came from a Pennsylvania roadside attraction showing, small and for an admission fee, American town vistas. Others show multiple buildings clearly from a single maker, geographically scattered over the years
but honored by varied recipients along the way.
Most, surely, sprang from pure imagination and the pleasure to shape, even small, a building of one’s own.
Information does not much convey with this small real estate; provenance was not a daily word for these guys. Only one owner over the years is verifiably known. Reflecting the traditional anonymity of folk art in less incessantly self referential times, only 80 of over 1200 structures reveal information about maker or when or where or why, or if an actual building is suggested or conveyed. Actual buildings have been identified by look or happenstance. Identification is satisfying and also somehow mysterious.
More might be based on real structures, existing or likely gone, than will ever be known.
Realism and imagination are equally found, as are wide variations in ability to render,
from earnest and clunky to fine and skilled. Together, these variations yield a limitless range of looks, scale, and questions as to just what is working here. If that guy could render so well, why are his windows
and doors mismatched in size? Over here, because detailed even to the basement windows -- who would make up basement windows in a fit of imagination -- a real house appears the model,
and well rendered too. With a good spire and cross, most any Church conveys presence. There, erratic scale and funny towers suggest more fancy and less ability.
Hone in on details. Columns are chamfered or square, Doric or Ionic, fluted or round, full height or atop brick bases on the porch. Curtains are tidy and often lacy; blinds, with a nationally shared unconscious middle class imperative, are always pulled halfway down. Bricks are laboriously scored or delineated with mortar lines fine or rough. Roofs are scored for shingles, or made from real shingles cut small or just plunked on large. Cross making yields more variety than ever expected.
Patterns of construction and problem solving emerge, as does a remarkable repertoire of solutions to the question always at hand: how I do make small this thing normally made big? An early wooden Velveeta cheese box, that’ll start. Ammunition crates are usefully (and necessarily) sturdy and orange crates earlier were all about. Glass -- ising and clear and colored -- is shaped to need. So are cardboard, woods thick and thin, roof shingles, many cigar boxes, cans, tin and metal, bits of this and that,
surprises, and adaptively useful small things.
Sizes vary, from inches to five feet tall. In the main, most have one dimension of about a foot,
for likely usage and comfortable scale.
In total, the structures convey the details and evolution of American architecture. Eras and styles show clearly and richly: 17th century New England, colonial and federal, Greek revival, Italianate and Queen Anne, Victorian and Gothic-esque, Colonial Revival, beaux art, moderne and modern. More appears: deco, split level and ranch, steamboat Gothic and Richardsonian. With presumably unconscious accuracy, that functional early Ranch and the cold Bauhausy house don't look much better for being small.
As in larger communities -- which, like collections, evolve over time with often uncertain plan -- varied buildings are here often found in curious arrangements and disorderly proximity, keeping the
eye and the place in pleasing activity.
WHY DO WE LIKE THESE PLACES SO MUCH?
Persons of all ages and types and interests are without exception compelled, and also pleased. The desire to touch and peer if not somehow embrace, to posit explanation if not tell a story, is constant and endlessly revealing. Why this consistent response, particularly for things that are not new and have no electronic chips in an age desperate for both? Perhaps the lure of the small coincides nicely with the comfort of the familiar and the cheering appeal of the wonderful.
Perhaps a stronger and more resonant imperative compels, consciously or not: the sense that something lost in our larger built environment is very satisfyingly found in these places. Wistfully or atavistically, persons look long, reflectively, and happily. I remember or I once saw, they often say. Do they so look at real buildings in our current built environment? Will they care in 60 years for (unlikely) small renderings of today’s undistinguished chain buildings and cul-de-sac houses with errant Palladian windows?
In earlier eras, were our houses and community buildings and churches, of whatever type and purpose, just routinely more appealing in scale and detail and presentation? Singular and architecturally richer and possibly even quirky rather than redundant and manufactured? Do we like real and dimensional rather than composite materials? If so, why did we ceaselessly pull down so many of our earlier buildings? Why do so many of today’s sought new communities -- look, a porch! -- copy yesterday’s normal communities?
Increasingly, as preservation finds wider place in national life, viewers voice affirmation -- and appreciation -- that this collection shows and protects buildings (smaller, but still telling and calling) in a nation exceptional in destruction of its architectural heritage.
Called to wondering, learning, and questions, we live with endless pleasure, storied respect,
and large logistical challenge among these places.
Visit and look.