Research funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Technical assistance provided by Arkansas College Educational Media Center
Originally a slide presentation by Diane Tebbetts, written c. 1980. Click on the small pictures for a larger view, and use the browser 'Back' button to return to the text.
The study of folk architecture is still in its infancy in America. It is a broad field, with many directions wide open for research. The term “folk architecture” includes both processes and products, how to build and what to build. Construction techniques, building forms, and building uses all must be studied to give us an understanding of how most of our ancestors lived. Architecture can tell us about their cultural conservatism, their ingenuity, even their psychology.
In modern times most builders have followed blueprints—some mass-produced and sold through popular magazines, for instance, while other blueprints are specially designed to suit a particular site or the individual client’s taste. But throughout most of history, most people have lived and worked in structures built by themselves by or by carpenters trained in a traditional apprenticeship program. These people were not formally trained architects or structural engineers. Their knowledge of how to build something, what it should look like, and how it is used came from slowly-evolving traditions, most traceable directly back to medieval Europe and Britain. Such is certainly the case in North Central Arkansas.
Two of these traditions operate in folk architecture. These include, first, building techniques, and then floor plan. Any building technique can be used to produce any floor plan, and in the past the most common techniques used in North Central Arkansas were braced frame, log, balloon frame, and box or “single wall.”
Although stone is abundant in the area, it was seldom used for building houses before the twentieth century. Stone store buildings from the nineteenth century still stand in many older Arkansas towns, but they are generally not folk structures. Brick was also little used in Arkansas folk architecture, although some traditional house types were built in brick in the growing towns of the 1840s. In the bulk of folk buildings, however, the use of stone and brick is confined to foundations—usually just unmortared stacks of roughly-shaped rocks—and fireplaces, which display a variety of styles and shapes.
The first permanent dwellings built by English settlers in North America were braced frame houses, a building method known in Europe and Great Britain since medieval times. It remained a major construction technique until shortly before the Civil War, when technological advances in the lumber and nail industries led to the invention of lightweight balloon framing, which is still the major American house-building technique.