lych-gates & oak trees

In 1994-1995, I worked with the construction of two timber-framed oak pavilions for St. Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, accessory structures to the rectory (the building in the background) and the parking area. Officially, my role was as a woodcarver, adding details to the framing members which had been cut and fitted before I arrived. Later, I helped with raising and completing the structures. [The lych-gate is a common feature in the English landscape, the separation between the church and the churchyard (or cemetery). Traditionally, a body was laid out in the lych-gate prior to interment.]

In 1994-1995, I worked with the construction of two timber-framed oak pavilions for St. Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, accessory structures to the rectory (the building in the background) and the parking area. Officially, my role was as a woodcarver, adding details to the framing members which had been cut and fitted before I arrived. Later, I helped with raising and completing the structures. [The lych-gate is a common feature in the English landscape, the separation between the church and the churchyard (or cemetery). Traditionally, a body was laid out in the lych-gate prior to interment.]

I don’t pay much attention to politics, or the “news”. And, in the fall of 2000, I was out of town during most of the Kohl’s trees debacle, working on a project outside Little Rock. Coming back into Fayetteville and realizing that there were some thirty big oak trees about to be sacrificed to capitalism, I started asking around about how they might be acquired. Small town that this is, I knew the attorney who represented the developer...gave him a call, and got the cell phone number of the developer’s agent, the man responsible for closing the deal. By the time I got him on the phone, he was sitting in the terminal at XNA, waiting, as he told me, " fly back to North Carolina, and then home to Atlanta.” If I had a point, I was going to have to make it quickly…

“Do you know the Episcopal Cathedral on Peachtree Avenue?”

“Yeah, I go to church there…”

“Do you know the lych-gates in the back?”

“If you want to build something like that with those timbers, you can have them.”

Just like that. Out of the blue, my long shot had connected with a corporate real estate developer...we had common ground…I had thirty huge oak logs. I made arrangements with a logger to bring a truck with a loader, and the logs were moved from the Kohl’s site to Bob Jordan’s farm, off Hwy. 112, just a few mile away. That cost me $1000.

Then, I began shopping around the idea of actually building with the logs. The response was not at all what I had expected. John Lewis told me I had a “tar baby”. Several of the environmentalists offered their opinion that it would have been better had the logs been burned, as they were no longer useful as a symbol. City Parks didn’t really even want to talk about using the logs, and the Botanical Garden was interested, but afraid of offending city hall. So, another three years waiting for the stigma to wear off, and finally the Botanical Garden relented and took them off my hands. I was reimbursed my initial $1000 plus $300 interest, and within the next year a building had emerged from that rough wood.

an abbreviated history of architecture in Arkansas



Fayetteville is the state’s flagship university town, with an architecture school that started in the 1950’s, founded by modernists.  Still modernist…never looked back.  I have lived and worked here for forty years, and have had numerous experiences with architects from that school, and none of them know anything (nothing, nada, zip) about timber framing.  Architects are licensed by state, so they tend to be rather provincial at best. 

Consider that architecture is a determinedly white collar profession, and few architects get any real practical experience with building.  And, architects are mostly white men, with egos that get challenged when confronted with something unfamiliar, like timber framing…try working with that.  Try thinking that general contractors are any different.  Layer into that a workforce that is now primarily Hispanic, men who are willing to work but have limited English language skills, and consider how much printed material is available to them in Spanish.  What they know, they have learned on the job.  Want to share your knowledge with them?  That might make a difference.

 Arkansas has quite a few log houses that survived the civil war, but only a handful of authentic first-generation timber frames…after that it was mostly balloon-framed Victorians, bungalows, Craftsman houses, post-war Cape Cods, and ranch styles post-1960’ it’s just generic stick-framed boxes with asphalt roofs and some sort of decor tacked on the front, or post-modern boxes with single-slope roofs.  There was a generation of barns built in the Ozarks ca. 1900; circle-sawn oak 6x6’s and 6x8’s, with decent if somewhat degraded joinery.  Most of them are gone. The one mill that survived the civil war was burned down to the first story and was rebuilt haphazardly after the war.  Not a lot to work from…

How then do we assert the value and importance of timber framing, without a physical and cultural history of timber framing?



Joinery is joinery, at whatever scale it is executed…good workmanship that has held up for the better part of two centuries deserves respect.

For some years now, I have had an interest in what is called “American Empire” furniture. The choice examples are cherry or walnut primary, with yellow pine or poplar secondary. Four-drawer chests are common…carcass is typically a small timber frame, 2” square or often larger posts (This is a significant departure from the dovetailed box that comprises a Chippendale carcass.) with rails fitted by pegged mortice and tenon, grooved for panels. Layout marks with a scratch awl, probably transferred from a story pole, are visible on the inside faces of the posts. Drawers are finely dovetailed...narrow pins, wide tails. Benchwork.

Typically, the only metal fastenings are hand-made screws that hold the top and knobs. The posts most often have a turned foot; some examples have an engaged column supporting a jettied top drawer (a convenient crib for an infant). On the piece that I own, the columns are half-barley twist, a decorative effect popular in Tudor England.

Looking at Arkansas Made Volume I (University of Arkansas Press, 1990) by Bill Worthen and Swannee Bennett, there are numerous examples of furniture of this type, produced during the period before the civil war, along with a listing of furniture makers, sufficient to indicate that the skills necessary to build respectable furniture were widely distributed in those years. This would have involved the wherewithal to convert timber into dimension lumber, plane it to size, lay out and cut joinery, and execute turning and carving. In essence, the same tools and workmanship that would have existed in the Dominy workshop, or at Williamsburg.

“…but that’s all in the past, love, gone with the wind…"

Looking at Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Directory, there is exactly one piece of furniture of the “American Empire” four-drawer chest type. That piece is from Pennsylvania, and shows a very distinct Philadelphia influence.

So, my surmise is that this “American Empire” furniture is largely of southern origin, with primarily English antecedents. I believe there is an earlier, authentically American (with distinctly English roots) iteration of AE that has more or less come west, an American Empire that had nothing to do with emulating Napoleonic France.

In the early 20th c. people in Appalachia and in Arkansas were still marking time by the Julian calendar. They had been out of touch with the rest of the world for a very long time. Documentation of architecture shows that plainly, why would furniture have been any different? Change came with the distribution of pattern books, and industrial production, in the latter half of the 19th c.

As George Sturt points out in the Wheelwright’s Shop “Everything about a wooden axle and its wheels seemed to imply a long-settled population. How could nomadic tribes have accumulated, I will not say the experience, but even the material required?” (p. 158) Carpenter, after all, derives from L. carpentarius, a maker of carts or chariots, and thus a wheelwright. I am not as much interested in the artifacts that have survived as I am in the culture that has been lost.

If you look up a definition for vernacular…it will indicate that verna or uerna from the Latin means a home-born slave, and thus compounded with -cul which is the root of coulter, culture, agri-culture, etc…all the way back through the OED to Skeat. In a scholarly linguistic sense, impeccably correct. Consider this, the next entry in the dictionary is invariably vernal, which is oh-so-very common, and typically relates to spring or green.

When we compound vernacular with architecture, we’re talking about something quite different. Architecture is a language, but with a grammar and syntax unlike any spoken language. An alternative derivation of vernacular architecture might well be “cut green”. No need for a slave…if one is willing to use an axe.

That has been much of my experience with timber framing in oak. I believe that follows the traditional pattern…felling trees in winter, converting them to timber, and as Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience allow getting the joinery cut, a foundation prepared, and a frame raised and roofed before the following winter. That is my understanding of what vernacular architecture is. I think that is why we put a bush on the last rafter.

community and communication

COMMUNE, to converse, talk together.  (F.--L.) ME. communen, "With such him liveth to commune."..."Y ne shall nought commune with;" Early English Prose Psalter.  -L. communicare, to communicate.  -L. communis, common. cf. COMMON — from Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, W. W. Skeat 1879 Oxford University Press, Amen House, London

  "I have, in some cases, adopted his views either wholly or in part.  In a few instances he does not really contest what I have said, but notices something I have left unsaid…Hence the number of points on which we differ is now considerably reduced; and I think a further reduction might have been made if he could have seen his way, in like manner, to adopting views from me." W. W. Skeat, from the preface to the 2nd Edition  [Walter Skeat laid the foundation for the Oxford English Dictionary.  Without Skeat there would not have been an OED]

"What we have here is a failure communicate..."  who hasn't heard that memorable line from Cool Hand Luke?  As relevant today as ever, communication requires effort from both parties.  Mostly, communication requires that each party be willing to listen to the other.  Easy enough for some, to use a public podium to lecture, harangue, lie, whatever...and so totally dominate conversation that any other party's voice is drowned out.  That isn't communication.  

rats, humans, and houses


"Some humans ain't human, some people ain't kind..."  John Prine

RATS have become so deeply entwined with humanity, living in our cities, taking passage on or leaving ships at every port around the world; a separate but parallel existence that occasionally overlaps uncomfortably with our own.  For the past two years, rats have appeared far too often in  my backyard and in the houses around me, never the welcome guest.  Now, the city has issued me a legal order claiming that I have created a public nuisance.  In my defense, I didn’t put the rats there.  

HOUSES...Sometimes I think that I understand houses better than humans...

Almost every human culture except the Eskimo began with a roof made of straw, supported by some sort of structure, over an earthen floor.  Many third world inhabitants still live in such houses.  Our American standard of housing took a somewhat different evolution.

American houses, almost without exception, are stick framed with an attic and a crawl space.  That is where the rats come in, literally seeking out those cavities.  Rats may not penetrate into the conditioned living space immediately, but ½" of sheetrock or old plaster is the only thing in their way.  Old houses in the historic district are particularly vulnerable to rats. "You may be smarter, they have more time..."  

In this neighborhood, the most likely source of rats was the old house at the corner of Willow and Lafayette, the one that was demolished last summer amid protests from the entire neighborhood.  Throughout the winter months, those rats moved into houses all over the historic district and beyond.  Apparently, rats establish a colony; with a social order and a 60-70 foot foraging radius.  Once disturbed, a rat colony will disperse breeding pairs over a much wider area; something like setting off an anthrax bomb or any other garden variety act of domestic terrorism.  If the city were to require an exterminator contract as part of demolition…well, that would require thinking ahead.  Who is the public nuisance here?

Call an exterminator about a rat problem in your house...they will have two solutions, traps and poison.  Traps are effective at first, but some rats learn to avoid traps like the plague (another interesting tangent).  Poison may be more effective, but the chances of having a dead rat stinking up your house or poisoning a hawk or an owl, or the neighbor's cat, weigh against poison.  Domestic cats can be excellent ratters, except that a good hunter will most certainly prey on songbirds.  Having rats turns out to be a bit like getting a tattoo.  Neither goes away completely without a great deal of pain and effort.

Rats have become a bigger problem than the city is willing to admit; more widespread than the exterminators can eliminate without a great deal of collateral damage.  Rats are capable of extensive damage to property; and they can host several highly infectious diseases.  How are we going to control the rats?  Could rats be the issue that brings us together as a community?

Looking back, I’m guessing that rats were living in Allen Dunn’s old barn when the city bought the place in 2015.  The city demolished the barn that winter, the rats dispersed into the meadow, where I found several burrows dug out by foxes or coyotes.  Rats were not in the house at 2650 NOW, because feral cats were living in the crawl space and in the thicket.  When I demolished the house and cleared off the lot last year, the cats disappeared.  Hello RATS!

With a bit of observation, I have realized that the rats at Gulley Park are native rats, wood rats.  Chippy has found his mission in life, chasing rodents. 







The Rape of the Well Maidens

"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done."  Book of Common Prayer

Long, long ago, even before the reign of King Arthur, the land was blessed with enchantment and great fertility.  Throughout the realm, maidens stood guard over the sacred wells, offering their healing waters in golden cups to any journeyers who might pass.  Indeed, some say that these waters were the very waters of inspiration, offering transport between the worlds.  The maidens themselves may have been Otherworldly, but the tale does not say.  In those days, when the veil between the worlds was thinner, these distinctions were not so sharp.

All was well, with the land bounteous and the people content, until the King conceived a desire to possess one of the well-maidens.  He stole her sacred cup, carried her off, and raped her.  His men followed his example, raping the other well-maidens.  In response to these unheard-of acts, these violations against nature itself, the maidens withdrew themselves and their magic from the world.  The wells dried up, and the regenerative powers of the land were destroyed, leaving it barren and devoid of enchantment.  By seeking dominion over others, the King and his men had diminished the world.  

[from: Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain: King and Goddess in the Mabinogion, Caitlin Matthews, London 1989]           (for MC, "...some people get religion, some people get the truth.")


Modeling the Future

Every building begins with an idea.  Building a model makes the idea tangible.  Viewed as a complete structure, proportion and detail come into focus.

Quick sketches on a paper napkin over dinner, refined in the sketchbook as the idea takes form in the mind, firming up plans and elevations on paper or with graphic software.  Modeling provides a means of understanding a complex structure hidden under layers of other material.

The traditional way of showing an idea was building a scale model.  Medieval architects constructed elaborate building models, convincing skeptical patrons of the soundness of their ideas.  Some buildings are so iconic, they have inspired models.  

"The beginning of all things lies still in the beyond in the form of ideas that have yet to become real."  I Ching     

2013-08-04 12.54.40.jpg