an abbreviated history of architecture in Arkansas

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Architecture

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’s...now 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?

Furniture

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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.