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The term vernacular (or folk) architecture generally refers to buildings not planned by an architect but based upon regional traditions, the materials at hand, and sometimes expedience. Fred Kniffen in the book Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion, suggests three source areas of building tradition in existence in America by 1790: New England, the Middle Atlantic, and the Lower Chesapeake, including Tidewater Virginia. Settlers from each of these regions carried traditional building methods associated with their particular source area as they moved westward.

The settlement of Western Virginia originated from the Middle Atlantic and Tidewater Virginia. During the 1720s the Van Meter family led a group of Dutch (German) Protestants to the South Branch Valley from northern New Jersey. Isaac Van Meter settled in the northern portion of the valley in present Hardy County in 1744. He constructed a cabin and a fort known as Fort Pleasant, near Moorefield, and each succeeding generation improved on his beginning efforts. Col. Garrett Van Meter replaced the original fort and cabin with a brick structure, and in 1832, his son, Jacob, abandoned the vernacular tradition with his house in the Greek Revival style. This progression was typical of successful families. Log houses were first-generation homes. A family’s next house, usually larger and more elaborate in design, reflected its progress.

The Kanawha Valley was settled from eastern Virginia, including the Tidewater. Maj. John Hansford, born in 1765 in Orange County, acquired property on the Kanawha River and built a house below the mouth of Paint Creek. The Old Stone House at Belle was built by Samuel Shrewsbury about 1810 on Kanawha land he acquired from his father-in-law, Col. John Dickinson, of Bath County. It can best be regarded as at least a generation removed from the Tidewater source area, where stone is in scant supply, and its name, distinguishing its material, may hint at the fact that stone was not often used in early Kanawha Valley buildings.

Several building types were introduced to Western Virginia during this westward expansion. The one-room (single pen) log house with an end chimney is an early building form that could quickly expand with a second story and change appearance with the addition of weatherboarding over the logs. Many log houses were changed with such additions and alterations. Monroe County has several examples. Although much altered, the 1810 William Clark House is one of the earliest log houses in Union, the county seat. An 1815 log house served as Union’s Female Academy from 1840 to the Civil War. Even earlier, in 1790, Owen Neel II built a two-story log house near Gap Mills. It has a central doorway with rooms to each side, and two more rooms above.

In Hardy County, the Funkhouser Farm has not only a log house but also a hewn-log barn. Both buildings employ a V notching technique to join the logs. The house dates to about 1845, the barn to about 1880. Log buildings often appear as slave quarters; for example, Altona Farm in Jefferson County includes two early-19th century clapboard-over-log quarters, each with a central chimney.

A second recognizable vernacular form is the I-house: one room deep, two rooms wide, and two stories high. Returning to Union for an example, the Byrnside-Beirne-Johnson House has an end chimney and is noted for woodwork attributed to Conrod Burgess, a prominent local builder. The house, remodeled by Beirne in the mid-19th century, incorporates a log house built by James Byrnside in 1770. Other I-houses in Union date to the 1840s.

Folk architecture is also associated with ethnic groups. For example, the shotgun house, a one-story dwelling, one room wide and several rooms deep, is identified with African-American culture. Rooms open directly into each other without a hall, and all doorways are on axis with each other. It was said that a shotgun could be fired through the front door and exit through the back door without hitting anything. In east Wheeling, groups of shotgun cottages were built prior to 1874 for workers of the Central Glass Company and the Wheeling & Elm Grove Railroad.

Other ethnic groups have also left their stamp on West Virginia’s vernacular architecture. The Randolph County community of Helvetia was founded by German-speaking Swiss immigrants just after the Civil War. Second-generation buildings took advantage of Helvetia’s first steam sawmill in 1887. The onion dome capping the Greek Orthodox church in Gary, McDowell County, identifies the worshipers’ Eastern European origins.

A houseowner or builder might also incorporate stylistic elements copied from existing buildings or from illustrated pattern books. By the 19th century, such pattern books were used in building homes for the middle classes. The symmetrical composition of the Greek Revival style was introduced in houses such as the 1834 wood-frame Craik-Patton House in Charleston and the 1853 brick house at Fort Hill Farm in Mineral County. Wheeling’s row houses illustrate decorative details of the late-19th-century Italianate style; many facades include bracketed cornices, paneled friezes, hooded windows, and colored glass windows. By the turn of the 20th century, houses took on aspects of the Queen Anne style. The twin houses that brothers A. Fremont and W. Alfred Gold built in 1908 in Mason, Mason County, are mirror images of each other, each with a wrap-around porch and incorporating elements of the Queen Anne style.

Company towns in various industries also exerted an influence on housing styles. At Cass, Pocahontas County, laborers at the lumber mill lived in what the company called ‘‘Class Three’’ houses: two-story, frame buildings with gabled facades and one-story front porches. The mill owners also provided workers with a store, school, and other buildings, all in a distinctive wood-frame style. In 1891, the Martinsburg Mining, Manufacturing and Improvement Company developed a subdivision for workers of its knitting and hosiery mills. Laid out along newly created streets, most of these houses are frame, one-and-a-half or two stories tall, and have either a side gable or end gable and a one-story front porch. By 1910, U.S. Coal & Coke built 12 individual company towns known as the Gary Works in McDowell County, with several different housing types.

By the 20th century, prefabricated buildings in popular styles could even be purchased from Sears, Roebuck and Company. Those who didn’t buy might nonetheless find ideas in the catalog of Sears ‘‘Honor Bilt’’ homes. For example, aspects of the Sears house known as the Sheridan are reflected in the 1925 home of Benjamin Snyder, a Berkeley County concrete mason. Pre-fabricated houses were also available from West Virginia’s own Minter Homes and other companies.

This Article was written by Susan Pierce

Last Revised on November 05, 2010


Dell, Upton & John Michael Vlach. Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

McAlester, Virginia & Lee McAlester. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Nolin, Elizabeth, ed. Wheeling Port of Entry: An Industrial Guide. Fairmont Printing Co., 1988.

Cite This Article

Pierce, Susan "Vernacular Architecture." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 05 November 2010. Web. 24 July 2024.


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