Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

During the spring of 1975, I interviewed fifteen people who had grown up in farmhouses in Lawrence County. The dwellings described by the informants had been built between 1835 and 1900; most were or are located within present-day Hickory Township in the north-central part of the county. Three typical structures will serve as examples of the influence of various architectural styles, tracing the sources of vernacular architecture from a European folk type to an American architectural style.

One distinct architectural type is the “I” house. According to Fred Kniffin, in an article entitled “Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion,” published in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, December, 1965, “The ‘I’ house is one of several compounded from the old English unit consisting of one room and end chimney. It is recorded full-blown for the Delaware-Chesapeake section by at least the late seventeenth century …. Of all the old folk types, the ‘I’ house is by far the most widely distributed, notably as a rural dwelling.” Identifying characteristics include “gables to the side, at least two rooms in length, one room deep, and two full stories in height.”

A Lawrence County example of such a structure is the Temple house, a two-story stone dwelling that was probably built in the early 1840’s by William Reynolds, whose father had immigrated to eastern Pennsylvania from England in the 1770’s. The original stone structure mea­sures 20.8 by 32.5 feet; the frame addition was built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The first floor is divided into two rooms, one of which contains a narrow, closed-off staircase leading to the second floor. The Temple house has its roots in an English folk type, but it is most similar to eastern Pennsylvania farmhouses. In fact, the staircase may reflect a Pennsylvania German influence.

During the 1750’s the influence of Georgian symmetry began to modify the basic “I” house. Structures with four rooms joined by a center hall became more common. However, in eastern Pennsylvania the one-room-deep house was still being built into the nineteenth century.

The second structure. the McCreary house, illustrates the development of the “I” house. This farmhouse was built before 1859 by a Pennsylvania German; the builder may have journeyed to western Pennsylvania from the area around Mifflin County. The two-story frame domicile originally faced south, but additions built in 1895 and 1922 have altered this orientation. The original structure was 26.4 feet wide and 28 feet long.

With its internal gable-end chimneys and two-room-long, two-room-deep plan, the McCreary house is an “I” house that shows Georgian influence. The four rooms roughly approximate the symmetry found in Georgian architecture. In addition, the house originally had two front doors.

According to Henry J. Kauffman, in The Dutchman, winter, 1954-1955, this feature is commonly found on houses without a hallway built by Pennsylvania Germans within seventy-five miles of Lancaster during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Consequently, the structure was almost certainly constructed between 1846, the year the Pennsylvania Germans began moving into the county, and 1859, the year that it was purchased by a McCreary. The house bears a close relationship to farmhouses in eastern Pennsylvania, but the influence of the Old World is less evident than in the Temple house.

A structure exhibiting a closer relationship with nineteenth-century architectural styles than either the Temple or the McCreary house is the Patterson house. Charles Stotz, in the book Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania, 1936, notes that “The Greek Revival style flourished in western Pennsylvania between 1830 and 1850 and became the prevailing medium of architectural expression.” On the other hand, “The Gothic Revival, which appeared in western Pennsylvania between 1850 and 1860, left few examples from that decade and these are confined almost entirely to ecclesiastical structures.” Greek Revival architecture, as the name suggests, finds its source in the Greek temple, while Gothic Revival archi­tecture is inspired by the cathedrals of medieval Europe characterized by the pointed or Gothic arch.

The Patterson house, more Greek Revival than Gothic in appearance, is a frame one-and-one-half-story dwelling built in 1874, measuring twenty-six by thirty-six feet. The front of the house originally had four windows, two on either side of the door, and possibly a small porch. The house was divided into eight rooms, including the enclosed porch on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second floor.

Perhaps the builder of the Patterson house was influenced by a brick story-and-a-half farmhouse located within several miles of his home. That house, built in 1854, has a similar floor plan, but the exterior more closely resembles Greek Revival style buildings.

The plan of the Patterson house is also similar to plans published in The American Agriculturist and The Cultivator during the 1840’s. Or perhaps the house is, to use the words of Alan Gowans, Images of American Living, 1964, a “local stylistic variation” of Greek Revival architecture, twenty years after the style had reached its apex in western Pennsylvania. It may also be an example of the impact of agricultural journals on farmhouse design.

Generally, farmers appear to have been more directly influenced by the design of other farmhouses than by urban domestic architecture; architectural styles were not adopted by Lawrence County farmers until after the styles were no longer fashionable in such urban centers as Phila­delphia. In fact, as late as 1920 one author, Alfred Hopkins, in Modern Farm Buildings, recommended utilizing the basic Georgian floor plan: ” … one cannot do better than to revert to the old type, a narrow hall in the middle, usually with two rooms on each side, four rooms down­stairs and four upstairs … ”

The most noticeable effect of nineteenth-century architectural styles on farmhouses can be seen in what Henry Glassie in Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, 1968, calls “secondary characteristics – ‘porches and ornamentation'” – rather than in the floor plans and exteriors. For example, the porch on the Temple house is a twentieth-century modification of a late-nineteenth-century attempt to be stylish.

However, most of the farmhouses described by the informants were plain in appearance. While all of the houses had at least one porch, most had no ornamentation. As The American Agriculturist complained in 1882, “It is almost universal fault with at least nine-tenths of all our present country houses, that they have the plainest possible outlines. and no effort is made to give variety, which can be done at very trifling cost.” Most farmers did not spend the money to be stylish either outside or inside the home.

Although technology had made water closets, pumped­-in water, and cellar furnaces available by the mid-nineteenth century, most farmers chose to do without these con­veniences. As J. H. Hammond noted in The Farmer’s and Mechanic’s Practical Architect and Guide in Rural Economy, 1858: “In all model houses which are built at the present day, a contrivance by which water may be conveyed directly into the kitchen, if into no other rooms, is considered indispensable. In the country, people are apt to set too low a value on the importance of these labor-saving accommodations.” The situation did not change until the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Most of the families depended upon coal stoves, wood burners, and grates for heat. As Lewis Allen wrote in Rural Architecture, 1852: “We are not disposed to talk about cellar furnaces for heating a farmer’s house. They have little to do in the farmer’s inventory of goods at all, unless it be to give warmth to the hall. .. ” Informants noted that most activity took place in the warmest room of the house, usually the kitchen because of the kitchen stove. Bedrooms were used only for sleeping due to the lack of heat.

Other examples, such as room function and building technology, could be cited to detail additional ways in which the nineteenth-century material culture of Lawrence County provides insight into the lives of nineteenth-century farmers. Although each of the three farmhouses reflects the unique social and geographic background of its builder, collectively they represent typical mid-nineteenth-century farmhouses found throughout Lawrence County and western Pennsylvania.


Susan E. Hanna, under the auspices of the National Endow­ment for the Humanities, is currently developing an interpretive program for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.