Have you ever imagined what Graceland Farms looked like in the 1800s when it was just a 13.8- acre estate without its Colonial Revival mansion? What about Nashville without Belle Meade Plantation, and other areas in Tennessee without the stately plantation homes and luxurious residences?
Just think of the vast expanse of open lands during earlier times and envision the structures that stood there. In the centuries before architecture became a formal discipline, and before house styles were defined and improved upon, homes on the frontier were simple and functional buildings. They were constructed of available materials that provided shelter, warmth, and comfort to families and communities.
Tennessee has its share of residential architecture designed and built by nonprofessional homesteaders in the 17th and 18th centuries in what is known as vernacular architecture. Here’s a closer look at the State’s interpretations of “common-folk” architecture.
Just What is Vernacular Architecture?
Defined as “architecture that makes use of common regional forms and materials at a particular place and time; usually modest and unpretentious, and often a mixture… or hybrid of several styles,” it originated when settlers were forced to make use of the natural resources around them to provide shelter and comfort from the elements.
An example of vernacular architecture in Tennessee is the William Griffiths House in Greenback. This 2-story farmhouse with a Tennessee L-shape layout was constructed in 1854 and granted National Register of Historic Places status in 1989 (photo credit: Public Domain).
In the mid-17th century, most of the early residential architecture in Tennessee was generally vernacular – it was of the region and adapted to the local landscape. Instead of being built by skilled craftsmen, houses were planned and constructed by locals who imitated and combined various elements from designs shown in the popular press, magazines, and mail-order catalogs.
Characteristics of Tennessee Vernacular Homes
Since vernacular architecture is dictated by local cultural traditions and circumstances, characteristics of buildings may differ from area to area. In Tennessee, there are four basic features that define vernacular buildings.
• Materials used
• Construction techniques
• Shape of building
• Design elements
Styles of Tennessee Architecture
Early in Tennessee's history, three types of houses dominated: stone, log, and tmber-frame homes. In subsequent decades, though, many other styles and combinations emerged from these early vernacular forms, as you will see today.
Brick and Stone Houses
Houses constructed of brick and stone were primarily built in East and Middle Tennessee from 1780 to 1850 by settlers from Pennsylvania and Virginia. These were usually two-story Central-Hall or Hall-and-Parlor homes that had side gable roofs, exteriors with double-hung windows, and three to five bays arranged symmetrically. Mostly patterned after Federal or Greek Revival designs, the homes featured entrances with transoms and sidelights. The fireplaces and interior doors also had Federal or Greek Revival touches.
Top: Cragfront, a state histoirc site home near Castalian Springs, Tennessee, is a center-hall Colonial that was built between 1798 and 1802 (photo credit: Cragfont House by Brian Stansberry under license CC BY 3.0). Bottom: This stately red brick 3-story Colonial Georgian home with 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, and 3 fireplaces – a common site in Tennessee – has a number of the design elements that were copied by builders of the early brick and stone houses in the state in the 1780s. There’s the entrance with sidelights, transom, double hung windows, gable roof, and the symmetry – particularly the five-bay facade on the second and third floors (Plan #137-1159).
From the 1780s to about 1900,log houses started appearing in the Tennessee region; and came in four sub-types base on their exteriors.
A Single Pen is a rectangle or square of four walls of a log cabin. It has gable roofs, stone pier foundations, and stone chimneys.
A Double Pen can be a one or two-story home that consists of two separate log structures built close to one another and covered with a single roof. The space in between the two pens became a breezeway.
The Saddlebag is a log cabin with two rooms, each with its own hearth and chimney. A connecting door between the two rooms can be added as well as windows in each space. A loft reached through a stairway was used for sleeping or storage.
The Dog Trot House – like the double pen – is made up of two log cabins of the same size separated by an open hall or breezeway, all under one roof. One cabin was used for cooking and dining; and the other served as a bedroom. The breezeway cooled the occupants during the hot summer months in the South.
Top: This log house from the early 1800s was slave cabin known as Uncle Alfred's Cabin. It may be a variation of the Double Pen floor plan. Alfred Jackson was born into slavery at the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson's plantation near Nashville, around 1812 and worked there as a freedman after Emancipation. Alfred died in 1901 and was buried near the tomb of the President and Mrs. Jackson (photo credit: Alfred's Cabin by Rennett Stowe under license CC BY 2.0). Bottom: This diagram clearly illustrates the configurations of the rooms and the breezeway in the typical dog trot house. (credit: Typical Dogtrot Floor Plan by mwoehlke based on a raster image by Altairisfar under license CC BY-SA 3.0),
Timber Frame Home
A timber frame structure is a one or two-story sturdy rectangular plan featuring a gable roof and framed with timber and posts supported with hand-hewn diagonal braces. They were built in Tennessee before 1860 – and some of them are still around in Knoxville and other cities.
This attractive 2-story cabin has the look of a timber-framed home set in a serene and calm location. The home includes 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a wraparound porch, vaulted ceilings, a balcony, a master suite with a private deck, and other amenities (Plan #160-1015).
is a one or two-story rectangle plan constructed with logs or braced framing. Actually a variation of the double-pen, this style featured two rooms, with each room having its own outside door.
The basic plan of the Cumberland house was often modified by the addition of shed or lean-to porches in front and back or of one or more rooms across the back. In some designs, a hall separated the two rooms.
The style derived its name from one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs – the Cumberland Homesteads – 251 homes, which were built in Crossville, Tennessee, between 1934 and 1938. The plan was to build a village with 20 to 30 acre farms that would house and educate a starving Appalachian population.
Designed by architect William Macy Stanton, the homes followed his basic patterns: rectangular houses, L-shaped houses, and T-shaped houses, most of which are 1.5 stories with gable roofs and one or two chimneys. Most houses originally had covered-porch entrances and batten doors.
This typical Cumberland homesteads house in Crossville includes a crab orchard stone facade, gable roof, and chimney characteristic of the style. (photo credit: Cumberlnad Homesteads House by Brian Stansberry under license CC BY 3.0)
The Cumberland homes were built with locally quarried sandstone called crab orchard stone – known for its durability and reddish hue. They were generally three bedrooms, with one downstairs and two bedrooms located atop a narrow staircase. The stairs are open in some plans, with fireplaces designed as the center of the living space. Many of the plans have two chimneys to accommodate both the fireplace and a wood burning cook-stove in the kitchen.
One-Story Piano Box Houses
From the mid-19th century to the early part of the 20th century, Piano Box Houses were introduced in Middle and West Tennessee. So called because their shape resembles that of a rectangular or box-shaped piano, these homes were limited to the Tennessee area – with only a handful still in existence.
One-story Piano Box Homes evolved from an L-shaped floor plan, with a second wing creating an H form. The houses feature porches, fireplaces to provide heat, and trim on windows.
The only existing Victorian Piano Box home in Memphis is this historic single-story Maxwelton home. Named after the famous Maxwelton Estate in Scotland, the home was built around 1860 from local poplar and cypress woods. The 1-story residence has a long recessed central porch between two flanking parlors. There are 5 fireplaces with wooden mantels, and some have ornately tiled hearths (photo credit: Maxwelton by Jim Roberts under license CC BY-SA 4.0).
Many of Tennessee's homes are one or two-story wood frame houses built between the mid-19th century to the early 20th century (and continue to be built today); they came in three different variations. Because of their front-forward gables that resembled the forms of pediments, they reflected the Gothic and Greek Revival styles.
• Center Gable House (between 1850 and 1890) features a center gable that extends from the wall of the façade. At times, the facades may have paired or tripled gables.
Bring on the Southern charm. This attractive 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath home with Craftsman details features a center gable, a beautifully landscaped front yard, and a wraparound porch lined with tall white columns (Plan #142-1175).
• Gable Front House (1870-1930), as the name suggests, is a style where the gable faces the street. This folk house type is found in a variety of styles ranging from Queen Anne, to Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and other simple house styles.
An illustration of the gable front is seen in this delightful 1-story Craftsman style home with 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, an inviting covered porch, and 2,639 sq. ft. of living space (Plan #142-1102).
• Gable Ell is a variation of the gable front house that incorporates an intersecting side gable that forms an L-shape. This style found in urban and rural Tennessee is sometimes called an Upright and Wing House or a Gable Front and Wing House because of its shape.
The Gabled Ell roofline is shown in this captivating 1-story Country style home with 1,884 sq. ft. of living space, covered front porch, 3 bedrooms, and 2 baths (Plan #108-1695).
This spectacular 1.5-story French Country style home captivates everyone’s attention with its amazing exterior facade of stucco, wood, and brick. The 2,854-sq.-ft. home includes 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, and its version of the gable ell roofline – plus dormers over the spacious covered front porch (Plan #142-1209).
The Shotgun House was the most popular house style in the South from 1860 to 1930. Built in urban and rural areas for worker and tenant housing, the Shotgun is a narrow rectangular home with gable front or hip roofs. They feature rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house. People say these are called shotgun “because a bullet fired through the front door would go right out the backdoor without hitting a wall."
A fascinating Shotgun house in the Mechanicsville Historic District of Nashville was built circa 1900 and includes a very cozy covered front porch and a gable roof (photo credit: 1012 McGhee Knoxville by Brian Stansberry under license CC BY 3.0).
Bungalow Style Houses
Bungalows can range from one- to two-story structures with open floor plans and informal interiors. They usually have a small porch with columns set in large brick bases. These porches are often enclosed with screens to keep the bugs away on summer nights on the porch. The floor plans are generally narrow yet deep homes. For more on the Bungalow style, click here.
This charming 1-story Bungalow style home with a pyramid hip roof packs an abundance of appeal in its small footprint. With just 864 sq. ft. of living space, the home features an open floor plan, a comfortable covered front porch, 2 bedrooms, a family room, and a walk-in pantry (Plan #123-1085).
In addition to these styles, Tennessee house plans include the following designs:
Early Floor Plans of Tennessee Vernacular Architecture
Most of the early residential architecture in Tennessee followed two principal house plans – the Hall-and Parlor and Central-Hall Plan, plus its variant, the Penn Plan.
Quite common in the 17th and 18th centuries, this design originated from medieval England. When Welsh and English settlers from Virginia moved into the Tennessee Valley, they built frame, stone, brick, and even log homes that were two rooms wide and one-room deep.
Often a one-and-a-half story home, the Hall-and-Parlor is a rectangular two-room configuration. The structures had steeply pitched side-gable roofs and chimneys on one or both sides of the house. The larger of the two rooms – the Hall – served as the center of household activity. If the home had a loft, there was an enclosed stair or ladder going up to it.
The parlor or chamber – which was the more private section – often featured a fireplace and a door to the outside. This was used primarily for sleeping.
The main-level floor plan of a Hall-and-Parlor style home illustrates the bigger hall, which was the social center of the household, and a smaller parlor. In this home, there are two chimneys, one on each end of the home (credit: Hall-and-Parlor House Floor Plan by Altairisfar under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
The Samuel Crockett House in Brentwood, TN – built in 1808 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 1988 – is one of the existing examples of a Hall-and-Parlor plan. It is also known as Forge Seat because of the iron forge located on the property. It was here that Samuel Crocket and his son Andrew made rifles purchased by Andrew Jackson for the battle of New Orleans (photo credit: ForgeSeat by Concord715 under license CC0 1.0).
From Colonial Maryland and Virginia and influenced by the symmetry of the Georgian and Palladian styles, the design features a center hall flanked by two rooms on each side. The big hall served as a reception area or living space for the family. One of the side rooms was used as a formal parlor with the other rooms for family use.
The style can be adapted to one-story or two-story structures. Around 1800, the preference was toward the two-story, two-room house with a central passage.
This diagram of the Central-Hall plan shows a center passageway flanked by one room on each side. Stairs are usually located in the central hall (credit: Central Passage House Floor Plan by Altairisfar under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
While central hall houses in Tennessee date back to the 1790s, the plan did not catch on until the mid-19th century when it began to replace the Hall-and-Parlor style. Today, there are still brick and stone houses in Tennessee.
The Nicholas Tate Perkins House in Franklin, TN – also known as Two Rivers – is a 2-story brick house that features the Central-Hall plan and Federal style details. Built in 1820, the residence was added to the National Register of Historic Houses in March 1988 (photo credit: Public Domain).
Top: Take a look at this majestic 2-story 5,258-sq.-ft. Colonial home for a modern day interpretation of the Central-Hall plan. The luxury residence features 3 bedrooms, 4 baths, and plenty of amenities. Bottom: The main-level floor plan of the home shows the central hall, which extends from the foyer to the living room. The stairs going up to the second floor are included in this illustration (Plan #106-1189).
A variant of the Hall-and-Parlor plan, this is a three-room house design made up of a large hall and two smaller rooms on the other side of an interior wall. The hall had a fireplace for cooking, stairs to the upper level and a door opening to the outside. The two smaller rooms were used as a sitting room or a bedroom and featured a window in each room, along with an exterior side wall fireplace opening into the rooms.
The earliest Penn Plan house in Tennessee was the Embree House which was completed in 1791 in Jonesborough for Thomas Embree, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who settled in Tennessee. Architect and builder Set Smith built the home of gray limestone quarried on Embree's property. Then in 1830, Aaron Hoffman constructed a frame Penn-Plan home in Kingsport. Both residences are historic landmarks in Jonesborough and Kingsport.
There’s everything to love about Tennessee vernacular architecture and its evolution into diverse home designs that make sense in the modern world.
Footnote: The lead image in this article is a captivating 2,484-sq.-ft. Transitional Farmhouse with 3 bedrooms and 3.5 baths. The 2-story home has an open floor design with vaulted ceilings, covered front and rear porches, a patio, gable roof, Great Room, guest suite, home office, an in-home gym, and more. For more details on this fabulous home go to Plan #106-1324.