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January 2020
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Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn

On Westminster Road, North of Putney
(a favorite shutterbugging haunt of mine)
One of many things that eased me right back into my New England roots with a decidedly warm and fuzzy feeling seven years ago was the architecture. I’d look at local construction and think: “Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I was missing for 18 years.” The vistas in the west were vast and grand, the coasts rugged, the sage pungent and untamed, and yet, and yet…the miles of stucco and stick frame (especially in California), left me with an empty, almost bereaved feeling. Not to put too fine a point on it, (but): they depressed the hell out of me. There were days when I just plain hated looking at buildings (commercial and residential alike) in the west and couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t even get excited about the Victorians in San Francisco, a city I lived in for five years. I’ll allow that this seemed a trifle peevish and petty, even to me. It wasn’t until someone (a Yankee, of course) said: “Well of course you couldn’t. Most of those are just false façades with nothing behind them. No substance. Not like our Colonials here.”
Now to be fair, those particular buildings belong to a class of architecture known as “Italianate Victorians” (a term that somehow manages to bastardize the English, Italian and even architectural languages in one fell swoop) that were purposely built this way in the mid 1800s. They’re distinguished from their earlier cousins by the triumvirate of flat roofs, decorous brackets and overhanging eaves. The false front was merely the cherry on top of the metaphorical sundae. By extending the faux façade beyond the actual roof line the house would be graced by the illusion of gazelle-esque heights.
From my comfortable seat in front of my Jøtul wood stove in Vermont, I can cheerfully acquiesce that even the scrappiest of buildings have their merit. But architecture, alas, should not be judged by the same criteria as a late night cable TV beauty pageant. It must have something of greater depth and substance than mere looks to recommend itself. It must, as my Yankee friend asserted, have substance as its girts. With economy as the king post.
The unique New England phenomenon that is the Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn manages all three. For it is here that we find the unique amalgamation of beauty and substance shored up by the all important Yankee thrift. To the flatlander or Fall tourist, quite the opposite impression may prevail. To some, it may seem, this unique quartet contains none of the afore-mentioned virtues, due, in part, to the seemingly arbitrary placement of four separate buildings.
Well, it’s like this:

“Although this four-part arrangement might sometimes appear haphazard, most nineteenth century New England connected farm buildings shared similar patterns of spatial organization and usage. Most farms were aligned at right angles to the road with the major facades of the big house and the barn facing the road. Farmers then oriented their line of connected buildings to shelter a south- or east-facing work yard, called the dooryard, from north or west winter winds. A barnyard was usually located on the south or east side of the barn for similar reasons.”

–Thomas C. Hubka, author of Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn

Hubka knows what he’s talking about. The author is on the faculty of The School of Architecture and Urban Planning at The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Besides writing about America’s vernacular buildings and architectural design method, Hubka spent a good deal of time in Southwestern Maine (an area of the country I happen to be intimately acquainted with) studying this particular homestead lay-out. As it happens, most free-standing barns did not become connected to the farmhouse or other out buildings until the mid 1800s, exactly the era when “Italianate Victorians” came into high fashion. This coincidence is an interesting one, because it causes me to realize that architectural styles are born during certain formative years in our country’s population and industrial growth. In other words, although I may hold an elitist’s disdain for Italianate Victorians, I must concede the strange coincidence with a completely disparate trend on the opposite side of the country during the same time frame. When one considers that at the dawn of the nineteenth century no goods or services in The United States traveled faster than the legs of the sleekest endurance pony (interstate water travel only became honed to a glorious shine after Lewis and Clark set off on their emboldened journey to parts then unknown), the advent of such enterprising architectural trends is indeed awe-inspiring.

But getting back to the architectural lay-out.

First you have:

The Big House. It’s exactly as described; i.e. the main farmhouse with the loftiest decor. It usually faces the road and is the nearest structure to it. “In spite of its size and architectural refinements, it was seldom used for daytime activities in the nineteenth century and was primarily a place of rest,” Hubka notes.

Little House. That was the chow house and the main living area for farm families. And still is to this day.

Back House. Third in line to the throne, this structure stands back of the Little House. It usually contained a wagon way station, not to mention a privy. Along with the Little House, the Back House formed the “ell” (or “L”), a word which still peppers Yankee vernacular today.

Barn. The pièce de résistance of the whole architectural formation. It’s the fulcrum on which the farming operation turns on New England farms today, as in yesteryear. And those babies were made to last. When I see the post and beam construction on many turn of the century barns still standing tall in Vermont, I understand how farm animals are able to weather the elements in the bitter cold climes we experience in the winter months around here.

So for those of you who are strangers to New England, I hope you’ll pause to check out the ingenuity of old Yankee architecture if and when you ever pass this way. The Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn complex is built to be a tough-as-nails modus operandi for stalwart Yankee farmers, but they’re also just lovely to look at. Which, as always, reminds me of how fortunate I am to be living in one of the most astonishingly beautiful parts of our fair country.