The Architectural Evolution of an 18th Century Farmhouse

Investigate the Architecture You See Today

When you build your own house, you know exactly how it was planned and when it was constructed. Not so for anyone who falls in love with that rambling old farmhouse. To understand an old building, a little investigation is in order.

Investigating an 18th Century Farmhouse

American flag outside Farmhouse
American flag outside Farmhouse. Photo by Images Etc Ltd/Moment Mobile Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The United States wasn't built in a day. The first Europeans who settled in the New World usually started out small and built up their assets over time. Their prosperity and architecture expanded incrementally as America grew.  The National Park Service's Preservation Brief 35, all about Architectural Investigation, helps us understand how buildings change over time. Historians Bernard L. Herman and Gabrielle M. Lanier, then of the University of Delaware, put together this explanation back in 1994.

Farmhouse Beginnings, Period I, 1760

18th Century Farmhouse, 1760, Original House
18th Century Farmhouse, 1760, Original House. Drawing by Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering, University of Delaware, National Park Service Preservation Brief 35 PDF, September 1994, p. 4

Herman and Lanier chose the Hunter Farm House in Sussex County, Delaware to explain how the architecture of a house can evolve over time.

The Hunter Farm House was built in the mid-1700s. This sparse design is what they call "a double-cell,  double-pile, half-passage plan." A double-cell house has two rooms, but not side-by-side. Note that the floor plan shows a front room and rear room—a double pile—with a shared fireplace. "Half-passage" refers to the placement of the stairway to the second floor. As opposed to a "center-" or "side-passage" plan where stairs generally open to rooms and hallways, these stairs are located "halfway" the length of the house behind a wall, almost isolated from the two rooms. This half-passage has a door to the outside, as do the two rooms.

A one-story shed-roof area, divided into two compartments, runs along the entire right side of the house. One presumes that the intention for an addition on that side is built into the initial modest plans.

Period II, 1800, First Addition Idea

18th Century Farmhouse, 1800, First Addition
18th Century Farmhouse, 1800, First Addition. Drawing by Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering, University of Delaware, National Park Service Preservation Brief 35 PDF, September 1994, p. 4

A new generation envisioned a grand addition to the 18th century farmhouse as the 19th century was ushered in. The side shed was removed and replaced with a two-story, "single-pile" addition—one, large living area.

Architectural investigation revealed, however, that the addition may have been a freestanding structure. "The newly attached building," say Herman and Lanier, "had originally been furnished with opposing doors and windows on the front and back facades, a fireplace on the southeast gable, and double windows on the opposite end."

Period II, 1800, First Addition

18th Century Farmhouse, 1800, First Addition
18th Century Farmhouse, 1800, First Addition. Drawing by Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering, University of Delaware, National Park Service Preservation Brief 35 PDF, September 1994, p. 4

 After the two structures were joined, Herman and Lanier suggest that the fireplace was "relocated to the opposite gable." More likely, the heavy stone chimney was never moved, but the house was moved around it, as if a great wind came and swept the new wooden structure to attach to the old. This would have been a very clever solution for an extended farm family, to have built another farmhouse as wide as the exact distance between them, with the intention of some day sliding them together.

Combining the two front doors to a more centered front location gave symmetry to the combined houses. Another wall created a unified house of the "center-hall plan" variety.

 

Period III, 1850, Second Addition

18th Century Farmhouse, 1850 Second Addition
18th Century Farmhouse, 1850 Second Addition. Drawing by Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering, University of Delaware, National Park Service Preservation Brief 35 PDF, September 1994, p. 4

With the living area expanded, the remaining additions would easily fall into place. Period III in the life of Hunter Farm included a  "one-story rear service ell."

 

Period IV, Early 1900s, Third Addition

18th Century Farmhouse, 1850 Third Addition
18th Century Farmhouse, 1850 Third Addition. Drawing by Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering, University of Delaware, National Park Service Preservation Brief 35 PDF, September 1994, p. 4

Deconstructing the architecture of the house at Hunter Farm revealed the newest addition to the "service wing" in the back of the house.  "During this last remodeling," write the investigators, "the large kitchen hearth was demolished and replaced with a stove and new brick flue."

The simple cabin-like shelter c. 1760 had been transformed into a Georgian style farmhouse by the 20th century. Can you avoid buying a home with a bad layout design? Probably not if the home is centuries old, but you'll have stories to tell!

Preservation Brief 35 was prepared pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, which directs the Secretary of the Interior to develop and make available information concerning historic properties. Technical Preservation Services (TPS), Heritage Preservation Services Division, National Park Service prepares standards, guidelines, and other educational materials on responsible historic preservation treatments for a broad public.

Sources

  • Preservation Brief 35 (PDF), US Dept. of the Interior, p. 4 [accessed February 15, 2016]
  • Drawings by Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering, University of Delaware, National Park Service Preservation Brief 35 PDF, September 1994, p. 4
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Craven, Jackie. "The Architectural Evolution of an 18th Century Farmhouse." ThoughtCo, Sep. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-architectural-evolution-of-farmhouse-3863514. Craven, Jackie. (2017, September 29). The Architectural Evolution of an 18th Century Farmhouse. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-architectural-evolution-of-farmhouse-3863514 Craven, Jackie. "The Architectural Evolution of an 18th Century Farmhouse." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-architectural-evolution-of-farmhouse-3863514 (accessed November 18, 2017).