Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 1989

The German Influence

Persistence in the Built Environment

By James M. Denny

The justly celebrated "Missouri Rhineland" settlement region presents some of the most picturesque and compelling landscapes, formed by the processes of geology and culture, that can be encountered in the Ozarks. This Northern Ozarks Border contains a concentration of material culture associated with German settlement that is of national significance. Students and lovers of old buildings and antique material culture flock to this region. They drive curving roads that weave around and over the steep river hills of the Missouri, Osage, Gasconade, and Loutre River watersheds, and search for the quaint hamlets, quiet country churches, and the farms with great barns and old farmers who tell, with a noticeable German brogue, of the times of their youth that seem to belong to a vanished world.


The buildings of this region -- stoutly built, well-executed dwellings, barns, wine cellars, outbuildings, stores, commercial and industrial buildings, steepled churches -- are in the countryside and towns alike. In picturesque towns like Hermann, Washington, Augusta, Westphalia, and numerous others are houses and stores placed close to the street, often built of brick with arched openings and fancifully finished cornices. Farmsteads with houses, great barns, and outbuildings of stone, fachwerk (half-timbered), horizontal log, frame, or brick occur in great number in the beautiful rolling farm country of the Rhineland and "Father Hellas" settlement regions. Exquisite churches, often made of stone, dot the rural landscape, reflecting the strong influence of Catholics and of German Protestants (Lutheran, Evangelical, Methodist) whose parishes and congregations were focal points for the clusters of communities spread across a succession of ridges and valleys on either side of the lower Missouri River.

This architecture has been much admired and studied for what it has to tell us of the fine sense of craftsmanship and skill in the building arts possessed by the German immigrants; of a deep sense of Old World tradition perpetuated in such building techniques as fachwerk and ancient living arrangements as house-barns; and of a willingness to make permanent commitment to a particular place, to care for an environment over time through wise farming practices. That compact with the land is manifested in substantial buildings made of durable materials, capable of being passed down through generations (as they often have been). Their sense of the land, and how to farm it successfully year in and year out, they often proudly contrasted with the wastefulness and land depleting practices of their Anglo-American neighbors.

The rolling expanse of woodlands and watercourses of the Missouri Rhineland country had a magnetic pull for a wide variety of people from several Old World German provinces. it was not merely a matter of the best farmland, for better and latter lands could have been had. This wildly undulating land, mantled by arable loess soils, must have appealed to a certain romantic strain, and echoed beloved landscapes in the fatherland.

During the second third of the nineteenth century, these hills were a major destination point for the outpouring of thousands of Germans leaving their home provinces for a variety of reasons including religious, political and economic upheavals. Intellectuals, craftsmen and artisans, folk of peasant stock, all came. They prospered in their new fatherland, and enriched the American spirit and nation. They brought with them passionately held values of freedom (both political and religious) and of individual enterprise. These new arrivals established neat, prosperous farming operations, one of the nation's largest wine producing districts, and numerous successful commercial and industrial ventures, including zither and corn cob pipe manufactories. And whatever the wisdom that went into the original selection of lands, they stayed on through the generations. It is predominantly their descendents who continue to live there today.

Much has been made of the persistence in relatively unaltered form of German folkways, language, and customs. Scholarly attention to the region's architecture is noteworthy. Charles van Ravenswaay's monumental study of the architecture and material culture of the Missouri River valley German settlements is already a classic. Howard Marshall, Osmund Overby, and Erin Renn have recently added contributions. In addition to the growing attention being focused on this region by folklorists and students of material culture, is a burgeoning tourist industry. It is built on revived traditional festivals (such as Hermann's famous Maifest), a revitalized wine industry, antique shops, bed and breakfast establishments, and similar manifestations of the thriving business of heritage.

House-store, Bay, Gasconade County, Mo.

Garden Theater building in Washington, Mo.
House-store, Cooper Hill, Osage County, Mo.


As deeply and enduringly stamped by their German heritage as the Northern Ozarks Border has been, full comprehension of its cultural landscape requires consideration of the role played from the beginning by the forces of Americanization. Various political, military, social, and economic forces already present have penetrated even the remotest corners of the German settlement region. For example, many new arrivals were scarce off the immigrant boats before they were called upon to take sides in the fratricidal blood bath of the Civil War. Despising slavery as they did, nearly every Rhinelander rallied to the cause of the Union, afterwards embraced Republicanism (the political party, that is) and entered, with less resistance than their Southern brethren, into the era of the Industrial Revolution. Further tests of devotion to the adopted homeland came with World Wars I and II, an era in which the German language passed out of general use.

The blending of American events and American forces with the traditions and practices brought from the Old World is a process of change that can be traced through the generations, including changes in the built environment. Complex currents of social and economic transition are revealed in the forms, materials, and appearances of buildings. An appreciation of the process of change will expand our understanding of the German-American landscape as we actually encounter it, constructed as it was over time, changed and varied in an ongoing dialogue between custom and novelty. Noteworthy examples are the housebarn and the housestore.

Missouri's only surviving housebarn (the subject of another article in this issue) has received considerable attention, and rightly so, for this improbable structure reflects a Medieval life mode that should have been extinct by the time of its construction (late 1860s). Similarly arcane is the building's fachwerk construction technique.

The housestore cannot claim so ancient a lineage -- the form probably goes no further back than Renaissance times. But as with the housebarn, we see domestic and economic functions conjoined. House stores can be observed throughout the Northern Ozarks Border.

The prototypic housestore for the region is undoubtedly the imposing Bay Mercantile Company store and residence, built ca. 1856-57, and located in the town of Bay in central Gasconade County. Across the street is the stable. All of these large buildings are built up in stone courses of dressed and shaped 'cotton rock,' as a certain variety of the native limestone is known locally. This grouping is one of the finest stone building complexes in Missouri, worthy of the Historic American Building Survey measured drawings and photographs made of it that painstakingly documented the many fine construction details. The Bay housestore and stable speak to the very best qualities of Missouri German construction, to the determination to build what is solid and lasting. They reflect pride in a craftsmanship that can be unexpectedly delicate, as in the handsome shutters of first-story windows of the Mercantile building.

In Marthasville, Warren County, is another house-store considerably different than the one at Bay. It is a difference resulting from the fact that it was built three or four decades later than its Gasconade County counterpart, and is clearly the creation of the post-Civil War industrial and transportation revolutions. Initially, it would seem impossible to understand the Marthasville housestore as the product of local traditions. Its existence probably resulted directly from the coming of the railroad to the north side of the Missouri River. The Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad was extended through Marthasville in the 1890s. Very likely all the materials that went into the house-store, which faced the tracks, were delivered directly from the trains. Unlike the Bay Mercantile Company building complex, no doubt built of local materials, the house-store at Marthasville was likely built of materials imported from outside sources. The ornate galvanized iron, pressed into a profusion of rich designs, completely sheaths the exterior, and much of the interior as well. The entire facade --windows, stamped metal, and all- was probably ordered from a catalogue of George Mesker & Co., Evansville, Indiana.

House Store at Marthaville, Warren County, Mo.


Examination of this one building demonstrates the inroads the national marketplace made into the regional culture. But it is equally clear that the new forces merely modified a local form, without entirely supplanting it. The Marthasville builder, unlike his predecessor at Bay, apparently had no illusions about building for the ages. It was easier, cheaper, and more practical to build with lumber than to quarry, haul, and lay up massive stone blocks. But neither did the builder abandon local traditions: the house store form was continued. And a more subtle evocation of past building practices was the decision, if not to build in stone, at least to utilize a rock-faced pattern in the stamped galvanized iron siding applied to the building. While such materials as galvanized sheet iron stamped in stone or brick patterns, or portland cement blocks molded to imitate rock facing, were mass produced for a national market, regional customs may explain why rock-faced concrete block buildings and buildings sided with stamped metal (invariably coated with aluminum paint) seem invariably to have been the patterns of choice throughout the German Ozarks.

One of the delights of German brick construction is the careful attention devoted to cornices. There are many variations in design, but one of the most striking cornice treatments is an inverted triangular design, corbelled out from the wall surface in a repeated pattern. It can be seen on several buildings and residences all over the Northern Ozarks. A characteristic example appears on the Garden Theater building in Washington, Franklin County. The last place, however, that one would expect to encounter this design is on an International Style house. But such is the case at the Dr. Wright house and office on Third Street in Hermann.

The International Style was conceived in Europe in the early Twentieth Century as the first expression of 'modern' architecture. Explicitly anti-historical, it attempted to break the hold of the past by advocating a form of building rooted in the machine age, built up in cubist geometric shapes, usually painted a stark white color, and, above all, completely devoid of decoration of any kind.

The Hermann example of this style was probably built in the 1940s, and presents the kind of odd contradiction that can occur when a high style becomes incorporated into the vernacular building process. The result in this case is a building which, despite its striking novelty, nonetheless makes enough concessions to the traditions of the area to appear not as alien as might be expected. While its style was the product of a remote international movement in academic architecture, the builder, or contractor, was probably a local craftsman, thoroughly imbued with the sense of passed down building traditions that he incorporated into the house, "modern" though it was. The stark prescriptions of the International Style would have seemed out of keeping with the rural, conservative attitudes that pervade life in and around Hermann. And so this odd house finds a way of fitting in, of claiming its rightful niche in Hermann's progression of building. It is built of the same kind of brick used in nearby bungalows and commercial buildings: and an elongated segmental arch over the entry vestibule recalls the central role of such archs in German brickwork. But most telling is the use of that triangular cornice motif, that echo of a nearly vanished way of working brick, that characterized cornice decoration in the Missouri German country. It is one way, admittedly unusual, in which these German-Americans have continued to shape the landscapes of the Northern Ozarks Border and to invest the region with their unique sense of place and heritage.

The Dr. D.A. Wright home and office, Hermann, Mo.
James Denny has for many years researched the built environment of mid-Missouri. He is a parks operations officer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Suggested Readings

Denny, James M. "The KATY-Missouri River Trail: Missouri's Extraordinary Historic Corridor," Missouri Preservation News 11 (Summer, 1987)

Kamphoefner, Walter D. The Westfalians: From Germany to Missouri. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987)

Renn, Erin McCawley. "An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Missouri German Architecture,"in Overby, Osmund, compiler, Vernacular Architecture Forum, Tenth Annual Meeting: A Guide to the Tours

van Ravenswaay, Charles. The Arts and Architecture of the German Settlements in Missouri: A Survey of a Vanishing Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977)


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