Vol. IX, No. 2, 1996

Ozarks Dwellings

As Seen From the Road

Information for Viewers

by Robert Flanders

Driving Ozarks roads provides an opportunity to look at houses, especially older ones, so as to understand them better--what they are like, and where their historical antecedents may lie. Looking at houses, and learning to identify and categorize them by style or type, can become a source of unending interest for connoisseurs of the Ozarks.

Houses conform to visible patterns. Describing the patterns of old buildings is something architectural historians do. But one need not be a scholar to participate. To begin to understand those patterns requires definition of a few terms and discussion of their meaning.

Style implies not just what is modish, but what is grounded in an, especially European artistic traditions, and in the work of master architects and builders. The progression of styles over time may be seen in most cities in the march of architecture from the earliest, near the old city centers, to the latest in the new suburbs. Styles all have names. In St. Louis, for example, Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Romantic Eclectic, Queen Anne Revival (and other historic or "period" revivals including so-called "Colonial''), Bungalow, Prairie Style, International Style, Ranch, and now "Post-modern" may all be observed. These are only prominent examples.

Single Pen

Double Pen


Single pen log house with loft, Belleview Valley, Iron County, Missouri. Note combined window-door opening, occasioned by the difficulty of constructing openings in log walls.


Roof and porch variants, here shown on the hall and parlor type
The drawings on these pages are adapted from Doug Swaim, ed/tor, Carolina Dwelling: Toward Preservation of Place: In Celebration of the North Carolina Landscape, The Student Publication of the School of Design: Vol. 26, North Carolina State University, 1978.

The Hall and Parlor House type
The Central Passage type
The one-story Georgian-Plan house type
Open passage, or dog trot house, with passage now enclosed. Pen at right is traditional square plan, ca. 16'; pen at left is a larger rectangle, probably a later addition. House building in multiple stages was a common practice, well suited to log construction. Note joist ends of loft floor extending through front house wall.


National styles is a term for architectural styles that became so fashionable and popular that they were adopted nationwide. National styles became popular in the Ozarks quite late. Bungalow, a twentieth century style, is the first of the national styles to be popular in the countryside and rural villages. In the late adoption of national styles, Ozarks conservatism and traditionalism are evident.

Regional Types refers to traditional building forms that characterize a provincial region and the various locales within it. Around the world, most people have throughout history provided their own housing, rather than buying dwellings built by others. Most of the time they have built according to traditional, rather than innovative, patterns of design. Traits of different cultures always include particular, often distinctive, patterns of their houses. The different house patterns of different cultures may usefully be termed "types" as differentiated from "styles," because they derive from tradition rather than innovation, the intention to build the familiar rather than the novel, and indifference to any artistic tradition other than their own.

In the United States, national styles overspread, but did not immediately replace, the housing of common people, the forms of which were inherited from traditional, or "folk" design. (Folklore includes study of folk housing.) All regions possess traditions of folk design deriving from the immigrant streams which came bringing their house patterns, often ancient ones, with them. In the Ozarks, as, in other regions of the Upland South, primary immigrant streams were British, especially English and Scotch-Irish, and German.

May old traditional British and German folk houses be found then in the Ozarks? Yes and no: the matter is complicated by the interplay over time of many influences which blend traditions and bring change. Especially complicating is the interplay of national styles and regional types. The result is the vernacular.

Single pen house with rear el, Taney county, Missouri. An Unusual feature of this construction is 24' long logs used to enclose the traditional 16' X 16' front room and the 8' X 16' rear room.

Double pen, mirror image facade frame house, Taney County, Missouri. This is a saddle bag configuration, with twin fireplaces, one for each room, in a single center chimney. Note decorative fish-scale shingles in gable, and long vertical siding boards. This structure housed the first telephone switchboard in its Swan Creek neighborhood.


Vernacular is a term adopted from linguistics, where it means the speech of ordinary people, or the common speech of a linguistic group. In architectural history, the term identifies the common buildings of ordinary people that characterize a place or region. Vernacular includes the spectrum of buildings between the poles of high style design at the one extreme, and the most traditional folk expressions at the other. In the Ozarks, most houses are vernacular.

Though common, vernacular houses are finally complex. For example, descriptions of vernacular houses may include the whole range of their forms, plans, decorative elements, materials, workmanship, cost, and functions, the same as descriptions of high style, architect-designed houses might do. Despite the complexity of vernacular building, however, we observe that conscious concern for design, especially for design according to style, may have been but little involved in their planning and construction. A vernacular house was likely copied more or less directly from another in the locale--indeed, copied from all others of similar type. Thus is tradition continued. Changes in the vernacular are evolutionary, and tend to occur slowly. As an Ozarks contractor once told me, "Now, your ordinary country carpenter is like an old cow going to water, down that same path every time. The only way to get that cow to another path is to beat on it with a stick. Now, carpenters are the same. They don't like to build things different."

Vernacular houses are the ones we see from the road in the Ozarks most of the time--especially the older ones. Typically they exemplify traditional folk building forms with some influences of style, often naively incorporated--a primitive Palladian portico here, a shingled gable there, often a front porch with simple, carpentered "Greek" columns. Sometimes, as in the Blansit house, vernacular expression results when a house of national style prominently incorporates a local or regional element (see page 32).

Bill Fowler House, Buffalo National river, Boxley valley, Newton County, Arkansas.
Central passage, front door, and staircase, Bill Fowler house. Note decorative detailing in millwork, an interior representation of the carpenter art in the front verandahs.


Ozarks vernacular is Southern. Little if any of our region's vernacular housing is unique, but is to be found below Mason's and Dixon's Line from the Chesapeake to the Rio Grande--indeed, wherever Southerners have gone and built. (Some of that vernacular is north of the line as well, in Southern-settled areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana. and Illinois). But not all Southern vernacular types are common to the Ozarks. Our regional house types are fewer than the totality of Southern ones. tn particular, the ubiquitous Southern one-room-deep "central passage house," a vernacular adaptation of the British-Colonial Georgian form, is uncommon, especially in the Missouri Ozarks. An Ozarks vernacular parallel to the Georgian form utilizes the same floor plan without the central passage and centered front door. It is the very common "two front doors" type, presenting a double pen, mirror image facade. This two-front-door arrangement, absolutely symmetrical, has had such a grip in the region that it is repeated on the facades of houses with many different kinds of floor plans, including bungalows. It has been built for more than a century, and continues to be built.

Triple pen house: original saddle-bag configuration at left, with added third room at right. Note the door-window arrangement, from left to right: window-door-window blank; window-door-window; and window blank-door-window. The concept of symmetry is maintained despite the absence of two windows among the six window ranges. Troy Fowler house, Buffalo National River, Boxley Valley, Newton County, Arkansas.

Ratcliff house, Morgan County, Missouri, 1864. A traditional plan, four rooms with central passage plus rear addition; it is German in its massive refined stone work. Built during the Civil War for protection against marauding bushwhackers, the front wall is 18" thick, with end walls an astounding 30" thick.

Central passage and stair, Ratcliff house. Front door is behind camera; door at right is to rooms of rear addition. Due to thickness of walls, interior rooms are reduced in length a total of eight feet from exterior dimension.


Symmetry, as exhibited in the facades of the double pen mirror image type, is a common element of Ozarks vernacular (a major exception is Ozarks German vernacular, often slightly askew). The commonest Ozarks houses present symmetrical facades, as typical of log or timber frame house in remote places as they are of more sophisticated, town-influenced houses. Explicitly asymmetrical facades probably indicate at least the intention to follow a national style, especially those popularly, if imprecisely, called "Victorian." Symmetry is everywhere in the Ozarks vernacular. It is a persisting element of the earliest house forms brought here, beginning almost two centuries ago: the careful symmetries of vernacular Georgian and Greek Revival dwellings of the early American republic.

Joseph Millard house, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, 1815. The plan of this house is full Georgian, i.e., two rooms front and back on either side of the central passages, totalling eight rooms. Note the French-style casemented dormers and indication of an original roofed porch.
Millard house, front parlor furnished in traditional fashion by present owner. Note mantel piece in Georgian style.
McAlester, Virginia and Lee. A Field Guide to American House, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Pierson, William H. Jr. American Buildings and their Architects: The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1970.

For additional reading see:

Foley, Mary Mix. The American House, New York:

Harper and Row, 1980

Glassey, Henry. Patterns in the Material Folk Culture of the

United States. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

All photos: Collection of the Center for Ozarks Studies, Southwest Missouri State University


Copyright -- OzarksWatch

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