DEFINING VERNACULAR THROUGH
THE FLORIDA VERNACULAR THE CRACKER HOUSE
AMERICAN ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY
December 9, 1982
DORINDA K.M. BLACKEY
Architecture is one of the visual arts which reflects the social,
economic, geographic and political characteristics of a society. Whether
it be high culture, pop culture or folk culture, all use architecture as
one way to explain themselves. In high culture the religious centers, the
government centers or the economic centers, depending upon the emphasis of
each society, are the examples of architecture which best epitomize their
culture. Pop culture is reflected in the buildings which are mass-produced
Folk culture is not so easily defined, as pop culture can overlap with the
passage of time. Folk culture is something which deals with tradition,
regionalism and individuality. It contrasts with the contemporary, popular
culture. Over time, however, something considered to be popular could
change to folk, if it was used after a new pop element had replaced it,
assuming it has acquired the characteristics of tradition, regionalism and
Folk culture in Florida is expressed architecturally in what is often
referred to as the "Florida Vernacular". This vernacular has its base in
the "Cracker House". That it is the house to which is referred reveals a
major characteristic of this culture the importance of the family unit.
To understand this building type a more specific definition of vernacular
seems appropriate. Through the term "vernacular" one can better understand
the Cracker House.
Webster's Dictionary definies vernacular as "belonging to or developed
in a particular place, region or country; native; indigenous."1 Generally,
this is how the term is used in architecture. But, more specifically, how
does a style develop so that is is characteristic of that particular place
or region? Demetri Porphyrios, in his article "Classicism is not a Style,"
tries to come to terms with this question:
Despite the superficial associations with rusticity and
nature that the word vernacular brings to mind, the emphasis
here is different. It is not stylistics we have in mind, but
rather the universal ethos of constructing shelter under the
stringent conditions of scarcity of materials & operative con-
struction techniques.... Instead the essential meaning of
vernacular refers to the ethos of straightforward construction,
to the rudimentary building of shelter, an activity that
exhibits a catholicity of reason, efficiency, economy,
durability and pleasure.2
The materials and the techniques according to Porphyrios are that which
defines the regionalism of vernacular.
Don Paulk Branch, in his article in The Florida Architect, "Primitive
Architecture and the Florida Vernacular," disagrees with Porphyrios. Branch
sees the primitiveness as essential to the definition of vernacular. To him,
vernacular architecture is based purely on the natural materials available
and the impact of the environment. It has a plasticity to it as a result of
the lack of tools to define modules and to develop systems. Beyond vernacular
there is what he calls "folk architecture". It is a building style which has
developed due to literacy and tools, yet maintains the pragmatic quality of
vernacular.4 The two essential ingredients which determine a vernacular
according to Branch are the materials available and the climatic conditions.
Conclusively, it seems that there are elements from each of these explana-
tions which potentially defines vernacular. Given the fact that there is the
basic idea of shelter which has certain universal elements which create the
language of architecture, to understand vernacular one might parallel it
to the relationship of dialect to language. The basic elements which are
inherent to shelter roof, wall, floor, column, lintel, beam are the
language of architecture, while four outside influences are responsible
for imposing the different dialects, the vernacular. They are the materials
available, the impact of the environment, the technology attainable and the
patterns of folk culture.
The materials available as a primary ingredient to vernacular is some-
thing upon which both Branch and Priophyios agree. The indigenous materials
of an area define the form of the buildings. Where there is an abundance of
forests, wood has been used. Where there are rock quarries, stone has been
used. Where there are shells, a concrete called tabby has been made. Where
there is clay, bricks have been made. Even in today's shrinking world when
materials are fairly easily transported, this adherence to the use of
indigenous materials is found in all levels of building sophistication.
The consistent use of particular materials gives buildings similar charac-
teristics beside the material itself. Each material as a unit of building
has certain ways which it works best creating architectural elements which
are directly related to the material used. For example, wood prefers
rectilinear forms while stone or brick can work with circular forms. Wood
is post & beam with squared openings. Stone is bearing wall with arches.
The refinement of the use of local materials determines the architectural
dialect of a region.
The impact of the environment in creating an indigenous architecture
is primary. First of all, the climatic conditions of an area will determine
things like type of foundations, type and number of openings and types of
roofs. In colder climates an enclosed foundation is preferred to the piered
foundations of a warmer climate, just as fewer and smaller openings are
preferred. In a climate where there is an abundance of snow or rain a
pitched roof is critical. There are numerous such climatically based archi-
tectural components. The geography or terrain of a region, also, develops
the dialect. Foundation systems, for one, are strongly tied to the terrain.
The potential use of vegetation as protection from the climate influence the
vernacular form. Again, the repetitive use and the subsequential refinement
of these factors contribute to the architectural dialect.
Thirdly, the technology of an area and of a time is directly correlated
to the vernacular architecture. Technology, it is important to note, fluc-
tuates in different areas so it is a factor of time as well as region. In
general, rural technology changes at a very slow and steady pace. It is a
factor of economics. In contrast, urban technology, also a factor of
economics, can change very rapidly. Although mass communications is having
some impact on rural technological growth, economics is still the overriding
factor which retards development. The technology of a region limits the
degree of refinement in environmental design and materials, as well as
defines the basic architectural features.
Finally, the entire idea of folk culture is inherent to the trends of
regional vernacular. Branch, in defining vernacular as primitive design,
suggests there are no artificial or man-made influences. Especially in
discussing Florida vernacular, one cannot ignore the influences of other
cultures. The dispersement of folk culture has a marked impact on a vernacu-
lar. The vernacular as it was developed in different regions of America is
a result of the spread of folk culture from various cultural centers. As new
frontiers were settled people brought with them certain preconceptions about
building which they would adapt as was appropriate to their needs and other
influences. And, often, settlers of a region came from areas of close
proximity to each other. In Colonial America, it is easy to see from what
countries the people who settled it originated. Likewise, as Americans
spread to their frontiers their origins in terms of the colonies is evident.
To reiterate, the four basic elements which articulate a vernacular
are: 1) the use of indigenous materials, 2) the impact of the total environ-
ment, 3) the use of technology which is available, and 4) the influence of
preconceptions of buildings as spread in the natural patterns of folk culture.
The Florida vernacular is no exception. There were actually two vernaculars
developed in Florida. One was developed based on the native Indian culture
and the other on the colonial culture. Since today's culture more closely
relates to the colonial, its vernacular will be studied here.
The virgin forests of Florida, which were so abundant, were the primary
source of building material for Florida's first builders. The cypress swamp,
the hardwood hammocks and the pine forests, all were at their disposal.
Florida and Georgia are the only areas in the U.S. where log construction
was used originally because it was the superior form of construction.4 This
could be due to the abundance of pine whose trunk is tall and straight with
very few lower branches, ideal for log construction. Later the hardwoods were
used for building frame houses. Although the structural members were some-
times pine, the siding was a hardwood. Even the foundations of these early
buildings were wood usually cypress which is naturally so resistent to
insects and moisture decay. The roof sheathing was wood shingles. Even the
earlier chimneys were what is known as catted chimney, made out of clay and
wood slats. Stone and brick, respectively, replaced the catted chimney.
The impact of the environment in Florida is easily seen in its vernacular
architecture. Climate affects the formulation of the shelter in many ways, but
primarily it is the temperature range which is the most influential. With
Florida's mild winters and long, hot summers, it is more critical to keep
shelters cool than to solve the potential heating problem. Florida's
indigenous builders developed several architectural elements to combat the
intense summer heat and lack of breezes. The use of extensive porches and
large roof overhangs provided extra protection for the shelter from the sun.
Porches were also important living spaces allowing the user to enjoy what
little breeze that might have been available for cooling. To maximize these
breezes on the interior space large window openings and cross-ventilation
design were utilized wherever possible. A steeply pitched roof with high
ceilings induced extra ventilation on the interior spaces, too. During these
hot seasons the extensive rainfall acts as a natural cooling factor. The
large overhangs and porches allowed windows to remain open during the rain-
storm allowing the interior to take advantages of their cooling effect.
Orientation of the building would often be with its narrow side to the south
for minimal exposure; however, it would also consider the predominant breezes.
Vegetation, too, was used to protect the house from heat. Besides the use of
trees for shade, bushes near the house would cool the breezes and dehumidify
the air as they passed over them and on into the house.
The technology attainable is in part a factor of the fourth ingredient
in vernacular, folk culture. The reason technology is separated is that
although settlers may have brought ideas on specific building technology,
they were unable to pursue it because of a lack of tools and money. So
technology is closer related to economics than it is to folk culture.
Technology was at a fairly primitive level with the first settlers of
Florida's wilderness. Log construction required a minimum of tools. Later
when sawmills became available there was a switch to predominately frame
buildings. The plan of the house was simple often with just one or two
rooms. The roof pitch was a simple 12 in 12 which was later retained for
its inducement of natural ventilation. Roofing materials were initially
wood, but changed to metal sheathing when it became affordable and available.
Today some asphalt roofing is found as well. As life became more advanced
additions were made to the original house forms to accommodate the techno-
logical advances primarily in the form of bathrooms and kitchens. These
were connected to the house through a series of breezeways, a sign of the.
simplicity of their design and building technology. It was probably easier
to add on a room by building it separately and then connecting it with a
breezeway. In actuality this proved to be a cooler way for houses to be
situated. More exposed walls allowed for easier ventilation and breezeways
The folk culture patterns are significant in the basic building forms
which are found in Florida. In its largest context one can look at Colonial
America, and in this case the southern colonies, and can trace their material
folk culture back to rural England. But, more specifically, Florida's folk
culture is a sub-culture of the large pattern known as the South. The South
is a large region with a great deal of diversity, especially in geography
and climate. It reads as a region for a number of different reasons, how-
One thing which defines the South is basically "rural agrarian charac-
ter."5 People of the South have primarily been farmers, and even with the
recent industrialization and modernization of the South, this is still quite
true. For instance, one of Florida's primary industries is agriculture and
Florida is among the nation's top producers of citrus, beef, poultry and
vegetables. This rural aspect of the South reads clearly from Arkansas to
Georgia, from southern Ohio to Florida.
The South is also defined by its heritage. Collectively, Southerners
have experienced a great deal of poverty and a great deal of failure -
militarily, socially, politically and economically. Many Southerners can
recall relatives who were not born into freedom. All in all the South's
history can be characterized as having a tragic flaw.6
The South, in a very general way, has three basic characteristics which
is evident in its architecture. One is its basically rural outlook which is
in one sense naive and, in another, suspicious. Secondly, is the importance
the family as a unit with the home the center of this secular attitude.
Finally, as is often characteristic of a rural society, the South can be
characterized as resistant to change.7
Florida, primarily the central (non-coastal) parts of the state, is very
much part of the South. The folk culture more specifically was transported to
Florida from what is known as the Southern Tidewater Region which spreads from
the coastal plains of the Atlantic Ocean west to the fall line of the Pide-
monts. Most of the building types of early Florida can be directly traced to
There are several building forms which are classified under the general
term of "cracker house" which is the paraphrase for Florida vernacular archi-
tecture. Even though there are these different forms, they all qualify as
"cracker" because of their other vernacular-related characteristics. Among
these characteristics is the use of the primary indigenous material, wood,
the use of the steeply pitched roofs and the use of porches and breezeways.
The dog-trot (or 'possum or turkey trot, as is also known) is one of the
earlier forms of cracker houses. (See Figure 1.) It originated in the
southern Tennessee Valley, but spreads to the Southern Tidewater Region where
it was one of the most common types of houses. In Florida, it is found
sporadically in the north-central area. It is a one-room deep building with
two rooms separated by a central, open hallway, but joined by a common roof.
The rooms are both square and one storey in height. The chimneys are on the
gable ends while the long sides of the house are protected by front and back
porches. Primarily these were of log construction, but later they were also
frame. Windows were large on the porch sides going almost from floor to ceil-
ing while the gable end sides had smaller windows. These gable ends often
faced south and north. The dog-trot is attributed to "...pioneer ingenuity -
that logical collision of environment and genius to which the unenergetic
scholar ascribes many American cultural phenomena."8 The dog-trot is actually
a sub-type of the hall and parlor house according to Henry Glassie, author of
Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States and other
books on folk culture and housing.
RhT hall1 and parlor house a igin y just a two room. singular. i"n
depth, house actually a sub type of the hall and parlor style house accord-
ing to Henry Gla&si e author o4f .Pattern ini the Material Folk Cu'l ture. of the
Eastern Uitcd Statoc and other boon' on folk c"tI+,. advi' hous"irn
The hall and parlor (see Figure 2) was originally just a two-room,
singular in depth, house a close relative to those found in rural England.
It later took on the Georgian characteristic of a central hall, but retained
its singular depth. It, too, is one story high with chimneys on the gable
ends. It was originally built of logs, but technology changed that to
weatherboard and sometimes even brick. There were sash windows on each wall
of each room. The living area ceiling often doubled as the division for a
loft space. It was one of the most common types of houses in the Southern
Tidewater Region. Porches were added to the front and the back as this style
moved further south.
rnm nnlr -Plnl .n CnA 4-t- -A~~nr ~r~ nr CI -A, 4- 4-t- A-I rlr.kC -
pen and saddl4ebag houso (soe Figure 3).-Thy ar, a on.e storyy, .o room hou..
oTho room are of wua ..size w...... font dor. to oach ronnm UTh la.em.e.-.f.
J-L, .L41.Z ~- J2 11-~~..-
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wmrrrrnTTr--r7larla---l I. .~r~Fi~-uu~F~Vnm I~--TTu Cru~
.--J --_ ---- nI-L---
saddlebag house. has the chimney b.tw.en the units, while the double pen has
the chimney at one @.nl. Typically these are frame houccs, although a cloe-
the oorgian character iir cof a cntral hall: but4 rtoin-d it-l t54fu.4aU.
depth. It, too, is one story high with chimneys oem the gaobe Lnd. was
ori..inlly ..bu-ilt- og 4 ...th.is area,- bt technology chagC.that *to weather.
49oard and, .somtimcs, vyn brick. Th,,, w... o.. h w-idow oe -oa-h wa1F-rf
.ach roem.... ... ;.pc livi ng.o col iing ftione--d as tLh division f- a df't
space. It was one of the most common typos of houses in the Southern-T44e-
-wa'ter Regigonl.-Poirches- weANe *added' .i.to e-k@ o^-Fid, to" -4 a4 ka&fe4s's4
Commonly found in the Southern Tidewater area and in Florida is the
double-pen and saddlebag house. (See Figure 3.) They are a one-storty, two
room house. The rooms are of equal size with a front door to each room. The
placement of the chimney is what distinguishes the double-pen and the saddle-
bag. The saddlebag house has the chimney between the units, while the double-
pen has the chimney at one of the gable ends. Typically, these are frame
houses, although there are some examples of log construction. A porch is
often added to the front side. The pitch of the room on these houses, as on
the others, often gets steeper further south. It is common to find appendages
to these basic forms beside the porch, including a rear shed, a semi-detached
kitchen and a rear ell.
The I house was a two-stor*y house which, along with the Georgian plan,
was a symbol of the prosperous middle-class farmer. It was also found in the
small towns. It is similar to the hall and parlor in that it was originally
asymetrical, but later went to the modified Georgian plan with two rooms off
of a central hall. It remains distinct from the Georgian plan because it is
only one room deep. It differs from the hall and parlor in that it is a
~~~~~~~~ "- ,4-""~
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two-storey house. Typically, the chimney is on one or both of the gable ends.
Usually the construction is frame although there are a few examples of log
and brick in some areas.
More commonly seen as a symbol of the successful farmer or small-town
merchant in the Lowland South is a one-storfy full Georgian plan with two
rooms on each side of a large, central hall. Often there were two internal
chimneys with a small fireplace for each room. The original roof was a steep
gable, but later changed to either a steeply pitched hip roof or a pyramid-
One final type of house is found in early Florida, however it comes not
from the Southern Tidewater Region, but from Louisiana and the French settle-
ments there. The Creole cottage was two rooms deep and two rooms wide, but
with no central hall. It was one story high with two front doors and two
rear doors. There were rarely windows in the front or rear. The front porch
was inset rather than an addition as on the other styles. A central chimney
heated this frame house.
Vernacular architecture is not easily classified with fine specification.
As Amos Rapoport noted, it is "its additive quality, its unspecialized open
ended nature, so different from the closed, final form typical of most high
style architecture," which defines vernacular architecture. Florida vernacu-
lar is no different. These basic house types are very much evident through-
out north and central Florida, but they almost always are at least slightly
varied from the prototype. Certain things, however, bring all of the types
together to create the Florida vernacular.
The Florida vernacular or cracker house always has certain character-
istics no matter in which house type it may be. Generally, these character-
istics are a result of either materials available, climate, technology, or
folk culture. Cracker houses use the most abundant indigenous building
material throughout, wood from foundation to roof sheathing. The cracker
house reacts climatically, no matter what basic form it is, by keeping its
long axis north and south, by protecting the east and west exposed elevations
with porches, by raising the floor system off of the ground, by steeply
pitching the roof, and by maximizing the size of the windows and their place-
ment. Also, the metal roof is now a symbol of the cracker house, although
this is a recent change due to technology from the previous wood-shingled
Finally, the cracker house is flexible. Although it is categorized in
one of the house types imported with other aspects of folk culture, the
cracker house adapts to the individual needs of its owner. There are often
appendages to the basic unit. In town, it finds itself decorated with
shingles and gingerbread and detailing, more refined than its country cousin.
No matter how flexible the cracker house is, its retention of those pragmatic
characteristics retain its individual Florida vernacular flavor.
1I j Ei tI1
fl(LJFE 3: DOcDiE-PEM
1. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, G. C. Merriam Co., Springfield,
Mass., 1956, p. 947.
2. Demetri Porphyrios, Ed., Classicism is not a Style, "Classicism is not
a Style," Architectural Design, 1982, p. 56.
3. Don Paulk Branch, "Primitive Architecture and the Florida Vernacular,"
The Florida Architect, March 1967, p. 14.
4. Fiske Kimball, Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and the
Early Republic, Dover Publications, New York, 1950, p. 7.
5. Suzanne Skipper, "Cracker Houses: Low Energy Comfort," Masters thesis:
University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 1980, p. 12.
6. Ibid, p. 13.
7. Ibid, p. 14.
8. Henry Glassie,
Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern
University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1975,
9. Lawerence E. Arrington, "Towards an Indigenous Southern Architecture,"
Masters thesis; University of Florida, 1978, p. 20.
Arrington, Lawrence E., "Towards an Indigenous Southern Architecture."
Master's thesis, University of Florida, 1978.
Branch, Don Paul, "Primitive Architecture and the Florida Vernacular."
The Florida Architect, March 1967.
Florida Architectural Guide. March 1967.
Glassie, Henry. Folk Housing in Middle Virginia. Knoxville: University
of Tennessee Press, 1975.
Glassie, Henry. Patern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United
States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.
Johnston, Frances Benjamin. The Early Architecture of North Carolina.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.
Kimball, Fiske. Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and the
Early Republic. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.
Linley, John. Architecture of Middle Georgia: The Oconee Area. University
of Georgia Press, 1972.
Mumford, Lewis. The South in Architecture. New York: Harcourt, Brace and
Newton, Earle Wm., ed. Historic Architecture of Pensacola. Pensacola
Historical, Restoration and Preservation Commission, 1969.
Porphyrios, Demetri. Classicism is Not a Style, Architectural Design, 1982.
Skipper, Suzanne. "Cracker Houses: Low Energy Comfort." Master's thesis,
University of Florida, 1980.
Tebeau, Charlton W. A History of Florida, Coral Gables, Fl.: University of
Miami Press, 1971.
Wightman, Arrin Sage and Margaret Davis Cate. Early Days of Coastal Georgia.