The 1750s Dwight (sometimes referred to as "the William Cullen Bryant") house on Great Barrington's Main Street, on a early 20th-century postcard. Its solid post and beam construction has allowed it to be moved, "modernized" and added onto several times over its long history, with its early five bay Georgian and rear saltbox form persisting under later elements.

Car Trip: Tracing early New England vernacular architecture in the Berkshires

Go out for a drive and learn about the earliest architectural styles in the Berkshires, and how they still resonate today.

Publisher’s note: This magazine has always been about “places to go” and “things to do,” and in the Berkshires one of the favorite things to do is to drive around and look at other people’s houses. In this season of Covid-19, the fact that this activity can be done while social distancing makes it even more appealing.

This story is the first in a series that will look at the architecture and other manmade elements found in the Berkshires. From the well known and unique to the commonplace and familiar, each has a story to tell. By looking at their histories, the context in which they were built and/or the present use of these structures, we hope to share how they collectively contribute to the region’s unique sense of place.

To encourage you to slow down and take a good look at your surroundings, these articles will focus on examples that are publicly accessible or viewable from the street and, where possible, include recommended routes or specific addresses.

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From pre-revolutionary farms to Gilded Age Cottages, industrial buildings to civic monuments, the Berkshires holds a veritable treasure trove of architecture spanning three centuries. This story, the first in a series on the built environment of the region, will take a look at some of the early vernacular home styles commonly found here.

Round Stone Barn at Hancock Shaker Village, Hancock.

The term “vernacular” itself is open to some degree of interpretation (and confusion) when applied to architecture. For one person, the round stone barn at Hancock Shaker Village, its sublime design the result of function, might represent the apogee of vernacular architecture, while for others, the Fitch–Hoose House outside of Dalton, a small 1-1/2 story frame structure with a simple gable roof, brick end chimney and clapboard exterior, so ordinary as to almost escape notice, would epitomize the term. Both would be correct.

In a very general sense (and large mouthful), the term vernacular can be used to describe buildings constructed of local materials using traditional methods, reflecting the prevailing social and cultural norms of a given community, with an emphasis on function over high style.

What is not open to dispute or interpretation is the profound role it plays in defining the cultural landscape of the Berkshires. Cindy Brockway, Program Director for Cultural Resources at The Trustees of Reservations, sums it up, stating, “People feel that the Berkshires is an escape. Yet generations have called this region their year-round home, building houses, warehouses, barns, mills and sheds that supported their livelihood since the early 18th century. Scattered across the hilltops and valleys of the region, the designs indicate everything from date of construction to purpose of use. If you pay close attention you can read this architecture like a history book.”

The 1753 house on the Williamstown rotary was built in 1953 using 18th century tools and construction methods. While it is a recreation of one of the early “regulation houses” specific to Williamstown, it is most likely similar to the earliest homes built by the English settlers throughout the Berkshires.

That book’s first chapter would begin in the mid-eighteenth century as the first significant numbers of Europeans began to settle the area. Although it was already home to members of the Mahican tribe (also known as Stockbridge Indians) who co-existed with the newcomers in ever-dwindling numbers before leaving around 1780, no significant visible traces remain of their former homes. Overwhelmingly of English descent, the new arrivals, mostly second or third generation colonists from the lower Housatonic and Connecticut River Valleys, brought established New England building traditions and construction methods with them.

With a little imagination and mentally erasing its door and windows, its not hard to see how the form of a classical house greek temple could be applied to the basic 1 1/2 story vernacular house form, as in this example found in Lee.

One commonly built form was a basic 1½-story tall and two room wide house with a gabled roof and central chimney (a number of these homes might have begun as one room wide house, with a second room added on the chimney end of the building later). While these are found throughout New England and are sometimes referred to as a “parlor and hall” style homes, they are more generically labeled “cape cods” today.

Those who had the resources might build a two-story version, one or two rooms deep, also topped by a gabled, or occasionally hipped roof. As the general size of homes became larger after 1750, they tended to be built with two sets of chimneys. Placed midpoint within the rooms, they freed up the center of the house for a hallway running its full depth. While technically these can be referred to as “Five Bay, Two Story Georgian” style homes, they are more popularly known as “center hall colonials”.

The Dwight house in Great Barrington today. While adapted for modern offices, its outward appearance hearkens back to its 18th century appearance.

The “Georgian” reference denotes the Georgian style of architecture that predominated the colonies at that time. Despite its being named after the reigning Kings of England, its design principles were rooted in classical antiquity revived during the Renaissance. Even in remote areas like the Berkshires, doors were centered and the window placement was usually balanced in recognition of Georgian proportion and style, with simpler doorway embellishments and an often inexact symmetry setting the vernacular examples apart from their high-style cousins.

Whether a modest 1½ story cottage or larger five bay Georgian, as families grew, farms prospered, or new commercial ventures established, inevitably the need for more space would arise. One of the easiest and most economical ways to do that was to add a one-story addition with a lean-to roof at the rear of a house. The resulting roofline, extending lower in the back than the front (also known as a catslide roof), created the classic “New England Saltbox” silhouette.

Another vernacular New England tradition brought by early settlers was the “connected farmstead”. The established model was a “big house” with family living quarters connected to a “little house” containing the kitchen behind it, followed by a “back house” used for wagons and finally a barn for livestock at the end creating one long continuous structure. Although the attached barn was not as commonly found in the Berkshires as in other areas such as Maine where the severity of the winters might trump fire and smell concerns, the principle was commonly used. Additional back buildings were tacked onto homes as needed for an array of functions, from woodsheds and privies to workspaces and shops. Oftentimes, a property’s original 1 ½ story house would become the back house after a newer, larger one was built.

Utilizing the abundant supply of lumber harvested from surrounding forests, these vernacular homes were built of wood employing post and beam construction and sided with clapboard or shingles. They proved extremely durable, and the same basic forms and construction techniques were used for over a century. As successive architectural styles emerged, they were often expressed in exterior architectural details and applied decorative elements.

While its 1827 construction date and doorway sidelights firmly place it in the federal period, the Philomen Sage house in Sandisfield adheres so closely to traditional building forms that the casual passerby to mistake it for an earlier Georgian house.

Semi-circular fanlights appeared over front entries during the Federal period, but from the outside, vernacular Federal homes can be hard to distinguish from their Georgian predecessors. The Greek Revival craze which took root around 1830 had a much bigger visual impact, when for better or worse, every house needed to resemble a Greek temple in some way. Since the northern climate was no more conducive to open colonnades than wearing a flimsy chiton, builders got creative in adapting the style to vernacular homes. Heavy horizontal elements such as cornices and wide frieze boards appeared under eaves, with squared cornerboards, or occasionally pilasters were set in exterior walls to “support” them. Perhaps most significantly, the positioning of many newer homes (and some older ones) was often rotated so the gable end faced the road. With a shallower pitch to their rooflines and painted white, the resulting shape and color became a very diluted reference to an ancient Greek temple.

By the mid nineteenth century, a confluence of factors brought an end to the established New England vernacular building traditions in the Berkshires. An interest in different historic and exotic revival styles of architecture was fueled by the romantic movement and abetted by the widespread publication of house pattern books making them affordable and accessible to rural builders. Technological advances such as the standardization of lumber milling and machine-cut nails, coupled with the disappearance of 90% of the region’s old growth forest by 1840 also contributed to the demise of post and beam construction, which in turn freed homes from adhering to its somewhat confining rectangular forms.

The Eben Sherman house, on the North Adams/Williamstown border, built circa 1843. While its decorative elements (heavy frieze and cornerboards coupled with bracketing) place it in the transitional greek revival/Italianate period, its basic structure is rooted in the traditional 5-bay Georgian form.

By the 1850s, Gothic revival and Italianate homes predominated new construction, oftentimes replacing earlier structures in towns and villages. On farms and in more rural areas, owners were more content to add a bay window or new porch with Italianate bracketing onto an older post and beam home in sometimes-incongruous concessions to modernity. When it came to their barns however, it was a different story.

For one cannot do justice to the subject of traditional vernacular homes in the Berkshires without looking at the farm buildings that often complemented and in some cases, overshadowed them.

“The first structure early settlers would put up on their land was the barn,” points out Stephen G. Donaldson, a Berkshires-based professional freelance photographer and author of three books including Barns of the Berkshires. “In England, the effect of the gulfstream created a milder climate which allowed animals to remain outside most of the year. The harsh New England winters on the other hand, meant that livestock needed to be sheltered for up to a five-month period”. Once the barn was put up and their most precious commodity protected, the humans would move in with them, sharing the space with the animals until their own home was built.

The variation in size, structure and window placement of the historic buildings on this working farmstead in Sheffield indicate each building’s purpose while also reflecting the evolution of farming in the region.

The early barns followed the established model of an English three-bay threshing barn, using post and beam construction technology. These became known as New England barns when they were adapted to have their pass-through doors, previously centered, moved to the gable ends of the building. The introduction of sheep in the early nineteenth century saw the introduction of long low structures to house the flocks. Henhouses, corncribs, sugar shacks, and smokehouses, each type of building’s use gave rise to a unique shape and form added to the landscape as the region’s agriculture evolved.

The soaring gambrel roof of this barn in South Williamstown represents a departure from the traditional post-and-beam construction that typified earlier vernacular barns.

The same advances in construction technology that brought about new housing forms, coupled with the railroad providing access to urban markets allowing for large-scale dairy farming beginning in the mid-nineteenth century brought about a sea change in the design and the look of barns as well, leading to the soaring gambrel roofs with cupolas to provide ventilation and silos for grain storage associated with the sight of older farms today.

Arrowhead in Pittsfield. Its large central chimney, simple doorway and symmetrical form place it in the Georgian period, while its front porch, side piazza, later windows and additions trailing behind show how these early buildings evolved and adapted to “modern” times.

While the earlier vernacular homes had fallen decidedly out of fashion by the 1850s, they held an allure to some of the artists and writers who were discovering the region. Nathaniel Hawthorne had his Little Red House at Tanglewood, while Herman Melville lived in a rambling 1786 five-bay Georgian at Arrowhead Farm in Pittsfield, adding modern improvements as needed and a piazza to enjoy the view.

The Gilded Age elites who followed couldn’t fathom living in such outmoded homes, but they could appreciate how these quaint relics added to the countryside’s pastoral landscape, as much as the grazing herds did. As the Colonial Revival movement took flower, some even opted to have mansion-sized interpretations of colonial homes or connected farmhouses built, as opposed to European-inspired castles or palazzi.

Ironically, as the economic and societal pressures of the twentieth century rendered the larger Gilded Age cottages untenable to maintain, people began to take a second look at these earlier homes as weekend and seasonal getaways. With smaller rooms and practical layouts, they were easier to heat and didn’t require armies of servants to keep up.

Its assymetrical window placement and “saltbox” lean-to rear addition all indicate that this home in Sandisfield grew over time in response to its owners ‘ needs and means.

In some instances, modern kitchens, mudrooms, and garages were added onto older homes, continuing the tradition of the connected farmstead, while others built modern reproductions of the traditional Cape Cods, New England Saltboxes or Five Bay Georgians on a scale similar to the originals. Overall the new blended harmoniously with the old, and to the casual passerby it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. Nestled in valleys or crowning ridges, strung along country roads and highways, they complement the unique natural beauty of the region, adding to its allure, and help tie it to a distinctly New England sense of place. In other places, particularly towns, they sometimes stand out amidst later development, adding a mystery chapter to the history book mentioned by Ms. Brockway.

For those who want to take a closer look, there are many opportunities. One place is the Wheeler Farmstead, owned by the Great Barrington Historical Society. Its director Robert Kroll showed me around recently, explaining how it evolved from a one-room house built using colonial Dutch methods (a rarity in these parts) in the 1730s into a two-story modified saltbox form over time. The attached kitchen, enclosed wagon shed and three-hole privy allow one to experience a connected farmstead from the inside, while out back a number of barns and wooden silo belie its history as a farm. I marveled at how it was still in such great shape after over two hundred years, until Mr. Kroll mentioned that eighty-four people had stood in the same room we were in at an event there not too long ago, and from the floor, “There was not a creak, not a sound – they were built well.” Well said!