Orange County’s Vernacular Architecture Tells Our Stories

Orange County’s Vernacular Architecture Tells Our Stories

For Chapel Hill News November 2014 voluntarily replaced

By Art Menius

Grandmother’s home, the gorgeous farmhouse commanding a hilltop in Orange County’s cattle land, a deteriorating house behind the new doublewide that replaced it, or a once lovely bungalow defaced by a modern, out of scale addition – those are all types of local vernacular architecture. This is the folk tradition of architecture, buildings constructed not from the meticulous plans of famed auteur architects but according to long established community designs.

Orange County proves rich in vernacular designs ranging from Carrboro’s prized mill town to the bland brick NCSU extension service designs along Old 86 at Calvander. A few examples capture the folk architectural wealth of southern Orange County. These common buildings are fossilized ideas that tell our stories through their cultural patterns, placement relative to sun and roadways, and ethnic influences.

One of the oldest and most visible is a cabin along Old NC 86 between Carrboro and Hillsborough known as the Granny Curry Cabin. Its modest 20 by 18 footprint displays the strength of people who survived enslavement, sharecropping, and Jim Crow. Dominating the roadside, it faces south toward the sun and the fields its occupants once worked. Its every aspect conveys the power of an indefatigable survivor enduring every challenge coming its way, even ramshackle additions that once obscured it.

A prominent farmhouse on Dairyland Road near its terminus at Orange Grove Road once served as The Thomas Brewer Inn, a welcome stagecoach stop on the road to Greensboro from Raleigh and Fayetteville. Built in the 1850s, it still reflects a certain grandeur intended to attract weary travelers. It encompasses changes of purpose – from inn to farm dwelling – and of demography passing from the Snipes family, who purchased it from the Brewers for cattle husbandry, to its current Hispanic occupants. Oriented to the road rather than the sun, the Thomas Brewer Inn retained much of its integrity despite renovations that began in the 1950s. A pair of massive chimneys on each end frame characteristics borrowed from the Greek Revival mansions of the northern Piedmont and Coastal Plain. These include a double front door and its massive box-like construction. Inside, however, the house displays the ornate, multifaceted mantel work common of the Federal style. Its narrow floor and wall boards served as a once not at all subtle suggestion of affluence.

Throughout the area one can see examples of the classic NC farm house of a century ago, called the I-House. The name suggests it wide front, narrow beam construction, sometimes with as few as two rooms on each floor. Despite that, the I-house features three bay symmetry and projects far greater size and in so doing reveal builders who aspired to success and desired to project more than they had already attained.

The Teer House in a sharp bend in Teer Road west of Carrboro near Cane Creek Reservoir still dominates its agrarian landscape framed by Mitchell and Crawford Mountains. Like most I-Houses today it contains an ell in back from when the kitchen was added to the main house, giving it a T-shape. Its north-facing front includes a decorative gable arch in the middle above the second floor making the façade a gothic type called a Triple A design. Once again, the Triple-A exists to make the four rooms plus central hallway folk home look a bit nicer and its occupants somewhat richer than its neighbors.

Travelers on Old 86 might notice the sign “Hiskey House” just south of the Eubanks Road intersection. A grove of ash, oak, and hickory hides the house, lovingly restored in the 1970s and 1980s by Joan Hiskey after a six year search for the right place. Ignoring the busy back road, the Hiskey House faces south toward its outbuildings. Its original occupants, the Bishops, built it during the 1830s using the hall and parlor format. Even today, you can see here that design, the roots of which go all the way back to 16th Century England. The main door opens into a hallway including the stairway, while the adjacent parlor was used for sleeping, sewing, entertaining, and cooking and heating with its fireplace. The separate hallway offers the main distinction from one room Granny Curry Cabin.

When the I-House gained popularity, and the occupants acquired more wealth, they converted the Hiskey House into the new form. Evidence remains of patching a third room on the west side with the symmetry not quite perfect. Finally, the owners obtained assets adequate to add a kitchen ell with a fine porch running along its east side.

Perhaps not as dramatically as the Hiskey House, every home tells a story of its families, including us.