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common ground

Ruins and Renewal
Summer/Fall 1998, vol. 3(2/3)

Online Archive

*  Building Communities

(photo) Lloyd Masayumptewa, member of the ruins stabilization crew at Wupatki National Monument.

"Ethnic identity is accompanied by ethnic stigmatization, and the [ruins of the] Basque hotels, set within the larger building community that is the West, are reminders of the both the region's cultural diversity and cultural divisions. "

Thomas Carter

by Thomas Carter

Drawing the Bridge House was one thing. Falling down, the only entrance covered in poison ivy, and the upstairs filled with what became an increasingly inhospitable colony of wasps, the place was a mess. Figuring it out was even harder. Outwardly simple, the building had been cobbled together over the course of several generations with materials salvaged from just about every building project in town. What was original? Which sections had been added? Who was responsible for the work? How had the building functioned? Questions came easily. Answers with more effort.

Measured sketches soon turned into a plan-and-section revealing how the building had grown through time. Oral interviews coalesced into a story explaining how the house came to be where it is and how it was used. A chart of recorded land transfers translated into a tidy paper trail of the site's occupation. And taken together, the gathered data could themselves be cobbled together to produce a history of this small, seemingly undistinguished house in Paradise Valley, Nevada.1

The work that is described here, carried out during July 1997 by students and teachers from the University of Utah's western regional architecture program, exemplifies a type of historical research that is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the country. Depending on who you're talking to, it goes by the name of vernacular architecture, material culture, or cultural landscape studies, and while the specific topics and methods may differ according to a person's interests and perspective, the essential factor, the thing that makes this approach unique, is the emphasis placed on the object, whether it be a building, a piece of furniture, or a whole town, as the primary focus of attention. Committed to the idea that the systematic study of the built environment holds vast potential for understanding both past and present human behavior, a growing number of historians, architectural historians, folkorists, archeologists, geographers, and preservationists are actively engaged in documenting and interpreting the material record of human occupation in North America.

It is a compelling stratigraphy. For example, a western Nebraska site yielded, in chronological order, a set of Siouxian tipi rings, an open-range cattle ranch, a number of small immigrant homestead farms, a thousand-acre mechanized wheat operation, and a cluster of Cold War missile silos. The historical overlays speak of profound changes in the cultural activity found in the area over time, and further, within each strata the material evidence is vitally important in piecing together a pattern of everyday life as it existed during each period of occupation. The story holds true for other parts of the country as well; the resources may change but what stays the same is a shared interest by researchers from the broadest range of disciplines in the "archeological" investigation of American life.

Interdisciplinary cooperation also stems from the central role fieldwork plays in this object-oriented approach to cultural research. Because objects like tipi rings and missile silos rarely reside in university archives or the collections of local libraries, fieldwork, generally consisting of the in situ recording of objects and constellations of objects with measured drawings, photographs, and oral histories, is imperative. As Gabrielle Lanier and Bernard Herman point out in their fine new book, Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic, "buildings . . . are the best teachers of ordinary architecture. Books, drawings, photographs, and written descriptions are invaluable, but, inevitably, we learn the most about buildings by taking to the field—by looking, evaluating, measuring, questioning, and looking again."2 For students of American material culture, things like buildings are used to explain history, rather than simply letting the study of history explain them, and this turning of the tables requires, at some level, fieldwork. If you are going to study buildings, you can't expect to check them out of a library—you have to go to them. Getting out of the car and talking to people about their architecture is difficult, but such engagement is necessary if we are going to study things that have never been studied before. Where significant fieldwork has been accomplished, in places like the Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland and in the vicinity of Boston and Philadelphia to the north, two factors are usually responsible.3

The first is a growth during the past three decades of an interest in vernacular architecture. Cultural geographers Fred Kniffen and Pierce Lewis were the first to pay significant attention to ordinary buildings, using traditional house and barn types during the 1960s to map the spatial distribution of imported European cultures in North America. Folklorist Henry Glassie, archeologist James Deetz, and art historian Abbott Lowell Cummings came next, advancing in a number of distinguished studies both a forceful argument for an artifact-driven approach to history and the outlines of a rigorous method for going about it. By the 1980s a new generation of able imitators had appeared, and it wasn't long before the theories and techniques of these pioneers were being applied to the numerically common buildings of any place and any time period. The result was the eclectic if generously inclusive field of vernacular architecture: "more an approach to architecture than a type of architecture," as people in the field have become fond of saying. And like their social history cousins who gradually moved from doing rather narrow histories of the working class to histories of societies as functional (or dysfunctional) wholes in order to illuminate patterns of class, race, gender, and ethnic relations, students of vernacular architecture are increasingly studying cultural landscapes, consisting not only of the widest range of buildings set within a particular social and environmental context, but also, as University of California-Berkeley's Dell Upton notes, "the imaginative structures that all inhabitants of the landscape use in constructing and construing it."4

A second catalyst for the widespread acceptance of both vernacular architecture and the fieldwork methodology came from the preservation movement of the 1970s. A central provision of the National Historic Preservation Act was that the states begin developing systematic inventories of their historic resources. It sounded good, but as survey money started flowing to state preservation offices trouble arose. Confronting the vastness of the ordinary architectural landscape, newly hired surveyors armed with only John J.G.Blumenson's Identifying American Architecture foundered.5 What were all these buildings that looked nothing like the ones in the book? It was enough to make a good architectural historian cry, and many simply quit. The ones who stuck it out, however, were forced into a kind of above-ground archeology. Grabbing their copies of Glassie, Deetz, and Cummings, the SHPO surveyors began sifting through layers of hitherto untouched architectural evidence. Slowly the data came in, shaky typologies were formulated, and in the process the first studies of vernacular architecture emerged. The big preservation money dried up in the early 1980s and most state survey programs were scrapped or handed over to local contractors under the Park Service certified local government program, but the study of American architectural history had been changed forever. Not only was the field opened up to a whole new range of common buildings, but innovative studies based in part on the SHPO survey work began to appear, providing models for the further study of the American cultural landscape.6 Several SHPO offices, most notably those in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, should be credited with leading the way toward what some have called a "new architectural history."

In the West, however, little was happening. The network of scholars found along the eastern seaboard did not exist, and the region's size became a formidable barrier to communication between the western state SHPO offices and universities. The absence of substantive vernacular architecture and cultural landscape research west of the Mississippi River prompted the creation in 1990 of the western regional architecture program at the University of Utah. The program's objective is to encourage the documentation and study of western American architecture by sponsoring, first, a series of scholarly monographs exploring important western building traditions and second, an annual field school in western architectural history. For the past seven years, University of Utah graduate students have traveled to remote parts of the West to measure and draw threatened historic buildings associated with ranching, mining, transportation, the military, Mormon settlement, and the intersection of Hispanic and Anglo-American cultural traditions.

The 1997 field school focused on Basque hotels in the Great Basin. Found in the larger cities of Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and California, the hotels were constructed as a "home off the range" for hundreds of Basque immigrants who came to America beginning in the 1850s to work as seasonal herders in the region's rapidly expanding sheep industry. Owned and operated by Basques, the hotels provided family-style meals and single-room lodging as well as recreation facilities like pelota (paddle-ball) courts, reading rooms, and bars. In the hotels, Basque herders could find both comraderie and comfort in a country that often proved intolerant of racial and cultural otherness. At one time there were hundreds of these establishments, but as the number of Basque herders in the region declined in the 1950s and `60s the hotels slowly began to close down or simply find a new role as restaurants featuring good and affordable food. The historical significance of the hotels lies in their ability to convey a sense of Basque national and ethnic identity in a part of the country where cowboys too often are king.

Working with historian Jeronima Echeverria, herself of Basque descent, University of Utah students spent 10 days in the field documenting a dozen Basque boarding houses and hotels. The buildings range in size from small retrofitted single-family dwellings to larger and more fashionable examples like the Boise's Anduiza Hotel, constructed of brick around a large indoor pelota court. But the process of discovery was the same as that used on Bridge House. Fieldwork, both architectural and historical, came first. As the building was sketched and measured, its principal functional elements and phases of construction were identified. The front two-story section and the first room on the west appeared original, as was possibly the partially subterranean stone root cellar to the north. The method of construction on the front section was the same, a thin single-wall technology (where the walls consist of one-inch vertical boards nailed to both plate and sill and then covered with a veneer of "drop" or "novelty" siding) not typically found in ranching communities like Paradise Valley. Since single-wall technology is primarily associated with mid-to-late nineteenth century mining and railroad town housing in the West, its presence on Bridge House was curious and raised questions concerning the building's origins. The east rear room was a composite of single-wall (on the west and north) and regular stud wall construction, and was clearly appended to the earlier front section. Finally, there was a mixed assortment of recycled lumber scabbed into the area between the west rear and root cellar, suggesting that this part of the house was last to be enclosed.

Determining the building's use was more problematic, although it seemed fairly certain, following customary practice, that the service rooms, including the kitchen and root cellar, were found to the rear. Removing the wall between the two original ground floor west rooms was significant (with a dotted line in the plan indicating the location of the original dividing wall) for it allowed the occupants to create a long, open room that is unusual in dwellings but which would have been an ideal space for serving meals (at a long family-style table) and/or for setting up a public bar. The more elaborate wainscoting and pressed tin wall covering (the decorative metal was undoubtedly pulled from the ceiling of an abandoned commercial building) also suggests that some special activity took place here. The original two-front-door arrangement was equally intriguing, for the two doors would have allowed one (presumably the one to the west) to be used for public entry (to the bar and dining area) and the other to open into a private two-room apartment (perhaps the lodging of the hotel keeper and her/his family). The staircase in the public side could have led to dormitory-style sleeping rooms above.

Oral histories conducted with local residents seemed to corroborate the artifactual evidence. By all accounts a man named George Bell was the original owner of Bridge House, either building it on site or moving it in from the nearby mining camp of Spring City around 1880. Since, as we noted above, single-wall construction is common in western mining towns and since Bell himself ran an advertisement in the Paradise Valley newspaper listing mining camp houses for sale, it seems likely that Bridge House began its life elsewhere. In the boom-and-bust cycle of western mining towns, it is not uncommon for houses to be recycled after a gold or silver seam played out and the miners moved on. Alphonso Pasquale was the next owner, buying the property around 1906 and renting it to a series of Basque operators who ran it as a boarding house for sheepherders well into the 1950s.

Taken by itself, Bridge House, or for that matter any of the hotels recorded, is limited in historical content. The building is interesting, but what does it say about western history? In the larger western cultural landscape, however, or compared to other hotels or other kinds of buildings in town, Bridge House becomes more meaningful for we begin to see patterns. The Basque hotel is best understood as part of a community of buildings, a social grouping of objects structured by a series of distinctive attitudes toward both class and ethnicity. Within the western building community, the hotels must be viewed as a kind of segregated space. Set off in the hotels, Basque immigrants found comraderie and safety, but also second-class status. Inside there was familiar food, hearty drink, and Old Country friends, while on the outside the immigrants incurred the wrath of their melting-pot-driven American neighbors. In remaining aloof, and even more importantly, by laying claim to a part of the landscape, the Basques branded themselves outsiders, strange-speaking and dark-skinned sheepmen in a land that spoke the language of the Anglo-dominated cattle industry. Living by the railroad tracks might connect them to their homeland, but it also placed them across the tracks in the rougher, poorer, and usually more urban and industrial parts of town. Ethnic identity is accompanied by ethnic stigmatization, and the Basque hotels, set within the larger building community that is the West, are useful reminders of both the region's cultural diversity and its cultural divisions.

For more information contact the Western Regional Architecture Program, Graduate School of Architecture, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112. Thomas Carter is folklorist and Associate Professor of Architectural History at the University of Utah. He recently edited a collection entitled Images of an American Land: Vernacular Architecture in the Western United States (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).


1. Thanks to Professor Margaret Purser of Sonoma State University for historical information on the Bridge House (correspondence 18 Oct 1997); see also Howard Wight Marshall, Paradise Valley, Nevada: The People and Buildings of an American Place (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), 34-36.

2. Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic: Looking at Buildings and Landscapes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 1.

3. An excellent introduction to archeologically inspired fieldwork is found in Lanier and Herman's Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic, pp. 316-350.

4. See Fred B. Kniffen, "Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion," in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, ed. by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), pp. 3-26; Pierce Lewis, "Common Houses, Cultural Spoor," Landscape 19 (January 1975): pp. 1-22; Henry Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia: A Structural Analysis of Historic Artifacts (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975); James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1977); Abbott Lowell Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979); and Dell Upton, "Architectural History or Landscape History," Journal of Architectural Education 44 (August 1991): p. 198. For background reading on the vernacular architecture movement, see Thomas Carter and Bernard Herman, "Toward a New Architectural History," in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture IV, ed. by Thomas Carter and Bernard Herman (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991), pp. 1-6.

5. Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945 (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977).

6. It is difficult to identify all of these early SHPO-funded studies, but several worthy of mention are Bernard Herman, Architecture and Rural Life in Central Delaware, 1700-1900 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987) and Dell Upton, "Vernacular Domestic Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Virginia," in Common Places, pp. 315-335.