How the Wood-Frame House Became America’s Most Familiar Building
Four years ago, the Pritzker Prize–winner Tadao Ando spectacularly converted a 1920s apartment building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago into exhibition spaces for a gallery named—in deference to its street address—Wrightwood 659. The gallery is currently staging a resourceful exhibition on wood-frame construction, the method by which more than 90% of U.S. houses are built.
Rarely has wood-framing been the subject of an architectural show. It’s too mundane a topic—or at least it seemed that way until two associate professors at the University of Illinois Chicago, Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, conceived the American Framing exhibition for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. One year after Venice, the much talked-about exhibition makes its American debut at Wrightwood 659.
The show’s dominant feature is a soaring three-story assembly of wood-framing that fills the gallery’s atrium. Visitors walking through it get a sense of the vivid effects that are achievable with ordinary wood studs. Rounding out the show are scale models depicting the history of wood framing: chairs, rockers, and benches made from common lumber; photographs; and other items.
In an interview for reSITE, Preissner and Andersen explained that wood framing developed in the early 19th century as an alternative to traditional heavy-timber construction and as a response to the bountiful softwood forests in parts of the Midwest. Softwood studs weren’t terribly strong, Preissner noted, but when fastened together with mass-produced nails, they formed quickly erected houses for the settlers streaming into mid-America.
In Preissner and Andersen’s view, wood framing is one of America’s most overlooked contributions to architecture. Its components are egalitarian. “No amount of money can buy you a better 2×4,” they observe. “It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, your house—at least the structure of your house—is made of the same stuff,” Anderson told Metropolis last year. “I think that’s really democratic.”
Not everyone views the history of wood-framing in such benign terms. In Architectural Record, Zach Mortice asserted that the rapid proliferation of wood-framed houses and other wood-framed buildings (along with other 19th century infrastructure) made it easier to “violently displace Indigenous people across North America.”
When I asked Preissner about that, he said: “The exhibition doesn’t make any kind of assertion that wood framing drove native people from the country, but it’s of course a thing which enabled it to happen easier. The show directly confronts the brutality of this through the inclusion of the blockhouse military fort, which was wood-framed, easy to build, and used to slaughter native Americans. But wood framing didn’t do any of the forcing, or murder. Guns and people did, and it’s doubtful any imagined lack of wood framing would have slowed the atrocity.”
Wood framing “made westward expansion easier,” Preissner said, “but European colonialism had no trouble occupying and murdering North American Indians prior to its invention. It seems a bit of an overarch to pin any blame on [wood-framing] when there are such more clearly obvious conveniences that assisted in the atrocities.”
The aim of American Framing is to reveal “the world of wood framing by allowing people to experience firsthand its spaces, forms, and techniques.” Buildings of every size and style are made of wood framing. One model in the show depicts a beguiling Illinois round barn from 1905.
Wood-framing’s components can be manipulated into an untold number of architectural variations, departures, and idiosyncrasies. The curators note that, paradoxically, wood framing, for all its sameness and repetitiveness, is a system that supports the American quest for individuality. The capacity to surprise—to create novel results from standardized pieces—is, for Preissner and Andersen, something worth celebrating. Wood framing fosters improvisation and allows houses to be altered or expanded at will.
The Wrightwood show is an invitation to explore residential construction along many different lines. For me, it brought to mind two inventive works: J.B. Jackson’s essay “The Westward-Moving House: Three American Houses and the People Who Lived in Them,” from 1953, and Warren Ashworth and Susan Kander’s novel We, the House, which was published last October by Blue Cedar Press.
“The Westward-Moving House” first appeared in Landscape, the journal Jackson founded in 1951. It chronicles three American houses representing divergent periods and sections of the country. The essay starts with the story of a dwelling erected in Jerusha, Massachusetts, in the 1650s for Nehemiah Tinkham and his wife, Submit Tinkham. (The family and the place names were made up by Jackson, but the essay as a whole conveys the author’s detailed knowledge of house-building and social change across three centuries.)
In the small settlement of Jerusha, a day’s journey from Boston, Nehemiah Tinkham arrives to take ownership of 60 acres of virgin timber and carve out a farm. Neighbors help him fell oak and pine trees and erect a steep-roofed house of wood. Using simple tools, they assemble a frame of oak, laboriously secured by mortise and tenon. Nehemiah’s dwelling was, as Jackson sardonically puts it, “built to last, built to be inflexible, built to carry a load, and not built for easy alteration or enlargement. Like his theology, perhaps.”
Lest the reader think a 17th century Massachusetts house must have been lovely to behold, Jackson says the exterior was left unpainted, as was common in early New England, and “the appearance of the house was for long bleak and graceless; its windows were small, the proportion of the rooms ungainly and the furnishings scanty and of necessity crude.” For Nehemiah and Submit, though, it was agreeable enough: “solid, practical and defensible against Indian assaults.” Nehemiah “never realized that the huge chimney was inefficient, or that the lighting in the house was atrociously bad,” Jackson says. “He never realized that the old fashioned frame he took such pains with was needlessly slow and difficult to make.”
The house was not intended for extensive socializing. Community and group functions generally took place at the village meeting house, a short walk away. The meeting house was the focus of Jerusha’s collective and spiritual life; as a consequence, the family home could remain primitive.
Houses like the Tinkhams’ were ill-suited to the republic that expanded into the continent’s interior after the Revolution. So when Pliny Tinkham—a descendant of Nehemiah and Submit—migrated to the town of Illium on the rich Illinois prairie around 1860, he “abandoned the time-honored frame construction of his ancestors”’ and used the latest method, the so-called balloon construction,” Jackson relates.
Balloon structures employed wood studs and thin plates, not a hefty frame with mortised-and-tenoned joints. The studs ran the full height of the building, secured by nails. This was an inexpensive dwelling, fast to build, larger, better-illuminated, and more convenient than the old place in Jerusha. It gave Pliny, his wife, Matilda, and their children more rooms: a kitchen, milk room, pantry, living room, and bedrooms, not to mention a long, open porch called a piazza.
Since Illinois farmers didn’t live in compact centers, close to a meeting house, church, tavern, and public common, the 19th century house was becoming something of a private oasis—a relatively self-sufficient site for family weddings, funerals, burials, business deals, holidays, and other doings. With balloon framing, a house could readily be added onto. If the need arose, the house as designed could be easily sold; it was reflective of rising geographic and economic mobility. Once Pliny died in 1892, his grandchildren quickly scattered.
The final stage of “The Westward-Moving House” is set in 1953 in a rural Texas town named Bonniview. The postwar iteration of the American house—that of Ray Tinkham, his wife, Shirley, and their children, Don and Billie-Jean—is being built of “the best grade cement blocks, brought by truck some two hundred miles, and it is to be absolutely the last word in convenience and modern construction. It is to be flat-roofed and one story high, with no artistic pretensions, but intelligently designed.”
From a picture window in the living room, the family will have a view of rolling prairie, including a corner of the ranch that Ray manages, 12 miles away. “Twelve miles is an ideal distance,” Ray thinks. He can reach the ranch in his pickup in less than 20 minutes and he can “leave his work far behind him at the end of the day.”
Where do ideas about house design and furnishings come from? Decisions about the 1953 house are largely the sphere of Shirley, who pores over every home decorating magazine available and has practical ideas of her own. “She wants the house to be informal and not too big: easy to take care of, easy to live in, cheerful and comfortable.” Jackson observes that Shirley is “as eager as anyone to reduce the functions of the house and to make it a convenience rather than a responsibility.”
It doesn’t occur to the Texas generation of Tinkhams that they might want to spend their old age in this house, much less that their children would inhabit it after Ray and Shirley are gone. The role of the house had evolved; the stay-in-place spirit of Nehemiah and Submit had waned as domestic life was transformed.
Jackson seemed to suggest a bigger future for concrete-block construction than what actually transpired. Wood-framing, the method celebrated at Wrightwood 659, remained the national norm. But on the whole, Jackson was prescient. He understood that as technology, ways of making a living, social customs, belief systems, and other factors changed, the dwellings built in one era could be left behind in the next.
A tale of westward movement and change is also at the core of Warren Ashworth and Susan Kander’s ingenious We, the House. Their novel presents the partly real, partly fictional story of Ambleside, an Italianate house built in the frontier town of Newton, Kansas, in 1878.
What if an old house could talk? That is the central conceit of We, the House. What would we learn from a curious, years-long conversation about a house and its inhabitants? One thing we learn is that changes in building methods and innovations in such things as utility systems often cause consternation. The novel opens in 2010, when a portrait of Hermione Sutter Peale, painted in 1828—the year she graduated from Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut—is about to be stripped from the dining room, where it had hung since the Kansas dwelling’s earliest days. A conversation opens up between the painting of Mrs. Peale and Ambleside, a house conscious of its own construction but ignorant of everything else.
Ambleside pesters Mrs. Peale with questions, and Mrs. Peale fills Ambleside in about the history of the house and its original owners, an ice man named Henry Luke Hart and his strong-willed wife, Emmaline Hart. Sharp, often comical conversations between Ambleside and the woman in the portrait educate readers about the transitions that houses have undergone.
Mrs. Peale is aghast to hear from Ambleside that the house she adorns was assembled with balloon framing, an 1830s invention that came to dominate housebuilding by the end of the 19th century. Her husband, Simon, had been a housewright in Connecticut, making dwellings with posts and beams. It took “at least ten months to build a proper house,” Mrs. Peale proudly explains. “Every mortise and tenon joint was cut and chiseled. Each bent, girt, and summer beam was fit together as carefully as one would make a fine chest of drawers. … His houses will last hundreds of years.”
The Kansas house, she’s appalled to hear, is made of “skinny sticks of wood.” She tells Ambleside: “Your corner posts are not shaped, mortise-and-tenoned members, ten inches by ten—they are simply a couple of these two-by-fours! Not even held tight with pegs, just nailed together! Toothpicks!”
Yet balloon framing—the term originally was intended to cast doubt on such supposedly flimsy construction—enabled millions of Americans to swiftly populate a continent wide expanse. It allowed a crew of five men to build the two-story Kansas dwelling in only three months. Balloon framing, as it turned out, did have a grave defect. It typically lacked fire breaks between floors; a fire from Ambleside’s kitchen stove sent flames shooting up the wall cavity, all the way to the roof. The risk of such fires was worrisome enough that builders eventually shifted to “platform framing,” eliminating balloon framing’s awful flaw.
We, the House reminds us that building features taken for granted today were once causes of trepidation. When indoor plumbing arrived, some worried that dampness from the pipes would rot a house’s wood framing. The coming of electricity to Ambleside in 1909 alarmed Emmaline. Henry tried to calm her by endorsing the electrician’s opinion: copper wires would conduct power safely throughout the home. To that, Emmaline retorted, “Of course he says it’s safe. He is the person who profits by its installation in our house. He loses not a farthing should my Ambleside be reduced to ash!”
By the late 1940s, none of the Harts’ descendants had “the slightest interest in this grand dame of a house. They want modern, modern, modern.” Years later, Victorian houses are rediscovered, and Ambleside is purchased by a couple who adore 19th century survivors. A startling development in the final chapter leaves readers to contemplate how economics can disrupt even the most lovingly restored house.
The Peales and a few of the other characters in the book are fictional, but the house itself is genuine. The dwelling, which truly was called Ambleside, was built for Ashworth’s great-grandparents, and it stands to this day on a small rise in Newton, north of Wichita. It has been intensively researched by Ashworth, an architect who teaches design and architectural history at the New York School of Interior Design.
We, the House and “The Westward-Moving House” are enchanting works, presenting the transformation of American dwellings with a blend of well researched facts, sharp observation, and sly humor. They’re a great accompaniment to the Wrightwood 659 exhibition, but they’re also equally absorbing on their own.
Featured image via Flicker.