Early settlers throughout the original thirteen colonies faced plenty of hardship: rough weather, harsh winters, failed crops, and unfriendly environs were just some of the pitfalls they encountered in their new home. In the South, the hot, humid, insect-and-reptile-infested marshlands and deep pine forests were challenging and often inhospitable places to stake out a home and attempt to foster a planter’s genteel life. Early planters despite their affluence had a hard time carving out a livable life and strove to build a sense of genteel prosperity as well as an aura of history from a time before the actual origins of their enterprises.
These were men who knew that what mattered at this point in history and in the societies they aspired to be part of was not simply wealth but heritage, and not having such, they tried twice as hard to create it, often more or less from scratch. Their homes—stately, sometimes opulent, and often in places both beautiful and rustic—were a huge part of that effort. Moreover, they created a lasting ideal in the South of what one should aspire to in a home and how a house makes a home-place.
The wealth of planters at plantations such as Virginia’s Carter’s Grove and Woodlawn of Louisiana is obvious in the size, number of rooms present, and finery of ornament involved. Richard Taliaferro’s design of Carter’s Grove placed it on equal standing with not only “town” houses in Williamsburg but even the government buildings there. Planters in the early years of the colonies often set up housekeeping in cities—this was especially true in Charleston, South Carolina, which at the time was the wealthiest city in all the colonies—prior to establishing a grand home on their actual plantations, and so having such a home was a marker of really having achieved something and also a means of proving that country life could be just as refined as urban life.
This was important. English nobles of the time had expansive country estates which were the center of refinement and grand parties even more so than city residences. That was what planters wanted to emulate, and it’s a tradition very much alive in country homes today in the South. What is more, the ideal of the fine country estate carries over into the way many urban and suburban homes present themselves, with ample yards, majestic oaks, other heirloom trees, and lush landscaping. Upper-class homes in Manhattan of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, dwelt instead mostly on being city residences—as did those of London—placing emphasis on being a part of the larger city. Having land was neither possible nor emotionally necessary for these urban homes, but in the South it was different. Even today everyone seems to want their own little plantation if possible, and on some scale, for many, it is.
The architectural trends of Great Britain influenced the South markedly, as did those of France, though on a lesser scale. The Caribbean islands were the first bastions of agrarian plantation life and contributed their own attributes to the Southern view of what a home should look like. In Savannah, a city planned to be unique and highly-functional, row houses known as Savannah elevated townhouses became a pragmatic answer to providing suitable housing within the scope of limited space. Row houses, taken from the terraced houses of Europe, turn up in Boston, Baltimore, New York, and other colonial cities, but in Savannah their pragmatism is to be noted with the inclusion of courtyards suitable for small gardens and room for slaves or servants to stay in the house though in separated quarters from the homeowner.
What’s really interesting is how over time these grand Savannah homes—often with strong Victorian, Edwardian, or Queen Anne architectural influences—stake out their places in this well-ordered city. Some early examples of finer homes in Savannah were built on trust lots provided to wealthy families influential in the city, and as time went by others with wealth emulated the same geospatial aspects of such homes—private lots often as sizable as possible—while turning to the trendy architectural styles of the decade for inspiration in the actual aesthetics of the homes. Homes such as the Green-Meldrim House and Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah bespeak the type of economic prosperity it took to purchase large lots, hire well-known architects, and commission homes built of fine materials. The ongoing upkeep of such homes was no trifling affair, either, in financial terms. Having such a home communicated the position of prominence of its owner, a trend seen strongly in cities such as Charleston, Macon, and Richmond, and in Florida as well.
By the later nineteenth century, the small regional center and county seat of Gainesville, Florida, was growing with money coming in from businesses and the establishment of the University of Florida campus. A neighborhood north of University Avenue boasts some excellent examples of fine homes in a variety of styles but all distinctly Southern; in the early twentieth century this neighborhood became known as “the Duckpond” when a rainwater retention pond with an island for ducks to inhabit was constructed there.
What makes these homes grandly Southern? For one, the aforementioned size and circumstances of lots, which are most often ample and well-landscaped while retaining ancient oaks common to the area. There are sidewalks, and the centers of business and the courthouse are not far away, but the overall feeling is not urban at all, but one of spaciousness—nearly a forerunner of today’s gated communities where homes are spaced apart by broad yards. The Duckpond however is not limited to stately homes for the city’s wealthiest: there were boarding houses and smaller single-family homes as well. Today, some of the largest homes have been repurposed as apartments but retain their Victorian splendor and dignity.
You find Victorian, Edwardian, and Queen Anne style homes throughout the South, but why? Probably because these styles coincided with a period of expansion and prosperity, they suit themselves to timber-frame construction, and they’re highly ornate, allowing for the demonstration of sophistication and wealth. Timber-frame construction is interesting because it can be very plain and humble or demonstrative of riches. Brick and certainly stone construction in contrast speaks of the money required for those materials, and in the emerging American South, getting stone or bricks from quarries or foundries to building sites was not always easy in the nineteenth century—lumber was much more available.
Many families needed large homes since they had numerous children, and also room was needed for visitors; rooms within a house could in a sense be more multi-purpose, with most rooms able to serve as bedrooms but casually purposed for other needs. Everything from childbirth to wakes often took place in these houses, and for the well-to-do, entertaining could be a very complex event as well. Restaurants were less common, and much entertaining took place at home. And since air conditioning had yet to be invented and heat was localized per room via wood or coal-burning stoves or fireplaces, the type of energy calculations homeowners today would consider for economics did not factor into the design of these oft-massive houses.
Not all homes in the South were lavish by any means. The blockhouse which served as a fort against attacks by Indians, as well as Cracker homes in the shotgun or dog-trot vernacular styles, positioned function far before form. Yet these humble styles contributed to the evolution of the home as well. Homes are still built today that incorporate the aesthetics of the classic Florida Cracker house or the cabins of the Appalachians. The so-called “I-house,” so named for its prevalence in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa, was actually first identified as an architectural style in Louisiana and is common in Virginia, the Carolinas, and elsewhere in the South. These houses could be simple or expansive but rarely displayed the outward attention to detailed decoration found in Victorians and their associated styles.
All in all, the Southern home has come a long way from origins both humble and aspirational to homes which are comfortable, practical, and still traditional. The emphasis on the rural and agrarian aspects of life being as prestigious as urban ones are a contribution of Southern domesticity to the entire United States.