Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn…
Big House, Little House, Back House,Barn. This is a description of the typical old New England farmhouse arrangement. It is also the name of a book by Thomas C. Hubka, about this almost uniquely New England Phenomenon. Traditionally, a small cabin or cape style home would be the first dwelling built on a New England farm. Then a ways off, a barn would be built to shelter animals and store feed crops. Eventually, if the farm prospered, a large home, usually a 2 or 3 story ‘colonial’ style cape, often a saltbox house, would be built, frequently attached to the smaller, original home, sometimes at an angle, with the larger home in front facing the road. At some point, sheds and other outbuildings might have been built in between the house and barn buildings, forming one contiguous structure. There are several theories for this arrangement. One is that individual buildings were taxed individually and crafty Yankees reasoned that when connected, a group of several buildings, would become one in the eye of the tax law. Anyone having spent a winter in New England would be likely to subscribe to another theory; that when the vicious winter wind blows, bringing seemingly unrelenting snow and ice, the less one has to travel outside, the better. Old tales of living in these regions in those dark months are often sprinkled with memories of parents and grandparents having to tie a rope between farm buildings when a storm was pending. This allowed the farmer to be able to tend to his stock even when the snow was beating down and whipped around by ferocious winds so that a person could not ‘see a hand in front of their face’ as the old saying goes. It allowed the farmwomen to make the icy and perilous trip to the well and back safely in the blinding and raging blizzards that often grabbed this region in winter’s vicious grip. Many years ago now, I visited my brother in the Seattle Washington area for the first time. In many ways the landscape was not so different from my native New England, but an exaggerated wildness pervaded the landscape there. Incredibly high mountains, impossibly raging waterfalls and rivers, seemingly endless fragrant forests… The cities were very ‘new’ compared to those at home. At first I had a hard time comprehending the reason for this impression. Studying the architecture, I noted it was mostly modern and had a defined Spanish influence. Tiled roofs and sunny colors dominated. A few painted lady-type Victorian reproductions appeared, like rare jewels in the urban landscapes. Finally, it hit me. What was missing were the omnipresent Cape and Colonial style homes I was so used to seeing daily at home in my own, and every surrounding New England town.
I have a deeper appreciation for the vintage local architecture about me now and will never again take it for granted.