Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Appalachian Homeplace

In the past few years since we first came to Kentucky, I became aware of an interesting term: homeplace. This word is used in reference to the place where a person or remembered family member was born and raised or as, "that was Margaret's homeplace over on Tick Ridge". I have also learned that it can be a term of reverence. Homeplaces are more often than not abandoned houses, left to time and circumstance, exactly as they were when the last occupant lived there. [See also my blog entry from last April on our neighbor's farm, Another Homeplace]

A fine old manor, now ruinous but just as lovely as in its hey-day.
Devoid or pilfered of their contents, all that remains are the weathered clapboards and other architectural fixtures. They are ruins on the landscape, almost a part of the land, and there is a haunting beauty and sorrow in their remains. The English landscape gardeners on the great estates might have appreciated them and the Romantic poets would have certainly immortalized them.

The house is now part-barn and hay storage.
I also sense that these places are left as much as through benign neglect as for their associations. This is where the reverence factor enters in: the houses are often left alone, unoccupied, because of those who lived there. We know a family who picnics each year at their family homeplace, now empty of furnishings, and used for their annual family reunion, never to be rented or sold. Around it are fields and forests, still in the family (in fact, purchased back by a daughter). Otherwise, it is an abandoned lonely place, likely never to be inhabited again.

My husband and I are drawn to these places, which is ironic because we sold the New Hampshire farm that was in my family for almost sixty years (the land is all now being preserved with conservation easements) and have listed for sale our large Federal home, Whitcomb House. [But these are other stories, complex and varied, and often detailed in this blog--see one of the entries on my family farm, Home Place.] Once common in New England during the Depression and earlier decades, well before the era of village improvement societies, older homes there are restored, and sometimes inappropriately. Finding a homeplace in its original unaltered state is like Mecca for me. It is preservation in its most rudimentary sense which is preserving something in its pure form.

Last week we "foraged" around a particular house that we had passed before. Not seeing any "No trespassing" signs or an adjacent owner's house to ask permission, we poked around and took nothing but photographs. Any house foraging can be dangerous, if not illegal, especially as the floor was treacherous and the place had been used recently as a hay barn. Exploring these buildings any later in the season can also be encumbered by the emergence of snakes, often poisonous. [I do intend to find and contact the owner to tell them we were there and to perhaps get some oral history on the house.]

Layers of old wallpaper in the hallway.

Inside were original features from the late 19th century, including seven visible layers of wallpaper in the entry hall, its own visual chronology of time and taste proclivities, spanning from the Aesthetic period in the 1870s or so, to a flocked Gothic paper, to pink and gray Edwardian grandeur, to 1940s ivy, through 1950s Colonial Revival townscapes.

Former pantry cupboards...or hay barn?
Built-in kitchen cupboards, probably painted in the 1930s, seemed to be the only evidence of a pantry, as the original footprint of the house had remained. Inside the cupboards there is the distinctive utilitarian green paint from the Depression era that has made a comeback in recent years and the surrounding kitchen was ample and spacious. Except for the ell, the house was reminiscent to us of the one that was originally on the location of our doublewide, that a former owner recently told us about: it had 2 large stone end chimneys, was one room deep, with two large downstairs and upstairs rooms and a "dog trot" hallway between them.

This particular house that we photographed also had an ell with a large hall dividing the main house from the kitchen, probably for additional air and ventilation and to keep the heat away from the main house in summer. A double entry porch, a common vernacular type in Kentucky, was also added at one time (we did not dare go upstairs for fear of falling through the floor). Outside is an old smokehouse, a common outbuilding still found in this region.

Another possible reason for the old homeplace phenomenon here in Kentucky is that, unlike in the Northeast and other parts of the country where property taxes are so high, these buildings are not taxed. So they can be more easily left where and as they are. The land around them is primarily used for agriculture or you might see a newer home built beside the old (or a trailer plopped in front). I wonder, also, if because most people did not have cameras or any other means to document their lives in these houses, that this visual record is a timeless reminder of the old home. One of our neighbors still has his parents' homeplace on another farm and he keeps it as it was. "Sometimes I go in and it still smells as it used to when they lived there." I, too, have a powerful scent memory of the places I have lived and that I often haunt in my dreams. There is also the unavoidable reality: that crushing poverty and an inability to afford to restore these houses has allowed their preservation, however ruinous.

An original hearth in the main room.

There is sentiment in speaking of these places, but there is no dwelling in them. The homeplace lingers as a remnant of a past. In their preservation they slowly return to the land. There is beauty in that, at least for the newly transplanted outsider who also happens to be an architectural historian. In our culture today, where families are separated by states and sometimes continents, there is also something reassuring and familial about them. They are the domestic remains of our nation's farming history and stand resolute against the McMansion era in which we live. The ruinous old homeplace is the antithesis of the vinyled, Mansarded, overblown suburban home of today. Where those houses are incongruous on the land, like jarring gewgaws, the decrepit homeplace seems a natural part of its environs.

My friends Susan Daley and Steve Gross, who shot the principal photography for The Pantry, are soon to release their new book, Time Wearing Out Memory: Schoharie County, with W.W. Norton & Company. Almost twenty years ago, I met Sue and Steve at a shoot for the Gibson House Museum, a Victorian time capsule in Boston, for Victoria Magazine.

Over the years our friendship has strengthened over a love of old places, especially the delight in discovering old houses (and working together for my own book). Like me, Sue had never quite understood the term "homeplace" before, even though that is what they often document in their photography. She did, however, refer me to a classic photograpy book by Wright Morris called The Home Place.

Their latest book documents the architectural remains of time in upstate New York, in many ways another place of forgotten Appalachian existence. They see places for what they are and as they are and I look forward to discovering more of their photographic excellence and discerning eye for historic--and often haunting and ruinous--architecture. Check out their Schoharieology blog on their new book, featuring images from Schoharie County, New York and other information. In many ways, that beautiful region of upper New York state reminds me of the knobs and hollows of Kentucky. Kindred places, kindred spirits.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. It really hits home for this reader in TN. We also see many "homeplaces" in the rural parts of the state. My own family is still in possession of my 98 year old grandmother's land and home, despite the fact she will never be able to live there again. Last summer I spent an afternoon taking photos of the farm, the house, the barns, and yes, even the smokehouse! This particular smokehouse was actually the first house, where the family lived while the farmhouse was being built. As beautiful as it is, as sweet as the memories conjured up in my mind, it is very sad at the same time. I could see so many areas in need of TLC as I walked around, but no one has the cash to restore a property that will have to be sold sometime in the next few years. It breaks my heart to know that the place where I spent so many carefree days as a child will most likely become a sub-division in the not too distant future.

Rosemary UK said...

What a shame these places are being left to fall down,here in England,these houses would be snapped up and restored sympathetically with heritage paint,wood and other materials that have been reclaimed.People who love historic houses would be so thrilled to obtain a building so unspoilt !