The Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina
Michael Ann Williams
Challenging many of the methods and preconceptions of conventional folk-architecture studies, Homeplace examines traditional houses in the mountains of Appalachia from the perspective offered by oral histories. Michael Ann Williams bases much of her study on interviews with some of the people most intimately familiar with her subject: more than fifty individuals born and raised in southwestern North Carolina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their testimony links the perspective of former occupants and the experiential aspects of folk architecture with more traditional scholarly studies.
Most scholarship on vernacular architecture emphasizes form and structure and is based primarily on the examination of extant buildings. While Homeplace contains floor plans and historical photographs, it also illustrates how oral history is often a more reliable guide in the interpretation of folk buildings than artifactual or documentary evidence. By foregrounding inhabitants’ reminiscences, Williams brings rural Appalachian architecture to life by emphasizing human experience within the dwelling.
An examination of universal concerns—continuity and change in the inhabitants’ uses and conceptualizations of interior spaces, domestic life and cultural change in southern Appalachia, the shifting importance of formal and informal spaces—Homeplace offers new insights into the folk building tradition and its cultural context that will be most helpful to those seeking a broader understanding of Appalachian life.
"Williams has captured in the words of her oral informants a way of life that must have been very common throughout most regions of America from the seventeenth century through the Civil War.... Few other books that have studied American vernacular architecture of this period have been able to recover so much fragile, but important, information about housing in such a coherent and convincing fashion.
"[Williams’s] assessment of the abandonment and sometimes willful destruction of the traditional homeplace will prove of considerable interest to preservationists.... Of most importance, her work will force readers, and hopefully some historical writers, to give thought to the use of internal space and perhaps the desire to seek out materials about the ways in which people lived within domestic structures.
Michael Ann Williams, Director of Folk Studies and Anthropology at Western Kentucky University, is the editor of Vernacular Architecture Newsletter.