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GERMAN VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE

GERMAN VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE. The sizable German ethnic presence in Texas, particularly in the south central parts of the state, in the Hill Country, and in Medina County, has made a pronounced architectural imprint, especially on vernacular dwellings and churches. By and large, the peasant immigrants discarded their traditional German house and farmstead plans, in particular the lower Saxon and hill Hessian combination of human and animal quarters under one roof and the "Frankish court," a central German plan in which farm buildings are tightly grouped around an enclosed farmyard. They did so at least partly in order to conform to the customs of their new homeland. They adopted typically southern Anglo-American plans, such as the dog-run houseqv. Still, the Texas German house is often less elongated than those of the Anglos, being built on a squared plan reminiscent of the Frankish central German house. Typically Teutonic roof profiles such as the Westerwald "saltbox" and the Frankish "bellcast" occur frequently; stoves often replace the open-hearth fireplaces prevalent among Anglos; casement windows are common among Texas Germans, as are cellars; and "Dutch" doors occasionally appear. For reasons not clear, Hill Country Germans made greater use of outside stairs than did any other group. Upon arrival, most Germans adopted typically Anglo notched-log construction, a building technique unknown in the provinces that contributed the great majority of the Texas settlers. Only a few among the Medina County Germans imported a distinctively Alpine-Alemannic type of log construction. A local individuality was added to log construction by the Hill Country Germans, who left unusually wide chinks between the logs and filled these with mortared stone. Some other Germans who settled in proximity to Hispanics employed palisado, or picket, walls in their early houses. After the first difficult years of pioneering had passed, Texas Germans, drawing upon their Saxon and Hessian traditions, began building Fachwerk, or half-timbered, structures. This second phase ended about the time of the Civil War, and few if any half-timbered buildings were erected after 1870. Fredericksburg, Comfort, and New Braunfels retain the most notable concentrations of half-timbering, though individual specimens occur in the area between Austin and Houston. Though typically Hessian wattle-and-daub and Saxon fired brick fill the interstices of some Texas German half-timbered structures, builders more commonly used cut limestone blocks or adobe. Often Texas Germans covered their half-timbering with plaster and whitewash or weatherboarding. Beginning about 1850, another type of wall construction appeared among the Texas Germans-hewn stonemasonry. In Hessian and Frankish regions of Germany, such stonework normally appears in the ground floor of the house, and gives way to half-timbering in upper levels. Its origins probably lie in the Roman rule of Rhenish Germany. Although splendid specimens of German-built limestone and sandstone structures appear widely through south central Texas, the greatest concentrations are in the Hill Country and Medina County. Sometimes all three building phases-log, half-timbering, and stone-are combined in successive additions to individual German houses. In roofing, the Texas Germans departed radically from their European tradition. Some early thatching appeared, but Anglo wood shingling prevailed by 1850, and Germans helped develop the cypress-shingle industry of the Hill Country.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of German architectural influence is to be found in the rural and small-town churches. The half-timbered Vereins-Kirche at Fredericksburg, demolished in 1897 (a replica stands today), preserved in its "coffee mill" shape the venerable "Carolingian octagon" church plan. Far more common are examples of Gothic vernacular, built either in stone or frame. Among the most outstanding German Gothic churches in Texas are St. Louis Catholic at Castroville; old St. Mary's Catholic at Fredericksburg, notable for its convex "helmet" tower; Westphalia Catholic in Falls County, the largest wooden structure in the state; St. Joseph's Catholic in San Antonio; Round Top Lutheran in Fayette County, featuring fine locally made organ pipes; Doss Lutheran in Gillespie County; and Art Methodist in Mason County. Also noteworthy is the brick Romanesque St. Peter's Catholic Church at the German town of Lindsay in Cooke County, containing truly spectacular interior decoration. Germanic influence is also to be seen in a wide variety of other Texas vernacular structures, including frame dance halls, perhaps most notably at Cat Spring in Austin County and La Bahía in Washington County; Sunday houses, lining the streets near churches in Fredericksburg; barns, including an impressive rock and frame structure at Chalk Mountain in Erath County; and schoolhouses, particularly at Sisterdale in Kendall County and Cypress Creek in Kerr County. See also ARCHITECTURE.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Terry G. Jordan, "German Folk Houses in the Texas Hill Country," in German Culture in Texas, ed. Glen E. Lich and Dona B. Reeves (Boston: Twayne, 1980). Terry G. Jordan, "A Religious Geography of the Hill Country Germans in Texas," in Ethnicity on the Great Plains, ed. Frederick C. Luebke (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980). Hubert G. H. Wilhelm, "German Settlement and Folk Building Practices in the Hill Country of Texas," Pioneer America 3 (July 1971).

Terry G. Jordan

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Terry G. Jordan, "GERMAN VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/cbg01), accessed September 17, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.