Folk Building

By: G. Loyd Collier

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: September 11, 2020

Each cultural group that inhabits Texas brought its own ideas of proper forms, materials, and styles for buildings, and many cultures flow together in Texas, as the HemisFair '68 theme proclaimed. Anglos-here meaning English, Scots-Irish, and assimilated Germans-moved into the state from cultural regions centered in the Upper South and the Tidewater region. Most Hispanics came from Mexico. Germans, Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, and Swedes settlers came directly from Europe, and Europeans of all sorts came who had first sojourned elsewhere in North American. French came both from Louisiana and directly from Europe. Chinese, Japanese, and Africans came, the last mostly as slaves, to round out the nineteenth-century cultural confluence. These groups brought building customs with them but often changed their traditions as a result of the new physical environment, of the influence of new neighbors, and of changing styles in formal architecture. In the hot climate of Texas, where there was little snow, settlers from Central and Northern Europe soon lowered their rooflines and enlarged the number and size of windows. They derived the idea of porches from Anglo neighbors. Hispanic building customs did not change so much. Greek Revival and Victorian styles led in time to folk versions. The interchange of materials, methods, and styles resulted in a degree of sameness, but usually enough difference remained that the buildings could be traced to a particular group or tradition.

Both square and rectangular houses in eastern Texas were usually built of logs in the beginning. If the house was to be only a temporary structure until the "big house" was built, or if the builder lacked woodworking skills or time, the logs were either not squared or at best squared only for the inside wall. Four major notch types, derived from the eastern United States and German Central Europe, found their way to Texas: the half-dovetail, saddle, V, and square. The corner notches on the logs were also reflections of skills and available time as well as of cultural traditions. Settlers from the Upper South, the first to arrive in Texas, generally used the half-dovetail and V notch on hewn logs. Texas Germans also used the V notch, and may have learned it from Upper Southerners in their vicinity. Lower Southerners, who arrived later when log-working skills were beginning to deteriorate in the eastern United States, generally used the simpler square-and-saddle notch. These types also were used extensively for outbuildings, even when dwellings had more complicated forms. When Anglo settlers moved west of the forested region of Texas, they used sod blocks to build their houses or constructed half dugouts with or without upper walls of logs (see DUGOUT). Most of the pioneer settlers in western Texas, however, did not arrive until after sawmills became widespread in the 1880s and therefore built their homes of sawn lumber, as did the later settlers in forested East Texas. Both cultural traditions and availability of building materials led the Germans of Central Texas to build their houses of Fachwerk, or half-timbering, or of mortared stone (see GERMAN VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE). Hispanics used either stone or adobe, and a few buildings of palisado construction still stand.

The simplest and most universal folk house in Texas, English in origin, consisted of a square usually about sixteen feet on a side, usually enclosing a single pen or room but sometimes two rooms. In East Texas the single-room dwelling was often used for slave housing. The dimensions could vary with the materials available, especially for log buildings, and rectangular structures occurred. The square, single-pen house was brought to Texas by settlers from both the Upper and Lower South, and also from Mexico and Germany. The Germans contributed the two-room square house. It was usually constructed of logs when built by Anglos and of adobe or mortared stone when built by the Hispanics of South Texas. Anglos left their walls bare in the earlier days of settlement, but Hispanics and Germans usually plastered theirs both inside and out. Later, the Anglos sometimes covered the inside walls with sawn boards and the outside ones with weatherboarding, thereby improving both appearance and durability. A second square room added to the side of a house containing the fireplace and chimney made a saddlebag house. This house form, possibly with Swedish roots, was introduced to Texas by Upper Southerners. Replacing the massive fireplace with a flue enlarged the living space and was characteristic of later saddlebag houses and the similar Creole house from Louisiana. The second room added to the wall opposite the chimney yielded a double-pen or Cumberland house, perhaps the most widespread form in the part of the state settled by Anglos. Most of the double-pens in Texas are of the Cumberland type. The basic plan of the Cumberland house was often modified by the addition of shed or lean-to porches in front and back or of one or more rooms across the back. In both the saddlebag and Cumberland houses, each room usually had its own outside entrance. Sometimes a hall separated the two rooms of a rectangular house. If the central hallway was enclosed and contained the only entrance to the house, the dwelling was a central-hall house. This type was brought to Texas especially from the Upper South. If the hallway was left open and entrances to the two rooms were either on the front wall or in the hallway, the house was what is now usually called a dogtrot house, a type particularly associated with settlers from the Lower South. When the long axis of the house was oriented perpendicularly to the roadway rather than parallel as in the rectangular house, the shotgun was the result. Although the basic form had African roots, and in some parts of Texas was associated with Blacks, it proved to be very popular and was used by other groups. Sections of some cities, housing for sawmill and other industrial workers of many cultural derivations, and even some of the twentieth-century pioneer houses in Panhandle cities were constructed on the shotgun form. The Fourth Ward in Houston contained several shotgun houses in the 1980s, as did the old bottomland plantation district between the Brazos and the Little Brazos rivers in Robertson County. A house consisting of two shotgun units with a common central wall and roof yielded a bungalow house. Sometimes this type had two front doors, a feature that suggested evolution from the Cumberland house, and sometimes only one. The bungalow form became the first all-wood house built in much of West Texas.

All of these house forms were one or 1½ stories high. The single-story structure was by far more common. One form of taller dwelling has come to be called the I (pronounced "eye") house. With variation in details, it was introduced to Texas by settlers from both the Upper and Lower South. Regardless of the source, however, the I house was the preferred dwelling of the well-to-do in both rural and urban settings. The placement of stairways in houses of 1½ and two stories varied with region and culture. In Anglo-built houses the stairway generally rose from the central hall or dogtrot, whereas in German houses it was usually on the outside of the house. All of these houses were customarily topped with pitched roofs containing simple gable ends, through one of which projected a chimney or flue. The roof ridge usually paralleled the road except in the shotgun and bungalow types. When one or more rooms were added to the back of the single-room or rectangular house, the roofline could be carried with little or no break in angle over the rear room, thus forming a saltbox or catslide house. Hispanic homes, particularly in the drier parts of the state, were usually topped by flat roofs consisting of poles and brush covered with clay and plaster. In the lower Rio Grande valley area, however, are Hispanic houses with side walls that extend one to two feet above the pitched roof. This distinctive type of parapet roof is perhaps derived from Irish influence. Houses built by Hispanics and Central Europeans generally had casement windows, and Anglos' houses had sash windows. The Anglos did not usually use shutters, but Hispanics and Central Europeans did. Various porches embellished the basic house forms. The enclosed porch was made by carrying the front roofline out over the porch space without a change in angle. This type, often erroneously attributed to Louisiana, came from the Tidewater region. Although structurally and aesthetically more unified because it did not appear to be so much an afterthought as a shed porch, the enclosed porch cost more to build.

Folk housing also varies by region and culture in the relation of house to ground surface. Hispanic and German houses usually sat firmly on the ground, whereas Anglo houses, particularly those from the Lower South, were generally elevated on piers made of tree-trunk sections, piled native stones, or bricks. Traceable to the Tidewater region is the custom of raising some houses above the ground by a half or full story. See also AFRICAN AMERICANS, ARCHITECTURE.

Francis Edward Abernethy, Built in Texas, Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 42 (Waco: E-Heart Press, 1979). Drury Blakeley Alexander and (photographs) Todd Webb, Texas Homes of the Nineteenth Century (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966). Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968; rpt. 1980). Clovis Heimsath, Pioneer Texas Buildings: A Geometry Lesson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). 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, Texas Log Buildings: A Folk Architecture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978). Fred B. Kniffen, "Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 55 (1965). Lonn W. Taylor, "Fachwerk and Brettstuhl: The Rejection of Traditional Folk Culture," in Perspectives on American Folk Art, ed. Ian M. G. Quimby and Scott T. Swank (New York: Norton, 1980). John Michael Vlach, "The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy," Pioneer America 8 (1976).

  • Architecture
  • Styles, Methods, and Technological Innovations
  • Peoples
  • French
  • Germans
  • Swedes

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

G. Loyd Collier, “Folk Building,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
September 11, 2020