Getting Back to Myths

I’m sure you all remember my post a couple of months ago about the fun stories I heard at the Columbus Pilgrimage explaining various architectural features (if you have a bad memory or, even worse, didn’t read it originally, you can find it here). Well, lo and behold, a much more scholarly article by Pamela H. Simpson, a professor of art history at Washington & Lee University, about the myths of architectural history handed down by authoritative docents appeared in the latest Vernacular Architecture Newsletter published by the Vernacular Architecture Forum.

Simpson has been keeping track of these stories for many years (and Virginia is a good place to hear probably every story in the book) and she’s thought through their implications much more carefully than I have. Better yet, she’s done her research to track the stories back to their origins whenever possible. Here’s a few excerpts (with permission, no less!) from her article “Windows, Closets, Taxes, and Indians: Old House Stories We Have Known and Loved (Redux)” from the Spring 2009 issue of VAN:

One of the important things to keep in mind as one begins to examine the stories is not to worry too much about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the information. I found that thinking about them as an architectural version of the classical myths helped. We don’t worry about whether Ceres of Hercules existed, we understand them as a means by which people in the ancient world made sense of things. Old house stories function in a similar way. When people see something unfamiliar in an old building, they explain it in terms they can understand. They use their own expectations and experiences as a base. A thick door or a small window might be interpreted as a defensive measure, and generations of cowboy and Indian movies might supply the likely combatants. When a guide tells the tale of no windows on this side, or heavy shutters, or thick doors as helping to withstand Indian attack, the visitors accept this story. It confirms their expectations. After all, they probably locked their doors and windows before leaving home that morning. The tale may be historically inaccurate, but the visitors’ acceptance is based on their own worldview.

Simpson divides the many and varied architectural stories into four categories: Mistakes of Transfer; Inferiority of Local Materials or the Grass is Always Greener; Delusions of Grandeur; and Paranoia or the Architecture of Fear. Our favorite tax stories, for instance, fit into the Mistakes of Transfer and Paranoia categories:

Mistakes of Transfer happen when someone imposes experiences from the present onto the past. . . . The frequently heard explanation for false windows, no windows, or lack of closets is, “They don’t have them because there was a tax on them.” This legend may have its origins in the fact that architectural features were sometimes taxed. In England from 1697 to 1851, for example, there was a tax on windows and occasionally a few were bricked up because of it. But the Mistake of Transfer happens when the historical fact is picked up wholesale from one context and transferred to another. In Lexington, Virginia, the 1845 Campbell House has four false windows on its gable end. The owner of the house in the 1950s was an avid amateur historian. When he drew up his will to leave the house to the local historical society, he included a note of explanation for the false windows. He quoted word for word a passage from the Encyclopedia Britannica on the window tax and simply transferred that description of the English tax to nineteenth-century Virginia. Extensive research has shown that there was no such tax in Lexington.

. . . .

The stories about taxes on windows and closets can also fit into [Paranoia or The Architecture of Fear]. The reason there are few closets in old houses is because that is not how people stored their clothes. Still, most visitors to a historic house are struck by the fact that bedrooms do not have the generous closet space modern homeowners demand. The idea that taxes explain it all is another version of “us-against-them,” and this time the “them” is the government. Common sense and experience ought to convince people that taxes never stopped anyone from doing what they wanted. Why else would so-called sin taxes be such a sound source of income? Yet I have heard the no-closets-because-of-taxes story from a docent at Biltmore (Vanderbilt was worried about taxes on closets?), and a cab driver in Charleston confidently told me that the popularity of side entrance doors in Charleston was because there was a tax on front doors (the authorities couldn’t figure that out and start taxing side doors?). Again, it is clear the tax stories are untrue, but the fact that people are so willing to tell the story and to believe it may reflect a very American aversion to governmental control and an abhorrence of taxes.

I wish you could read the whole article–it’s a fascinating look at a phenomenon that most of us just roll our eyes at and joke about. Pam Simpson is also the author of the very helpful book, Cheap, Quick, and Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870-1930 (if you don’t have a copy, seriously, it’s a great book and will open your eyes to the industrial production of details of architecture like pressed-tin ceilings, linoleum, and concrete blocks that we might often ignore; and as you can see above, she has a very readable style). She is also a member of the Southeastern chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH), which as you can see on the Preservation in Mississippi calendar at the upper left will be meeting in Jackson this October, so maybe you can catch her then and regale her with your own architectural myths.

Categories: Historic Preservation, Museums, Preservation Education

3 replies

  1. Surely the mirrors had divided frames because of the tax on mirrors…



  1. Myth vs. Reality in historic buildings’ legends - York Restoration Corporation

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