Today, we invent a new house for a new land. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
You'll be surprised when I
name the first unique American architecture. Our
buildings were all pretty derivative before 1833.
Colonial architecture had a unique flavor, no
doubt. But it was still an adaptation of European
Two things made building different here. One was
the abundance of wood. The other was that labor was
precious, and we lacked skilled craftsmen. We had
to be Jacks-of-all-trades.
European houses used masonry and cut stone. That
took a huge toll in labor. They also relied on
heavy timbers, accurately fitted with complex
dovetailed joints. That cost labor as well, and it
took expert carpenters.
First we tried to copy stone with wood. You'd find
the stone tops of columns, cornices, and mantels
all imitated in wood. You'd even find chimneys made
from wood daubed with clay.
We used wood at a rate that would've been
impossible in deforested Europe. That meant we also
needed nails. So we invented automated nail-making.
From 1776 to 1842 we cut the cost of nails again
and again. Finally we could make nails for less
than the tax alone on European nails.
About then, Chicago sprouted as our new gateway to
the West. In 1833 Augustine Taylor built St. Mary's
church in nearby Fort Dearborn. He managed to put
up a 36 by 24-foot church for the incredibly low
price of $400, using do-it-yourself carpenters.
What Taylor did was to eliminate the old mortised
beams and fittings. He replaced them with light
2x4s and 2x6s set close together. He used studs and
cross-members. He held the whole thing together
with nails -- no joints. Regular carpenters swore
it would blow away in a high wind. But it didn't.
So the first baptism at St. Mary's was already
disturbed by the sound of hammering next door.
Taylor's idea had caught on.
Old-timers called this "balloon construction." It
seemed as light and insubstantial as a balloon.
They spoke in contempt, but the term stuck. These
buildings were like balloons, or maybe more like
woven baskets. They were light, flexible, and
tough. Stresses were taken up throughout the
We are told of tornadoes knocking balloon houses
off their foundations. But the houses would
sometimes roll away unbroken like tumbleweed. You
could move one on a flatbed truck. Don't ever try
that with an old European timber structure.
So, have you ever seen such a house? Well, yes, you
have! They swept America. And you're probably
living in a modified version of one right now. I
am. The housing most familiar to us all today is an
adaptation of just this unique American reply to
wholly new circumstances.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Field, W., A Re-examination into the Invention of the
Balloon Frame. Journal of the American Society
of Architectural Historians, Vol. 2, Nos. 1-4,
Jan-Oct., 1942, pp. 3-29.
Woodward, G.E., Woodward's Country
Homes. New York: Geo. E. Woodward, 1865.
Peterson, F.W., Homes in the Heartland:
Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest,
1850-1920. Lawrence, KA: University of
Kansas Press, 1992.
Sprague, P.E., Chicago Balloon Frame. The
Technology of Historic American Buildings
(H.W., Jandl, ed.). Washington, DC: Foundation for
Preservation Technology, 1983, pp. 35-61.
For contrast, and for the best way to understand
just what a huge departure balloon framing was, you
might look at either of two books on the earlier
timber-framed structure: Benson, T., The
Timber-Frame Home: Design, Construction,
Finishing. Newtown, CT: The Taunton Press,
1988; or Brown, R.J., Timber-Framed Buildings
of England. London: Robert Hale, 1986.
I'm grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH
Architecture Library, for suggesting this topic and
for making her own and the library's materials
available to me. I also appreciate the counsel of
Jean Krchnak, UH College of Architecture Slide
There's some controversy as to whether Augustine
Taylor or George Washington Snow should be credited
with inventing balloon framing. Snow may have built
such a house one year earlier, but Walker (above)
sorts through the records and concludes that he
could not have actually done so. I've accordingly
given the palm to Taylor. I hope I haven't cheated
Snow in doing so.
The common present-day variation on the balloon
frame is called the platform house. The main
difference is that, in a balloon frame, the
two-by-four stringers run upward across the floors.
In platform construction, each floor is built
separately upon the one below. (My thanks to Pierre
Lauzon for pointing this out to me.)
A typical contemporary frame house -- this is actually a close cousin to the old balloon framing call
platform framing -- same idea, but it's done floor by floor.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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