HST296A: Reading Notes, 30 March 2005

Tolbert, Lisa C. Constructing Townscapes: Space and Society in Antebellum Tennessee. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999)

Introduction: Excavating the Foundations: In Search of Small Town History

Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 1850s building boom sparked by railroad expansion.
Is the small town of the South simply part of the rural countryside or is it an urban microcosm? or something else? She argues it is something else.

Nashville: county seat and capitol
Numbers by 1860: Nashville Basin: 308,000; 28% state total; 80% of mid-Tennessee live in basin, 4 out of 10 in bondage.
Nashville: 17,000
almost no free black population in small towns (in cities, yes)
(see D. Rutman "The Village South" on place of small town in rural geography)

A problem of vocabulary and counting: where do towns fit in, how do we define them
The census lists by county and occupation, not town. Town populations were around 1500-2500 (Columbia grew substantially more)
"In order to escape such quantitative ambiguity, the focus needs to move toward a cultural interpretation of small towns that takes account of the distinctive experience of town life...Analyzing spatial and architectural development offers a more reliable method for identifying and understanding the elusive small-town South." (p. 6)

Towns were situated in the midst of plantations and grew by subdividing and subsuming those plantations. They were county seats, built around a courthouse square, with a grd design.

What makes a town? contemporaries define by people, businesses, paint, buildings

Part I: Chronicles architectural history
Part II: examines how town space was used and experienced by different groups in different ways

Part 1: Building Towns

late 18th to 1850: from no structure to grid
Why courthouses? During period of new migration, need center to record property claims
early: shanty townscape: log cabins
pre-1850: townscape of houses: multi-purpose buildings intermixed, homes, warehouses, stores
post-1850 (railroad): renovated townscape: segregation of business, warehouse, homes, fashionable and unfashionable residential districts

1) From Landscape to Townscape, 1790-1825

Setting up a county seat: community leaders vie for location (if you own the property you get to keep some and sell some, plus determine where roads will go). Propertyless (indentured, apprentices) do the building. In other words, a communal activity, not the lone frontiersman braving the wilderness).

County seats are planned, not organic. If the first location didn't work (not central enough) they could be moved, at least until they were built in brick! Land speculators might determine the former, but the community could petition to determine the latter. Location isimportant: business will do better in county seat.

Twons grew intensively more than extensively: built over what was there. Grid laid out ofetn based on Penn/Phila. (a design which migrated out from Philly to Virginia, thence to Tenn.) Philadelphia: town square, then various rectangles/squares around it. But other mid-Tenn. towns experimented. Popular design: all blocks equal size, with central block serving as town square. Wide Main St. becomes turnpike at town border.

John Spence: (1809 wrote memoir in 70s) Irish/Virginia immigrants. Store owners, mayor, etc.
Nathan Vaught; parents died, taken by another couple, she dies, he abandons them, thrown on charity of town, apprenticed to furniture maker turned builder. Columbia.

Clear the land (communal work for roads and square), build log cabins, replace log cabins with something else or move another building to that site. Brick used 2-3 years later.

Typical home: 1 1/2 story, two room, central passage, wood or clay chimneys.
or 2 over 2
Competition with neighbors to improve properties; a town thing. Also paint: yellow ochre or venetian red. More expensive green for trim and shutters.

Stores and taverns first, then courthouse (which is used for town meeting space), churches much later

building rate uneven -log, sawn board,brick

 "Incorporation empowered towns to elect a mayor and alderman, levy taxes and enact ordinances without petitioning the state legislature." (p. 43)

2) A Townscape of Houses

Towns competed to become county seats. Building continued apace, with Philadelphia being a popular model. Towns evolved asymetrically, i.e., not all building was done at once and the building styles reflect this. Not urban, not rural, uniquly town-like.

Towns grow up around mills, markets, and county seat. Town boys vs. country boys show perception of differences

Few specialized regions in town: commerce and living together
Few specialized building forms: materials may be different (brick, wood) but styles are similar for home or business. two up, two down, central hall

Town lots resemble farm yards: house, outbuildings.

Social distinctions: coach, speech, clothing, not so much where you live

Travel: macadamized (different sized layers of gravel) turnpikes between county seats (by 1841), raw roads as offshoots of those. Travel to town was fairly easy within six mile radius on paved roads, almost impassible/impossible on raw roads.

Architect: William Strickland of Philadelphia, Greek Revival (U. S. Columned bank) but also Gothic (Phila. Masonic Hall)

Towns as crossroad between east fashion and west, between new and old-fashioned: letters re: sleeve styles.

Slaves do not make it into town records but no doubt filled the service roles.
Town events like Ladies Suppers: ladies organize and raise money, sometimes for buildings (hey, see letter, Hubbard March 1854)

Towns as sites for political mass meetings: unlike cities, women participate in parades

3) Complete Renovation, 1850-1861

Celebrating Architecture: A Communal Right of Passage

1849: laying the cornerstone for Union University:
University also:
University built on edge of town, 3 stories high, marking the boundary between town and country
Symbolic masons plant symbols of success: papers, coins, relics
Actual masons parade in and begin the building with their "symbols": shovels, trowels, etc., followed by a procession and barbecue at end of day building is complete--mostly slave workers

". . .different modes of celebration demonstrated different uses of the streets, different attitudes toward, and experiences of, town space. One group celebrated the building before its completion as a symbol of town progress and prosperity; the other group performed the work and celebrated the building as the product of their labor." (p. 88)

The 1850s see towns aligning more with cities in terms of space use and resident's heirarchy.

Flourishing community, defined by Virginia Shelton, an 1850 arrival, as growing population of students and residents, good education, good business opportunity, renters who own farms farther south
(p. 89)

The "spark"? Train: Nashville to Murfreesboro opened 7/4/1851 (and, of course, another barbecue)
The train allows shoppers to roam more widely in search of goods but also helps local business because they can now ship more to distant places. "During the 1850s, town residents physically divided these two branches of commerce [retail trade and agricultural market] into separate town regions. Thus the railroad became one of the most powerful forces for architectural renovation." (p. 91)

In anticipation of railroads, townsmen advocate improving and building to attract new residents. "Architectural change was more than a matter of comfort and convenience; it was perceived as an essential component of local progress."  Thus the area followed the national trend to use architecture as a way to break from the past in establishing "new national standards of domesticity and modes of consumption." (p. 92)

Redefining the Townscape: Specialisation of Space

Townscape of mixed-function raw-wood brown houses is replaced by white yard-surrounded residences and brick or wood commercial buildings that fill their lot size.
public square: retail district
train depot: industrial zone, warehouses, mills
domestic space: privatized and socially stratified

renovation priority: public square to attract newcomers, reaplce wood frame with larger brick buildings, equate appearance and improved commerce
Again, cities provide the models as the retail district combines general stores with specialized stores with remodeled interior layouts: "more genteel"
warehouse/industrial district designed for efficiency and profit: noisy, mechanized (hog fattening indoors instead of raoming)

Cities: elites restructure in response to immigrants and social disturbance
towns: restructure in response to holistic view of progress for community

Villas, Cottages, and Commercial Blocks: Social Differntiation and the New Architectural Vocabulary

"Segmentation of residential and commercial space generated a new architectural vocabulary that expressed social divisions heretofore hidden." (p. 101) villas, cottages, institutes, colleges, saloons

Houses are renovated by adding on, usually new space is public/private; dining room, library, parlour

Cottage: "was not so much a particular form or structure as it was a domestic ideal that promoted comfort, taste, neatness, and moral advancement." (p. 106)
Some towns begin to develop "fashionable streets" but more tend to build on the periphery of town

Commercial buildings: around the town square, enclosing it (In cities, commercial districts flow along streets, producing tunnels)

Question: how did the commercial square enhance, reflect, cultivate, town solidarity?

The Public Square and the Courthouse; Commerce and Domesticity in the Renovated Townscape

(Downing: no house complete without a porch!)

Rebuilding the courthouse: cupola declares it a public building/seat of government; porch declares it domestic/communal habitation: signifies town as desireable home AND good place to do business

1854: Elvira Moore visits the dentist which is set up like a parlour with "the first centre-table" she had ever seen "loaded with books and papers."

". . .town residents worked together to construct not only the materials fabric of the town but also their distinctive identity as small-town residents. Their changing uses of town space shaed the border between town and countryside, established hierarchies among town residents, and mingled urban aspirations with small-town spirit. During the 1850s these small towns came of age in a building boom that effectively transformed town space and reshaped social relationships." (p. 115)

Questions for class:

1) Tolbert asserts (p. 100) that elite reformers restructured cities in response to fears of immigrants and social disturbances while small towns restructured holistically, that is, they could see the town as a whole and restructured it in response to a desire to improve the town as a whole. Yet, while she explains that the trains were responsible for bringing visitors and potential residents to the towns, with train depots thus acting as "first impression" gateways to the town, she locates the "gentrification" reconstruction far from those depots. Does her acknowledgement that the areas around train depots became warehouses, pig yards and storage areas support or undermine her thesis that town leaders apporached town reconstruction holistically?

2) In what ways did the commercial square enhance, reflect, and cultivate, town solidarity?

3) Tolbert mentions several times that elite residences tended to be situated on the periphery of the town. By siting Union University on the periphery were the builders indicating a desire to associate the university with this elite community?

and one that will perhaps be addressed in the second half:
Tolbert asserts that a cottage "was not so much a particular form or structure as it was a domestic ideal that promoted comfort, taste, neatness, and moral advancement" (p. 106) and, as opposed to villas, were the residences of middle class whites. Where/what did lower class whites homes look like? This town seems to be remarkably devoid of them!

hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, created/updated 230-March-2005
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