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  • Viewpoint: Building StoriesNarrative Prospects for Vernacular Architecture Studies
  • Ryan K. Smith (bio)

A Beginning

In 2008, Charles E. Pattillo III, a retired architect in Jacksonville, Florida, self-published his first novel. Titled St. Dunstan’s & John, the book is set along Florida’s St. Johns River and tells two parallel stories. The first follows two earnest main characters—an architect and an Episcopal priest—in their modern-day rediscovery of hidden Confederate treasure; the second (told in flashback) recounts the hiding of that treasure during the waning days of the Civil War. The book has many flaws; the story is far-fetched and the dialogue is wooden. For example, one Florida man exclaims to a federal officer in 1863: “Even though our political beliefs are not in agreement and you are representatives of the enemy, we will stand true to our heritage of hospitality and welcome you to this community.”1 Even worse, Pattillo’s tale inexcusably romanticizes the Confederate cause. But the book offers more than this tale, for it also works as an exquisitely detailed introduction to the seventeen Carpenter Gothic Episcopal churches actually built along the river from 1854 to 1891. These small, board-and-batten churches, constructed largely with Northern funds amid riverside cypress and palm trees, are architectural gems (Figures 1, 2, and 3). Pattillo explains his historical intentions in the preface. His project was “Originally planned as a guidebook on the history of small wood frame Episcopal churches built along the river.” In the end, though, “I decided a novel would be more interesting and enjoyable than a dry recitation of architectural design facts.”2 So as the Confederate cavalry rides, and the modern-day architect and priest go about their search, the reader encounters passages like this:

“The others are close to that,” replied Charlie. “The consistent use of a wood structural frame, vertical wood siding with small triangular wood battens to cover the joints, the slope of the roof, the pointed or lancet windows appear to be from a standard plan.”

“Would that be from Richard Upjohn’s book?”

“For sure.”3

Or this:

Harry Drake carefully checked the location of each screw jack to insure placement beneath the perimeter sill beam and the center, or summer, beam of the church. Before any actual load of the church was transferred to the crossbeams, Ed Foley removed the windows and placed diagonal wood braces from wall to the floor inside the church.4

Or this:

Pushing the low bushes aside, Charlie removed a small section of protective screen between two brick piers and crawled under the church. He turned on his flashlight, pulled his tool bag alongside and inched his way toward the center. Some evidence of mechanical and electrical additions plus the sacristy addition were obvious. . . . He reached up to touch, with appreciation, circular saw marks on the wood framing made over one hundred years ago by a steam powered circular saw.5

Thus Pattillo’s tale is no ordinary Confederate romance. Not only does it provide detailed explanations of the churches’ construction, it also goes on to explore the theological significance [End Page 1] of their designs and their adaptation to the local environment.

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Figure 1.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Green Cove Springs, Florida, photograph circa 1885. Completed in 1880, this is one of the seventeen churches along the St. Johns River that form the subject of Pattillo’s book. PR04015, Florida Photographic Collection, State Archives of Florida.

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Figure 2.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Green Cove Springs, Florida, photograph circa 1966. RC04716, Florida Photographic Collection, State Archives of Florida.

The book is packed with so much architectural information of the type encountered in Buildings & Landscapes or the Vernacular Architecture Newsletter that it could easily have been reworked into a useful, standard article. Yet, pleading readership, Pattillo chose not to.

With a little reflection, it would be easy to add to the list of storytellers who have likewise explored historic architecture in their work. There are much bigger players than Pattillo. Novelist Dan Brown has become a publishing sensation with his fast-paced, Hollywood-ready...


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pp. 1-14
Launched on MUSE
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