People, Power, Places: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture VIII (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 495-496



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People, Power, Places: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture VIII. Ed. Sally McMurry and Annmarie Adams. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000. Pp. xxvii + 295, introduction, numerous black-and-white photographs and illustrations, bibliography, contributors, index.)

Readers coming to the latest volume in the Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture series will find few references to the traditional esoteric concerns of scholars of North American "folk" architecture. This is not surprising, for, as the editors note, the interdisciplinary endeavor of American vernacular architecture studies has long since moved away from a focus on "the old, the rural, and the handmade" toward a wider-ranging "new architectural history," which instead of typifying handcrafted artifacts extant on the cultural landscape seeks to place a full range of building types in their social, cultural, historical, and aesthetic context. "Vernacular" becomes not just a subtype of building, but a shorthand for an approach to scholarship that raises questions of use, meaning, and the relationship of people to buildings over time.

Following this expansive definition, the essays in this volume take as their subject structures as divergent as electric trolley cars converted to "romantic" cottages and Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's rural retreat. Only three of the thirteen essays make single-family domestic structures their focus, namely the essays on Midwestern "balloon frame" farmhouses, Polish "workers' cottages" in Milwaukee, and government-designed farmhouses for a New Deal resettlement community in Alaska. The other essays take as their subject not the iconic homestead on the frontier, but a national ethnography museum in Turkey, retail stores in early Virginia, and group housing for working women in early twentieth-century Chicago.

One striking feature of this collection is the focus on structures associated with social-reform movements and institutional planning on a large scale. Elaine Jackson-Retondo's chapter, "Manufacturing Moral Reform: Images and Realities of a Nineteenth-Century American Prison," is an effective model of how scholarship grounded in the particulars of real places can serve as an important check to wide-ranging social theorizing. Jackson-Retondo contends that too much prison scholarship begins and ends with the idealized depictions created by reformers and administrators. Looking instead at the "entire built form" and the "daily practices" of the Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown, she finds that while reformers devoted considerable attention to the architectural form of the inmates' individual cells, much of the daily life of the prison took place in largely ad hoc spaces that served as the prison's manufacturing workshops. As a result, latter-day historians and theorists overplay the surveillance and reform intentions of the newly emerging penitentiaries, ignoring the penitentiary's connection to landscapes of commerce and the role that enforced labor played in the lives of inmates.

An essay by folklorists Michael Ann Williams and Larry Morrisey looks at Kentucky's Renfro Valley country-music tourist complex and Dolly Parton's Dollywood amusement park, challenging the notion that architectural manifestations of consumer culture are indecipherable "authorless" texts that defy the ethnographer's gaze. Williams and Morrisey argue that cultural representations produced for commercial purposes are "autoethnographies" embedded with their producers' intentions and self-images. They even contend that the cluttered interior of Dolly Parton's reconstructed homeplace at Dollywood is a more "authentic" representation of typical Smoky Mountain building form and interior social use than the selectively preserved and sterile log cabins within the National Park's boundaries.

Other essays effectively yoked under the "power" rubric in the collection's title are Rebecca Ginsburg's ethnographic account of how black South African domestic workers used their detached sleeping rooms on the grounds of their employers' homes to subvert apartheid power structures; Anna Vemer Andrzejewski's analysis of the "dialectics of visuality" at play in the layout of Methodist and Holiness camp meetings; and the "architecture of social control" that Jeanne Catherine Lawrence [End Page 495] illustrates in her essay "Chicago's Eleanor Clubs: Housing Working Women in the Early Twentieth Century."

If a broadly defined "vernacular sensibility" indeed pervades the broader culture, less common are...


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