- The Material Culture of German Texans by Kenneth Hafertepe
Lavishly illustrated, meticulously researched, and passionately written, The Material Culture of German Texans will become the definitive study of 19th-century German-Texan vernacular architecture and material life. Conceived as a blended cultural history looking for continuities and differences in building and living styles, this study is an ambitious recovery project intent on documenting the German contribution to a historical landscape that emerged in small towns and rural communities in the southernmost region of the Great Plains, a contact zone famous for English, Spanish, and Native traditions rather than German architectural customs. Tapping an array of archival evidence gleaned from sources as diverse as floor plans and photographs, tax records and probate inventories, not to mention personal letters and travel accounts, the book's 10 chapters reconstruct a "cradle-to-grave" narrative of the building habits and design preferences of a German immigrant community that adapted a hodgepodge of building styles, interior designs, and furnishing preferences in order to survive the harsh living conditions along the Texas frontier.
The first five chapters recount the birth of a German-Texan vernacular architecture as it emerged from design plans and rare surviving housing stock. Between the 1840s and 1890s, four building types stood out: the German-Texan log house, the German Tudor-style fachwerk house, the rock house, and the Sunday house. Each of these building styles reflect informed cultural decisions and values. They reflected the need for shelter (log houses tended to be simple and small, and frequently were the first and only structure owned by newly arrived German families); economic progress (families tended to build a separate fachwerk house next to the original log house after establishing a farm or shop); social ambitions (rock houses at times competed with Victorian style mansions); or the desire for maintaining a social life (German-Texan farmers built small cottagestyle Sunday houses inside market towns as overnight accommodations when attending church or social clubs). While by the end of the century the buildings' exteriors gradually gave way to Anglo-American architectural designs, chapters 6 and 7 illustrate the vibrancy of German interiors and a material life marked by simple comforts and decorative efficiency. The final three chapters document the lasting influence of German building styles in the public sphere, addressing the design of county courthouses and jails, churches and social clubs, and, last but not least, cemeteries and funerary monuments.
The strength of this book is its thorough documentation of the rise of a German-Texan vernacular material culture that is on the verge of being forgotten in both its large and small things. The array of sources consulted as well as presented is impressive, leaving the reader convinced that this book is bringing to light German-Texan architecture in all its varied forms and functions. At times, navigating the wealth of sources is made difficult by the book's narrative habit of compiling lengthy, detailed descriptions. At other times, in its effort to be as comprehensive as possible—and this is commensurate with the book's stated goal of providing a "blended cultural history"—the book foregoes synthesizing some of its findings or situating them inside the larger context of either Texan or Great Plains material life. But this does not diminish the book's important and poignant message. As an accomplished field study, The Material Culture of German Texans does more than recover a formative part of the Great Plains' cultural heritage. By [End Page 94] reminding us that this heritage is vanishing at a rapid pace, it makes the urgent plea for a renewed commitment to historic preservation and the conservation of vernacular artifacts.