Tar Paper Shacks and Brokedown Palaces

In some small communities, a deteriorating building may be the last vestige of local identity. Photographer Brian Brown is documenting the tobacco barns and old houses of South Georgia, hoping to bring them back to life.

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Vernacular architecture, referred to as “folk architecture” by Virginia and Lee McAlester in A Field Guide to American Houses, is defined as having been “built to provide basic shelter with little regard for changing fashion.” They write, “Folk building traditions are more strongly influenced by geography than are architectural styles.”

The stereotypical tar paper shack, which I have found to be among the most endangered of vernacular forms, is a perfect example. A product of the tenant farming and sharecropping era, these humble houses, rarely more than a roof and four walls, have become icons of the twentieth-century rural South. They inspired me in 2008 to begin documenting this architecture of the common man.

Influenced by photographer William Christenberry’s annual pilgrimages to his native Alabama, I first began to shoot locations I knew, near my home in rural Ben Hill County, Georgia. As my project expanded, I came to a realization that these places were important — such a link to regional identity, that I needed to extend the geographic scope of my work.

Over the past two years, I have visited nearly every county in the southern half of Georgia. I’ve learned that vernacular architecture is, in fact, varied in its execution, often incorporating elements of more formal styles when the creativity of the builder or a variety of materials made embellishment possible. In many once-thriving rural settlements that are now mere names on maps, I discovered that an old country store or church often provided the only sense of identity a place might have.

A few people I met in my travels thought my fascination with these brokedown palaces a bit strange, but the vast majority expressed a strong sense of pride in their communities. More often than not, they were glad to suggest nearby locations which might be of interest.

In one community in southeastern Georgia, I encountered a man curious about my activities; when I told him that I traveled around the state, photographing ghost towns and old farmhouses, he took immediate offense that I considered his home a “ghost town.” He explained that he and his young family had moved to a nearby college town but, after frustration over increased urbanization, decided to return to their rural roots. There were a few commercial storefronts lining the street beside the railroad track, but all of them appeared abandoned. He noted that a friend of his had used one of the empty old stores as an art studio, thus saving the place from destruction. But no one really had the money to “fix” anything, save the occasional coat of paint or roof-patch job.

In a forgotten village near my home, I was directed to a spacious old farmhouse that was inherited by a descendant three or four generations removed from the original builder. A relative told me that the house was not in the best of shape, but the family had no choice but to save it. They considered it a “labor of love.”

That’s a phrase I often hear in my travels, and it is often the only explanation as to why one vernacular structure survives when another does not. These dwellings are usually in various states of disrepair, but the strong desire to “keep them in the family” offers some respite from the effects of neglect and the weather.

Precinct House: abandoned but still maintained, in Carnegie, GA (Randolph County

These anecdotes highlight the dilemma of vernacular architecture. Most rural Americans have great pride in the way of life they have chosen. They’re eager to point out local history and lore, but few have the finances or the focused desire to save places long ago deemed uninhabitable. It made me take pause. I realize not every old derelict farmhouse or church can be saved, and perhaps that is just part of the evolution of our nation from a rural to an urban society. But through photography, and the nostalgia it often evokes, awareness about these places and their importance in social history is growing. That is my goal with these images.

One thing is certain: Americans are interested in seeing vernacular architecture. Vanishing South Georgia, the website which grew out of my project, is full of helpful comments from people who appreciate my work. Most, like me, aren’t architectural historians or scholars; they simply understand that these places have helped shape our collective history. I hope you enjoy these images as much as I have enjoyed capturing them.    

 

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