Raising the Roof: Architectural Images

Raising the Roof: Architectural Images

This week's blog column is actually the second part of a photo mystery. The first installment appears in my Photo Detective article in the July 2009 Family Tree Magazine. That issue should be in your mail boxes starting this week. Here's a synopsis of the problem: Bergetta Monroe...

This week’s blog column is actually the second part of a photo mystery. The first installment appears in my Photo Detective article in the July 2009 Family Tree Magazine. That issue should be in your mail boxes starting this week.

Here’s a synopsis of the problem: Bergetta Monroe has a mystery photo (of course!) of a farm. She doesn’t know where it was taken or when, but she has a list of possible surnames for folks that could have owned the property.

In the article, I offer tips to solve this family mystery and promise to discuss the architectural details in this blog.

I’ve taken this picture apart section by section, looking for elements that could help identify this mid-19th century farm. The main house appears to be in the Greek Revival style, which is characterized by Doric columns on the front porch and a pitched roof. The windows feature six-over-six panes of glass. Greek Revival design was popular from 1825 to 1860.

Other features are visible when you enlarge the front yard of the house:
BergettaDSC_4511 NEFposts.jpg

Look closely. You can see the simple Doric columns, but also visible are nine hitching posts for horses and a fence on the other side of the house. That could signal a road nearby.

The dominant greenery are pine trees. In front of the fence in the foreground is tilled land and some young trees, possibly fruit bearing varieties. If this house and yard is still intact, those saplings would be much bigger by now.
BergettaDSC_4511 NEFtrees.jpg

My favorite building on the property is the Italianate style barn, with its turreted roof and bracketed cornices (along the roof line). It even has arched windows, one of the determining details in that architectural style.
BergettaDSC_4511 NEFbarn.jpg

This particular building style dates from 1850 to 1880, possibly making the barn newer than the house. Why else would the owners build their dwelling in one style and the barn in a more elaborate style? So many questions…

There are many outbuildings on this property, and the size and condition of those structures suggest this was a prosperous farm. It appears that there are smaller farms in the vicinity. Note the dwelling to the rear left, behind the barn. That doesn’t appear to part of this estate.

In the July 2009 Family Tree Magazine, I discuss a date for this photo, but that only begins to tell the story of this farm. Given the family information Monroe supplied, this picture was taken in New England, either Vermont, New Hampshire or Massachusetts. The likeliest location is Vermont. You’ll have to read the story to find out why (grin).

We’re still trying to identify the exact location.

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  1. The idea of determining the location and time period depicted in an image based upon the architecture of the buildings and the type of plant life contained in it is a fascinating one. Clearly a key limitation of determining _when_ the image was taken is that, unlike clothing, architectural &quot;fashion&quot; is likely to be frozen from the time the building was built. The older the architectural style, the less helpful it will be in determining the approximate date of the photo.

    Getting the assistance of an arborist might well prove helpful, however, as that person should be able to determine the type and probable regions of the trees in the photograph, and also could probably give a pretty good idea of the age of the trees. Looking at the photograph in this blog entry, it seems likely that the smaller tree growing up near the picket fence was planted sometime after the fence was built, whereas the large tree in front of the house almost certainly predates the fence since the fence appears to abut the tree on either side of its trunk.

    While none of this would provide absolute certainty, it might well provide sufficient clues to make the determination easier and more likely.

    One final thought: if a person knows of specific places that could represent the locale in which this photo was taken (such as the town, or better yet a specific street or address), it would be worth trying Google maps or Live Maps to see if it is possible to match the building and road layout from the photo with that in a modern satellite image. Obviously there are no guarantees that much, if anything, remains from the time of the photograph; but in a rural area the likelihood is higher, and enough might remain that a match can be made.

  2. I often consult with a Master Gardener on plants and trees in photos. In this case, the family history strongly suggests this was taken in Vermont. There are other tips on using maps to locate buildings in the magazine installment of this picture mystery.

    James is absolutely right. Dating architecture is tricky because it stays around. There are three people in the image which helped date the image to c. 1870. There was also a clue on the back! You’ll have to read the magazine to find out what though 🙂