September 10, 2014

Vernacular Architecture, One Exposure At A Time

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Little Cabin Inn

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Little Cabin Inn, Newburgh, New York. Originally an open-air fruit stand, the 1920s-era Little Cabin Inn has gone through stints as a tavern, a restaurant, and vacation lodging, and is still owned and operated by the same family under the name Haven Coffee & Espresso Bar.

In our Fall 2014 issue of Preservation magazine, we highlight a body of work shot by veteran photographers Steve Gross and Susan Daley over a period of several decades. As prolific fine art and commercial photographers, much of Gross and Daley’s output during their 30-year career has focused on historic houses, gardens, and interiors.

But while criss-crossing the country to shoot far-flung locations ranging from New Mexico to Louisiana to the Catskills, the duo were compelled to photograph the many unassuming buildings dotting the American landscape -- emblems of vernacular architecture.

“Whenever possible, we drive along secondary roads and on the bypassed older highways, usually in rural places and especially in the South, keeping an eye out for any interesting or obsolete commercial or public buildings such as roadhouses, feed stores, dance halls, tourist cabins, small churches, or vintage barber shops,” Gross and Daley say.

They explain that they shot these structures using medium-format cameras and black-and-white film, a method which “brings out the idiosyncratic handmade details and textures often seen and relished in vernacular design.”

Here, we highlight some of the photos from that series that we simply couldn’t fit into the pages of the magazine. While some of the structures are still in use, many have since been boarded up or abandoned. All represent bygone eras in America’s agricultural and rural history.

“Plain and humble, they are human and intimate in their scale,” Gross and Daley say of the common threads that link the structures. “They appeal because of their familiar forms that have a sense of character, directness, and certainty about them.”

Cantina

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Cantina, northern New Mexico. This tin-roofed adobe structure sits next to the highway, and the bottle painted on the door signifies the sale of alcoholic beverages inside. “Cantinas were often part of homes, and served alcoholic drinks and botanas (appetizers) to patrons playing cards or dominoes,” Gross and Daley say.

Rainbow Inn

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Rainbow Inn, Pierre Part, Louisiana. The Rainbow Inn is one of the few Cajun dance halls, or “salles de danse,” still in operation since the 1930s. These dance halls served as ballrooms and community gathering spots where patrons could hear live music, court, dance, and eat gumbo. Today, the Rainbow Inn remains a good place to hear “swamp pop,” a musical genre indigenous to south Louisiana and adjoining southeast Texas that combines New Orleans, country and western, and traditional French Louisiana influences.

Martins Grocery

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Martin's Grocery, Irish Bend, Louisiana. As Gross and Daley explain it, Martin’s Grocery was a general store owned and operated by Medric Martin starting in 1935. Martin died in 2009, but when Gross and Daley photographed his store in 2005, they say he was a gracious host, taking time to tell them the local history, “only interrupted when someone came in to buy groceries.”

Economy Shoe Shop

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Economy Shoe Shop, High Point, North Carolina. This house in downtown High Point was later converted into a shoe repair shop. This building was demolished, along with many others in the neighborhood, about ten years ago.

Avery Church

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Church near Avery Island, Louisiana. This church is set up on blocks, and Gross and Daley explain that buildings like these were often moved around to different locations. The open slatting of the bell tower helped to provide ventilation to the structure in the hot climate.

Welch General Store, Dallas County, Alabama. The brick façade of an abandoned general store off the Selma-Montomery Road in Alabama’s Dallas County is beginning to be overgrown by trees.
Welch General Store, Dallas County, Alabama. The brick facade of an abandoned general store off the Selma-Montgomery Road in Alabama’s Dallas County is beginning to be overgrown by trees.

Store building with Masonic insignia, Rockbridge County, Va. “The false front of the building gives a larger-than-life appearance,” Gross and Daley say.  “This was often done on stores to make them more visible, especially if they were near railroad tracks. The large rooms upstairs could be used as Masonic meeting places or for other events.”
Store building with Masonic insignia, Rockbridge County, Virginia. “The false front of the building gives a larger-than-life appearance,” Gross and Daley say. “This was often done on stores to make them more visible, especially if they were near railroad tracks. The large rooms upstairs could be used as Masonic meeting places or for other events.”

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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