The Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF) is the premier organization in North America dedicated to the appreciation and study of ordinary buildings and landscapes. Established in 1979, VAF is composed of scholars from many fields, including history, architectural history, geography, anthropology, sociology, landscape history, historic preservation, and material culture studies.
The VAF holds a 3-day annual conference, which is always a wonderful experience. Unlike many academic conferences, the VAF’s annual gathering ypically features two full days of tours, featuring lots of historic architecture, and then one full day of scholarly papers. This year, I was honored to present my work on historic graffiti research during a session called “Field Notes,” which explored different ways people are approaching the study of historic buildings. It was a packed room (the below pic shows half of it), and I definitely had to fight through some nerves!
The Vernacular Architecture Forum’s tours — often by bus and lasting the entire day — generally showcase many historic buildings and cultural landscapes that represent the region where the conference is hosted. I’ve attended the conference for 3 years straight now (South Jersey, Chicago, and NC), and I always learn a great deal about local/regional history, architectural history, and folklife on the tours. If you are a scholar in any of the aforementioned disciplines, or a museum professional, or a historic preservationist, or even if you simply have a keen interest in the study of ordinary historic buildings and landscapes, you really should join the VAF and attend a conference!
This year’s annual meeting was hosted in Durham, North Carolina, and was dubbed “Farm to Factory: Piedmont Stories in Black and White.” It was wonderful. Below is a photo essay (all photos mine) chronicling many of the sites I saw while on the Thursday & Friday tours.
The first stop on Day #1, the Captain John S. Pope tobacco farm, circa 1874:
The “wash house”:
Tobacco fields near the complex.
A cool old tobacco barn
The barn star in the gable of this outbuilding reminded me of the Pennsylvania German “hex signs.”
The small village of Milton, NC was a showcase of various historic styles, including this Milton Presbyterian Church (c. 1837), where I discovered a significant amount of historic graffiti on the pews:
Union Tavern/The Thomas Day House & Workshop (c. 1818/c.1848). He was a free (and fairly wealthy) African American whose craftsmanship is highly known and well-regarded. On our tours of some plantation houses in the region, we saw several mantle pieces and newel posts that were produced in his shop.
Milton State Bank (c. 1860), now a home. A bank vault converted to a (pink) restroom.
The Holderness House (c. 1850s). This place was stately and stunning. Check out those side wings with porticos:
Our bus broke down (well, the A/C went out) during this stop, which made for some hot bus rides for the rest of the afternoon! But it was a bonding experience for all involved. And worth the discomfort.
Faux-marble painted baseboards in the upstairs stair hall.
Circa 1960 bomb shelter! An old magazine article from the 1960s showed it decked out with stylish furniture.
Yancey-Womack House, c. 1810/1856.
One of my favorite buildings on the tour — a circa 1850s tobacco building.
Diamond notching at the corners:
Red clay chinking between the logs, making it airtight.
“Clarendon Hall,” circa 1842-43.
Wood surround, meant to imitate stone:
The absolutely striking Caswell County Courthouse, c. 1858-61.
Day 2 began at the Horton Grove plantation,
Interior of one of the slave quarters, which were built just before the Civil War broke out:
“Horton Cottage,” probably built in the late-1700s, then added to in the mid-1800s. It was likely used as a slave dwelling at some point.
The adjacent “Stagville Plantation House.”
Another cool tobacco building at Stagville Plantation.
Umstead Store and Flat River Post Office (circa 1880?). I got excited here, as the walls are covered in historic graffiti recording customers’ credit accounts, as well as some notes about post office delivery dates.
An optional Sunday tour took us to Old Salem in Salem, NC. The tour was led by Dave Bergstone, and it was one of my favorite parts of the conference.
Very large bricks. I have a pretty big hand.
I got to hold one of the very unique clay roofing tiles (that’s me in background, center)
Half-timbering makes these buildings highly-photogenic: