The critic Robert Venturi has referred to gas stations and other vernacular structures
located along commercial strips as “decorated sheds.” His use of the name of a utilitarian,
work-oriented structure suggests that sheds, barns, and other such structures are most
importantly utilitarian; nevertheless, they also possess meaning that is based on a
definable structural program. Buildings used in American agriculture possess clear
structural forms, but their emphasis as work buildings also allows them to function as a
material artifact of changes in the social and economic context of labor on the American
The agricultural landscape is a composite of many structures designed around the
natural cycles of planting, harvest, and maintenance that define farm labor. Such
component structures might include those designed for a specific animal (such as chicken
houses), specific storage (milk houses or springhouses), limited processes (smokehouses,
summer kitchens, sugarhouses, evaporators), grain and fodder storage (granaries,
corncribs, silos), and even fencing. Most important, however, such structures are
sublimated in the overall layout to the central barn. The American plantation serves as an
example that did not use the central barn and instead relied on sprawling compounds of
smaller buildings around one central home (the big house); most American agriculture,
however, operates on a central plan defined by the barn.
The American barn is one of the nation’s most ubiquitous architectural signifiers. In
addition to its obvious utilitarian function, to many observers the barn is a symbol of the
rugged individualism that Thomas Jefferson and others connected to the American
yeoman farmer. The barn and the farm that it supports became one of the most flexible
mechanisms for American expansion. A closer analysis of specific barn styles and types
reveals overall diversity while suggesting continuity between region, ethnic groups, and
general agricultural function.
Prior to 1900, barns were primarily wood, although sometimes constructed from brick
or stone. Most barns function as a mixed-use facility, prioritizing storage, shelter, and
ventilation. Many barn styles integrated stables and other areas to shelter animals. Often,
silos or areas in which to store feed were then also integrated into the site. Crib barns, for
instance, contained storage facilities within the structure; more often, tall, cylindrical
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 52
silos would be incorporated into the overall plan in order to free up the interior space for
storing machinery. Thus the program of the American barn prioritizes functionality.
Barns, like many of the site’s supporting structures, followed the most general design
patterns. Plank framing supported expansive walls, which were then normally covered in
planking. Traditional Anglo-American joining (based on carving joints to make them
interlock), of course, served as the ancestor of the better-known balloon frame, which
replaced such joints with nails. Standardized parts, simplified joints, and two-story studs
and bearers link the balloon-frame form to traditional carpentry. In such a design,
studding was placed at a minimum. As tools and mechanization changed by 1900,
balloon framing became a standard form, and even as materials changed in the 20th
century, the balloon frame remained the norm. Although many farmers or agricultural
corporations have opted for manufactured buildings sided in fiberglass or aluminum
panels, the structural support remains extremely similar to the original balloon frame.
Flooring, however, has added structural support by incorporating a solid cement founding
where formerly dirt or planks served the facility.
Prefabrication, as an architectural pattern, grew out of increased technology. By the
turn of the century, the timber-rich Pacific Northwest, upper Midwest, and Southeast
were the headquarters of corporations that sold prefabricated, mail-order farm buildings
and commercial structures. During World War II, the Seabees, a portion of the U.S.
Navy, created prefabricated, all-purpose buildings that could be manufactured in the
United States and shipped anywhere. The Quonset hut was made from preformed wooden
ribs sheathed with corrugated sheet steel and fitted with pressed-wood interior linings.
After use in the war, more than 170,000 of these structures would return to the United
States for use in agriculture and industry. Prefabrication had even more application in the
utilitarian world of agricultural structures than in the suburban countryside, where it
would be applied by William Levitt (1947) and others.
As agriculture expanded westward, infrastructural links became major components in
connecting the agricultural hinterland to railroad corridors. Following the completion of
the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the entire American West would be linked by
technology as “hinterland” to Chicago and other developing shipping centers. The
program of the rural, agrarian landscape remains dominated by this economic
relationship. Most prolific, grain elevators serve as tremendous storage facilities at
railroad termini. Industrial architecture of the early 1900s was widely influenced by
European modernism and particularly Walter Gropius, including these massive
compounds for grain storage and transshipment of steel or concrete tubes (from one to
hundreds). Located in towns and shipping ports, these facilities became fully automated
with electricity in the 20th century.
Technology has allowed the contemporary agricultural landscape to sprawl over land
often hostile to farming. Hydraulic management allows vast tracts of the American West,
particularly the Great Plains and California’s Central Valley, to produce enough goods to
feed the entire world. Located west of the isohyetal line of 20 inches, such locations lack
the necessary rainfall for agriculture. Building on hydraulic concepts developed by
natives of the Southwest and of Utah Mormons, federal subsidies initiated by the 1902
Reclamation Act have helped to finance infrastructure that spreads the limited water
resources of the West among the arid regions. Additionally, many farmers in the Great
Plains have drilled into aquifers, including the Ogallala, and then planted circular fields
Entries A–F 53
irrigated by center-pivot watering systems. The extension of agriculture into such regions
is a technological wonder of American society; however, it also makes farmers
precariously dependent on the management of a limited resource.
Patterns in agricultural buildings have not all solely followed a program of utility. As
large agricultural corporations have taken over lands of the midwestern and western
United States, preservationists throughout the nation have sought to preserve the image of
the independent yeoman farmer. Most often, this effort has seen organizations such as the
National Farmland Trust raising funds to preserve older farmsteads that are threatened by
suburban or urban expansion. Another social change to the farm structure relates to
Venturi’s idea of the decorated shed. For many years, the largest shed, the barn, was
viewed as a billboardin-the-making. Tobacco companies often painted an entire side of
the barn with advertisements for Mail Pouch or Red Man. As part of the antismoking
furor of the late 1990s, these billboards were banned and removed. The barn has
consistently belied its status as purely a utilitarian structure to inspire and exhibit social
ideas and ideals.

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