Material Evidence

Plantation Plain Style

Structure and Materials 



This is part of a series of historic structure reports on the historic architecture of Georgia and the Southeast by Tommy H. Jones. It is posted here for educational purposes only and may not be used or reproduced for commercial purposes or without the express permission of the author.






Deeds and wills have established a clear chain of title to the Smith's land but have not provided substantial documentation for construction of the house. Rather, they have documented more than one house on Land Lot 156 at various times although none of the nineteenth century deeds provide clear proof of the Tullie Smith House's existence. Maps of the area that were compiled in the nineteenth century to illustrate Sherman's Atlanta Campaign depict the Smith's house in what is evidently its historic location, and a 1926 plat of the Smith's farm documents the house on its original site along with three outbuildings.

It has been suggested by some sources outside the family that Robert Smith Sr., who was almost certainly living on Land Lot 156 as early as 1830, built the Tullie Smith House. While this remains a possibility, the historical evidence suggests that it is unlikely that Robert Hiram Smith and his family would have simply moved in with his aging father. The old man had a 34-year-old bride and his grandson William Benjamin Smith living with him already and could not have really needed the additional companionship in a small house. In addition, the family does not appear to have had significant financial restraints to building a new house so that there seems to be little historical evidence to dispute the family's traditional attribution of the house to Robert Hiram Smith.[1]

Robert Hiram Smith appears to have followed the typical pattern of building close to his father, and there is at least the possibility that his father’s house survived into the twentieth century. Mary Ella Smith’s 1926 survey of Land Lot 156 shows across the road from her house and a few hundred feet further southeast, the Y-shaped intersection of a road along which is a structure marked “tenant house.” In the U.S. topographical map from 1927, the tenant house appears along with other houses on a more accurate representation of that old dirt road, which ran north through the western side of Land Lot 156, crossing Peachtree Creek, probably by ford, north of the Smith property. Although the evidence is circumstantial at best, Robert Hiram Smith may have followed another typical pattern and recycled his father’s old house from the 1830s as a tenant house that could have easily survived into the twentieth century.

One of Elizabeth Hawkins Smith’s obituaries in 1901 states that they moved from North Carolina in 1837, “buying a farm in DeKalb County five miles north of Decatur.” While that fits the actual location of Land Lot 156, the date contradicts the recorded deeds in DeKalb County and in Rutherford County, North Carolina, which, taken together, indicate Robert H. Smith was a resident of Rutherford County until 1845. When Tullie was interviewed in 1947, references to her then “century-old house” might suggest a later date of construction; but by the time Andrew Sparks wrote his article on Tullie Smith in 1969 and Robert Paden Smith was interviewed in 1970, the date for the Smiths’ move to Georgia and construction of the house was given as 1833. None of the interviews or newspaper articles remembered the old pioneer Robert Smith at all, and all consistently stated that Robert Hiram Smith built the house when he moved to Georgia in 1833.

The most logical interpretation of this muddle, since it is almost certain that Robert H. Smith did not arrive in Georgia until the last half of 1845,[2] is that family tradition combined and compressed history, as it often does in the retelling through several generations. Yet the first sure record of Robert Smith Sr. in DeKalb County is also from 1833, so that the date may have real significance as the date he constructed the house, no longer extant, in Land Lot 156. Because she did not know her Smith grandparents and was, according to some relatives, not particularly close to her father, Tullie probably heard most of her family history from the Mason perspective and only bits and pieces from the Smith family. It is not surprising that neither she nor her cousin Robert Paden Smith knew much about their great-great-grandfather Smith.


Material Evidence

The general character of the materials that comprise the Tullie Smith House and the technology that built it support the conclusion that the house was built about 1845.[3] Totally vernacular in concept, design, and construction, it is a building that could have been built almost anytime in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In it are found little sense of stylishness or evidence of exposure to new technology that might characterize buildings from the 1850s and later when the effects of the new railroads began to transform DeKalb County.

Figure 1. View of front (west) of Solomon Goodwin House, Peachtree Road at North Druid Hills Road, DeKalb County, Georgia. The southern portion of the building is the log structure built by Goodwin in the 1830s.

Figure 2. View of south end of Solomon Goodwin House.

On the other hand, the relatively high quality of its construction do not suggest a building from the earliest days of settlement when saw mills were few and far between and most buildings, even the county courthouse, were of log construction. The original log house built by Solomon Goodwin or one of his sons in the 1830s remains one of the best example of these earliest houses that survive in DeKalb or Fulton County. It is the sort of house that one would expect Robert Smith Sr. to have built when he first came to DeKalb County in the early 1830s.

While Peter Brown established one of the county's first sawmills, probably in the 1820s, the earliest demand was not for framing lumber, since logs were so easily had and so easily put up into a substantial building. The Carnes House in Douglas County, which was built entirely without nails or sawn lumber, is the best-preserved of these most primitive log houses in the Atlanta area. Many of these early structures were later covered with lap siding on the exterio and board walls on the interior, both produced by the early sawmills, rendering log construction virtually indistinguishable from the more expensive frame construction used in the Tullie Smith House.

While there is no documentation that would suggest who actually built the house or how its construction was managed, knowledge of traditional building practices like those that built the Tullie Smith House was widespread. Necessity made part-time carpenters out of many farmers, if only to build for themselves, but the quality of the joinery in the framing of the Tullie Smith house suggests the work of a skilled craftsman. There is some evidence that Robert H. Smith's son James Washington Smith and his son-in-law Michael Steele were carpenters, but both were too young to have built the house themselves.


Plantation Plain Style

The architecture of the Tullie Smith House is commonly called "plantation plain style," which is not really a style at all, but rather a regional variation on the so-called I house, both describing a type of house, either wood-framed or log, sided with clapboard, two stories (sometimes a story and a half) high and one room deep. In addition, the plantation plain style variation found all across the south included a one-story porch, usually with a shed rather than hipped roof, spanning the width of the front of the house and a one-story range of shed-roofed rooms and/or porch across the rear. These were perhaps the most common Southern farm houses before the Civil War and continued to be built occasionally through the remainder of the nineteenth century.[4] Many had rooms added to the porches at an early date, and stylistic details like Greek columns or sawn Eastlake spandrels and brackets were often used to update older plain-style residences. Numerous examples of this vernacular building tradition survive, although often buried beneath later remodelings and additions.[5]

Figure 4. View of an unidentified plantation-plain style house, probably contemporaneous with the Tullie Smith House, in Henry County, Georgia.

The plan of these houses varied somewhat, with the earliest, like Tullie Smith, tending toward a repetition of the traditional "hall-and-parlor" plan that had its roots in medieval England. The plan consisted of two rooms with one usually somewhat larger than the other, the larger "hall" typically being used for everyday living, including cooking if there were no separate kitchen, and the smaller "parlor" as a bedroom. Quite often, there were two front doors, one into each room. Along the wall between the two rooms (and it was usually little more than a simple, unframed, board partition) or in one corner of the hall, a steep stairway gave access to a second floor, loft, or attic that provided additional sleeping space. Additional rooms were also created by enclosing one or both ends of the front and rear porches.[6]

As the nineteenth century wore on, these two-room houses came to be built with more equally-sized rooms and a central hall, reflective of the influence of the Georgian fashion for symmetry. These houses could be a single story high, a story and a half, or a full two-story, with the full two story, two-over-two with central-hall plan predominating by the middle of the nineteenth century. [7]

A fine example of a relatively unaltered plain-style house that was more or less contemporaneous with the Tullie Smith House was the John Greene Burdette House in Meriwether County, Georgia. It was probably built in the 1850s by John Greene Burdette or his father-in-law John Pierce Sewell, both of whom had relatives who were neighbors of the Smiths in Fulton and DeKalb counties. In spite of its near-ruinous condition, significant original materials, features, and finishes remained intact until it was destroyed in the early twenty-first century.


Structure and Materials

The Tullie Smith House was built with a traditional braced wooden frame. As it developed in colonial America from medieval English origins, this framing system utilized members that were undersized by traditional English standards of heavy-timber-frame construction but still larger than the standard dimensions that developed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The braced frame also eliminated some of the more complicated joinery required of the English system. Although changes in materials and technology, most notably the perfection of mass-produced, machine-cut nails and standard-dimensioned, machine-sawn lumber, had begun to effect building practice by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the traditional braced wooden frame, laboriously joined by mortises, tenons, and pegs, continued to dominate new construction until the middle of the nineteenth century.[8]

The joinery in the Tullie Smith House is exceptionally well-made. A short video made during replacement of the flooring on the first floor of the house in 1989 shows some of the quality of this work, including fine half-dovetail connections that tie every third to fourth joist into the main sill of the house. While the exact detail of most of this joinery cannot be observed without removing floor and wall finishes or disassembling the building entirely, the basic mortised, tenoned and pegged connections can be seen in the basement where the joists meet the sills and in the attic above the rear addition. A single peg and some of the holes in the center beam beneath the first floor partition wall are also evidence of these connections.

According to one account, Robert H. Smith cut timber from his own property to build the house, a not uncommon occurrence although there is no mention that it was actually milled there.[9] Most likely, Smith dragged it the short distance down the hill to his neighbor James Guess' mill or across the way to Johnston's Mill. Because transportation of materials was so difficult and expensive until the coming of the railroads, virtually all timber outside the coastal cities was cut and milled locally before the Civil War. Saw mills were common by the 1840s, often as a side-line operation of a grist mill's regular operation.[10] Peter Brown, who died in 1840, is reported to have operated one of the first sawmills in DeKalb County at his farm on Entrenchment Creek in the southwest part of the county. Although no dates have been documented for its operation, Brown moved to DeKalb County in the early 1820s and the mill was probably in operation later in that decade. Water power was not the only means of powering a mill; Franklin Garrett reports that Atlanta's first manufacturing enterprise was a horse-powered sawmill operated by Jonathan Norcross for about a year in 1844.[11]

In the way that it is sawn, the lumber itself places construction of the Tullie Smith House within a certain range of time. The earliest sawn lumber was produced by hand by skilled sawyers, a method of production which by its very nature limited the kinds and amount of lumber that could be thus produced. By the late eighteenth century, water-powered saw mills were becoming more common and dominated sawmill production until improvements in steam technology made steam-powered saw mills practical and brought them into widespread use in the mid-nineteenth century.

The characteristic vertical saw marks left by the reciprocating (i.e., up and down) motion of these water-powered "sash saws" are visible on virtually all of the original material in the Tullie Smith House. After about 1850, improvements in the circular saw blade, which was introduced into America in 1814, made its use more widespread although it did not replace most reciprocating-sawn lumber until the late nineteenth century.[12]

Because most of the water-powered saw mills were limited in the thickness and length of lumber that could be produced, early production tended to be limited to the lighter boards used for walls, ceilings, trim, and siding. Most antebellum builders continued to use sills, corner posts, wall plates and tie beams that were hewn by hand, and so it was with the Tullie Smith House, where the sills (all approximately 9" x 10") and corner posts are all hand hewn.[13]

Gradually, it was demonstrated that the size of sills and other framing members could be reduced without seriously compromising the structural integrity of the house. At the same time, improvements in saw mill technology allowed milling of larger lengths and thicknesses of lumber, all of which led to the gradual disappearance of hewn framing members in new construction. Until 1860, however, fully hewn sills, corner posts and other large members along with the use of logs flattened on one side for floor joists were quite common.[14] The Goodwin House, the Burdette House, the Wynne-Russell House and numerous others in the area have hewn sills and log joists as part of their original construction. At Tullie Smith, the presence of sawn joists (about 3" x 6½" to 7" for floor joists and about 3" x 5¾" to 6" for the second-floor ceiling joists) distinguishes it from these earlier houses and is an indication perhaps of a somewhat later date of construction. The rafters and studs at Tullie Smith all measure about 3" x 4" and are typical of dimensions before the 1850s.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, too, all but the narrowest pieces of trim wood were dressed by the use of hand planes. Because production was such a laborious process, planed wood is typically found only where smooth-finished surfaces were absolutely necessary. The door panels of the original doors at Tullie Smith, which were wider than what could usually be machine-planed, were planed by hand. While that was typical, the smooth planing of the joists under the two front rooms, which also appears to have been done by hand, was not typical and is an indication that the cellar was originally intended as a living and/or work space.[15]

One of the limitations that perpetuated the use of traditional methods of joinery in braced-framed construction was the expense and quality of nails, which were all laboriously hand-wrought by blacksmiths throughout the colonial period. Because of their expense, these were used almost exclusively for attachment of siding and trim to the basic mortised-and-tenoned structure.[16] Square, machine-made, machine-cut nails were introduced in the 1790s, but nails continued to be headed by hand until machines capable of the work were developed early in the nineteenth century. Even then, the quality of the cut nails was such that wrought nails continued in use for many applications into the 1830s, especially where the nail's ability to "clinch," (i.e., hold securely against racking pressure) was important. By the 1830s, cut nails were being produced with sufficient tensile strength and at a low enough cost that they quickly superseded the use of any hand-wrought nails, although the latter were still occassionally made for special uses.[17]

At Tullie Smith, all of the nails that have been observed are machine-cut and machine-headed nails of a type common after the late 1830s and not unlike 20th-century, machine-cut nails.[18] However, the architectural record is now somewhat confused, since many cut nails were probably used in historic repairs and modifications to the house in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and they were certainly used in the house's restoration and in subsequent repairs. In addition, the complete dismantling and reconstruction of the second floor when the house was moved necessitated removal of most if not all of the historic nails in the upper half of the house.

However, if the Mueller drawings are accurate, and they probably are, it appears that the roof framing as reconstructed repeated the original design and used traditional techniques. This offers a significant clue to the building's date of construction since the roof rafters were joined by large cut nails without a ridge board. The lack of a ridge board is to be expected since it was a feature of the modern balloon frame but not always of the heavier braced frame. The use of nails to make connections to the rafter ends, however, was also typical of the balloon frame but not of the braced frame. At the earlier Goodwin House, rafter ends are lapped and pegged. The presence of nailed connections in the rafters in the Tullie Smith House is an indication of the transition from the traditional braced-frame and log houses that were typical in the early nineteenth century to the modern balloon frame that was developed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and, by the late 1860s, was widely known.[19]

One aspect of the Tullie Smith House that has not been analyzed but that might provide clues to its origins and subsequent evolution is its painted finishes. Significant amounts of original material have been lost from the house since its original construction, but much remains in place along with at least some of the layers of paint that have covered those surfaces. In addition, the restoration committee noted the possibility of painted graining on at least one of the mantels, which would not be a surprising find in an antebellum house. Enough undisturbed material remains on the house that a program of sampling and analysis could be designed that might help insure authenticity in both interior and exterior paint colors and offer further clues to the Smiths' lives there.





1 The newspaper interviews with Tullie and with Mary Ella Smith Mason Johnson consistently refer to Tullie’s great-grandfather Robert H. smith as the building of the house.

2 All of Smith’s children, including the youngest born in 1836, are listed in the census with a North Carolina place of birth. Smith sold his farm in North Carolina in July 1845, and the wording of his father’s will, which was made in November 1845, suggests that he was in Georgia by that time. He was certainly there when his father’s estate was settled in 1846.

3. The general patterns of historic building and typical styles in the Georgia Piedmont have been fairly well-established, beginning with the pioneering work of the Historic American Building Survey in the 1930s and 1940s and the publication of Frederick Doveton Nichols' The Early Architecture of Georgia in 1957. John Linley's The Georgia Catalog (Athens, 1982), his The Architecture of Middle Georgia: The Oconee (Athens, 1972), and Mills B. Lane's The Architecture of Georgia, (Savannah, 1986) also provide good outlines of the state's architectural history.

4 . Lane, p. 39.

5. Harper’s Weekly (August 27, 1864, p. 557). Wilbur Kurtz coll. (MSS 130) at Atlanta History Center, Box 50, Folder 2, for notes on construction.

6. Nichols, p. 122. Also see Henry Chandlee Forman, The Architecture of the Old South: The Medieval Style, 1585-1850, especially pp. 180-184.

7. Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia, 1968), p. 67.  Catherine Bishir, et. al., Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building. (Chapel Hill, 1990), pp. 54, 136.

8. Bishir, p. 16. See Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, editors, Common Place: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, pp. 159-180, for an overview of the development of various wood construction methods. Also Dr. Paul E. Sprague, “Chicago Balloon Frame,” in Ward Jandl, The Technology of Historic American Buildings: Studies of the Materials, Craft Processes, and the Mechanization of Building Conservation (Washington, DC, 1983), pp. 35-50, for an excellent outline of the evolution of light wood-frame construction techniques.

9.  “Old House Once Saw Bee Swarm Marauding Yankee Soldier,” Suburban Gazette, vol. 5, #1, November 15, 1961. The headline implies that the soldier was attacked in the Tullie Smith House when, in fact, Tullie was telling a story about her Grandmother Mason’s house.

10. Bishir, pp. 196-197.

11 Garrett, Vol. 1, pp. 176-177, 206. Hudgins’ study of DeKalb County mills provides almost no dates for mill operations in the county.

12 Bishir, pp. 205-206.

13 The corner posts at Tullie Smith are visible in the 1989 video of the floor replacement project. Although the narrator refers to them being sawn, they appear to have in fact been hewn.

14 Bishir. p. 199.

15 Bishir, pp. 212-213.

16 John Obed Curtis, “Old-House Myths,” Journal of Early American Life, February 1995, p. 62.

17 Lee Nelson, American Association of State and Local History, Technical Leaflet #48, “Nail Chronology.”

18 Ibid.

19. Ibid. See Sprague, “Chicago Balloon Frame,” above, for use of nails in structures from the period of transition from the traditional braced frame to the modern balloon frame in the 1830s and 1840s.