The one-story T-house is ubiquitous in Mississippi and throughout the South. It is significant as the first widely accepted popular vernacular house type in the region. In its simplest form its plan is that of the letter T on its side, with two square rooms, one behind the other, a third square room straddling the others on either the left or the right, with a shed or kitchen space in the rear and a porch on the front. Examples exist from the mid-nineteenth century, but in the Deep South most T-houses were constructed from about 1880 through the early twentieth century, usually to accommodate what W. J. Cash described as the “numerous army” of poor whites moving from the country to southern towns seeking to work in mills or to set up small businesses.
T-houses became widely adopted in the Deep South for a number of reasons: they could be built from readily available, mass-produced lumber, the projecting front room created a porch space and provided privacy from other T-houses in a row, high ceilings and central halls or window alignments kept the house cool during the severe summers, and elevation and lack of cellars helped deal with flooding, moisture problems, and insects and gave cool, dry shelter under the house to dogs and chickens.
Culturally, T-houses were popular because they allowed the new, growing middle class to feel “uptown” and to express individual taste by painting them or embellishing them in Victorian style with mass-produced gingerbread trim or bay windows and because they could easily be expanded. Plan books were available, and the 1908 Sears and Roebuck catalog even offered a T-house.
Architecturally, the T-house is important because it is a hybrid type that has roots in both folk and high-style architecture, featuring cubic rooms that are basic to cabins and dogtrots as well as Georgian mansions. Many T-houses have a central hall as in Georgian style, but this can also be seen as an interpretation of the open passage in a dogtrot. The T-house also draws from popular Gothic Revival styles with its asymmetry (the projecting gable room) and incorporation of decorative wooden flourishes. A lineage for the T-house can be clearly traced from house plans illustrated in A. J. Davis’s 1838 Rural Residences and his protégé A. J. Downing’s “small bracketed cottage” design to cottages built for mill workers in Graniteville, South Carolina, in 1848 by William Gregg, the father of cotton manufacturing. New South prophet Daniel Augustus Tompkins standardized T-house plans by publishing Cotton Mill, Commercial Features (1899), which prescribed specs for mill “operatives’ homes” down to the window sills and wainscoting.
Many of these perfectly adapted houses are endangered and are now deteriorating or developing structural problems, but they deserve to be protected and preserved as the first and predominant working-class structures in the region and the house type that has defined the look of many southern towns.
- Lisa Howorth, “Popular Vernacular: The One-Story T-House in the South” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1984)