How a building performs as the center of architectural history

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In a nutshell

The Food Axis is an architectural history of the years from the first European settlement in the 17th century until today that approaches the understanding of domestic architecture through the set of spaces and functions related to food.

Traditionally, architectural history approaches understanding buildings by studying architects or through concepts of style. Instead, I want readers to think about how American houses have developed and changed by responding to the impact of food.

I argue that storage, preservation, preparation and cooking, and serving of food require specific kinds of spaces in the architecture and its home grounds.

In New England 17th century settlers most frequently lived in one-room houses with a cooking fireplace. Meals were therefore served in the same one room where the food was prepared. To preserve food people built smoke houses, dairies, and root cellars so that the landscape near the house was also occupied by various food facilities.

As diverse ethnic groups created homes in the new world, they brought with them preferences for how to handle food.

For example, Hispanic settlers in the 17th century lived in one-room houses where a lot of the food preparation was done in a patio or courtyard. Dried corn was stored inside the main house and carried outdoors to be prepared for meals. The meals themselves were also served out of doors when the climate was suitable.

French settlers in the Mississippi Valley sometimes treated their homesteads like farms even when they were part of a densely settled town.

For example houses in St. Genevieve, Missouri, built by French families were surrounded by intensely gardened landscapes and were also home to domestic animals used for meat, milk and fur. Exterior bake houses added food preparation structures to the home landscape while removing heat and the dangers of fire from the interior of the home. Settlers with fewer resources sometimes hung a kettle over an outdoor fire instead of one indoors, and prepared stews and one-dish meals.

Evidence of similar one-dish meals has been uncovered at housing for the enslaved workers of southern plantations. As households developed more wealth and were able to expand their houses, people added specialized rooms to serve as kitchens where the principal cooking would be done separate from the social rooms of the house.

During the 19th century new inventions and utilities added to the food repertoire piped water, efficient cooking stoves, and ice boxes that reduced the need for external food storage on the home grounds. By the mid-20th century electricity was available in nearly every house in the United States, adding refrigeration to make food preparation and storage modern.

“I hope that historians and architects will come to think about the evolution and development of American domestic architecture more as the product of people living in houses, than as the product of architects and designers producing stylish surroundings.”

The wide angle

Although my training in architectural history was very traditional—I studied the history of architects, their patrons, and buildings produced with high budgets and aesthetic ambitions—I became interested in how people use buildings and how buildings may be persuaded to conform to people’s needs even when those needs are different from what architects intended.

This led me to a particular interest in American house design—partly because my own experience as a dweller led me to think about the way I could make my own family’s dwelling work, and partly because in the printed and manuscript materials in American archives there are numerous accounts by people using houses and reporting on how that happened. I wanted to place the experience of how a building performs at the center of architectural history.

The Food Axis is mainly a study of vernacular architecture.

In the 1960s and 70s, a number of scholars turned to the history of vernacular architecture—in contrast to traditional architectural history’s focus on individual architects and aesthetic ambitions. By “vernacular architecture” we mean the ordinary buildings of the common landscape. Perhaps 5% of the buildings that get constructed in the United States are really designed by architects; the other 95% belong to the category of vernacular buildings. In addition to the buildings themselves, the landscapes in which they are set are also of interest to vernacular architecture scholars.

The contemporary study of vernacular architecture was prompted in the United States by historic preservation legislation that required individual states to do inventories of their significant buildings. As surveyors went out into the hinterlands of America, they found that most of the buildings they were seeing did not belong to a very specific historical style or had a very specific ceremonial or monumental purpose. Instead they found thousands of buildings that seemed to fall in between the traditional architecture categories. So they began to call these buildings vernacular.

In 1980, the Vernacular Architecture Forum was assembled, bringing together scholars from many different disciplines who were interested in the vernacular landscape. Anthropologists, archaeologists, architectural historians, folklorists, professional practitioners, preservationists, and scholars from American Studies have created a fruitful mix of approaches to studying the vernacular landscape and its buildings. I have learned from these diverse perspectives and brought this thinking to the task of understanding houses.

Teaching architectural history in architecture schools for the past 30 years, I have developed courses in World Architectural History, Modern Architecture, American Architecture, and more recently courses in American Housing.

I was led to the topic of food in house design because of my own interest in cookbooks and recipes, in preparing meals for family and friends, in trying out new restaurants and chefs, and in going to specialized food markets.

Sometimes one’s private life and personal hobbies must be kept separate from professional interests. But in this case I felt there was an opportunity to bring my cooking together with my architectural research. I hoped that this would make for a more personalized architectural history—likewise, I expect that people who are interested in cooking and the design of kitchens may find this book has more personal value to them than some other kinds of architectural history.

January 19, 2011

A close-up

The part of the research for The Food Axis that I found most intriguing and unfamiliar came from women’s records of homesteading on the frontier.

When households traveled from settled parts of the United States into the interior, just about the first thing women had to do was manage to feed their families. If they were lucky enough to arrive at a town where some houses had already been constructed, the family might move into a shelter to cook its first meal. With yet more luck there would be a fireplace available in which to build the fire and start preparing some bread or a stew. Many families brought a cook stove on their Conestoga wagon as they crossed the prairies.

Women described what it was like to prepare meals under these frontier conditions: when they arrived at their intended location, they would shift the cook stove off the wagon and heat it up to cook a meal out of doors. Some households lived in a tent or under a casually created shelter of branches and cooked like this for weeks or months if the weather allowed.

We can see how food preparation tools and practices generated houses for these frontier women: houses were literally constructed around the cook stove.

“Perhaps 5% of the buildings that get constructed in the United States are really designed by architects; the other 95% belong to the category of vernacular buildings.”


I hope that historians and architects will come to think about the evolution and development of American domestic architecture more as the product of people living in houses, than as the product of architects and designers producing stylish surroundings.

Houses are always works in progress, as dwellers relocate uses inside and outside the house. In this book I have focused on the way that changes in people’s preferred modes of food storage, preservation, preparation, and the serving of meals acted as agents of change for the design of houses and their nearby landscapes.

The Food Axis shows how the addition of new utilities systems encouraged owners to add new appliances and required the adjustment of old locations for food. Walls were moved or added, wings or ells attached to small houses to make them accommodate new needs. Over the long-term, slowly, the spaces in American houses evolved as dwellers’ desires and needs regarding food shifted over time, resulting in major changes in the way domestic space was and is still being shaped.

Other domestic activities such as sleeping or socializing could be traced through the reports of users and the adjustments made to the physical fabric of houses. And they would yield comparable insights into the way house plans have been adjusted over the long-term to meet the needs of dwellers. Architects’ designs, ambitious aesthetically, still fit within the culturally accepted parameters established by these slow processes of change.

© 2010 Elizabeth Cromley
Elizabeth Collins Cromley The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses University of Virginia Press 240 pages ISBN 978 0813930077

Elizabeth Collins Cromley is a Professor of Architectural History at the School of Architecture, Northeastern University, Boston. She has a special interest in vernacular architecture, and has published books and articles on a range of building types and topics including resort hotels, urban apartment houses, urban parks, house renovations and their meanings, home decorating using Native American objects, and the history of bedrooms.

Cover Interview of
January 19, 2011