Purpose-Built: Backyard Architecture


Backyard structures bespeak a separate history. Author Mike Olmert shares his study of outbuildings.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. Today I want to introduce you to Mike Olmert, who is an author for the Colonial Williamsburg journal. Michael has devoted a great amount of time to studying outhouses, outbuildings.

Michael Olmert: Ten years!

Harmony: Ten years. What got you started, what interested you?

Mike: I got interested in outbuildings because they really are the stepchild of historic preservation. I mean, it’s easy to fall in love with the Governor’s Palace or the Wythe House, but look at all these buildings in the backyard, where the work was done. They’re really well-made, but here’s the interesting thing: they really tell us a lot more about the 18th century.

There’s that, of course, 18th century that’s really elegant and beautiful and everybody had great taste. But there’s another part of the 18th century, which is the savage part, where life was difficult and people like you and I would have been working in those backyards. These backyards are where people lived, their whole lives.

They built the buildings that they lived in, and they worked there their whole lives. It gives us a sense of that other half. Not just enslaved people, but indentured servitude people living back there, too. So that’s the chief reason I was interested in it. These buildings are really well made, too. That’s another reason that they’ve survived.

Harmony: You used the word “savage” to describe what happens back there. Tell me more about the demarcation between the main house and these outbuildings in the back.

Mike: Well I mean there’s the front part of all of our lives, and then there’s the real part of our lives. Architecture is always said to be about the presentation of self. So if you walk along Duke of Gloucester Street, and you look at the front of all those buildings, you say, “Oh my God, here’s a town full of wonderful buildings. There’s no lower class element that you can see.”

Next time you’re walking along Duke of Gloucester Street, go into the backyards and look and see these little tiny structures: these privies, these laundries, these kitchens. There would have been barns and lots of other little tiny vernacular structures that people were living in.

That really represents more of life for me, rather than just the up front, well bred part of the 18th century. I mean, in the backyards of the Peyton Randolph House, there were 27 slaves living. So it was much more humanity pressed together in the backyard.

Harmony: A much greater population in the backyard than in the house itself.

Mike: Well at least half, in 1770 slightly more than 50 percent of the population of Williamsburg was black. So that means 50 percent of the people living in the backyards – over the kitchens, over the laundries, in barns, just huddled together there.

Harmony: What a thought, that there would be more people in the backyard to serve the needs of the people in the house.

Mike: That’s what the census of 1770 said. It was found by Harold Gill and Kevin Kelly about 25-30 years ago. And it came as a thunderclap. Virginia’s general population in the 18th century, roughly 50 percent black, too. People used to walk around Williamsburg and think, “Look at these backyards, look at the privies.” They were painted in polychrome colors 25-30 years ago. Now, it’s just, the paint is peeling on a lot of those buildings and it gives a better sense of what the backyards really were like.

The best one of all, I think, is Wetherburn’s tavern backyard. All those buildings back there, they had Spanish brown and then some limewash on top of that. The limewash is peeling off, the buildings are kind of grayish. There’s no grass in that backyard; it’s just brickbat and shells to keep people’s ankles out of the mud. It’s a very demotic backyard.

Harmony: Describe for us some of the buildings that you’re talking about. When you’re talking about this collection of outbuildings, there are several types. What kinds of buildings are we talking about?

Mike: Well, the basic eight types that are in this book: kitchens, laundries, dairies, privies, smokehouses, offices, which are a more elite sort of building, dovecotes, buildings for keeping doves, and icehouses. That’s eight. Every one of them are texts. They tell us the way we lived.

Harmony: Speaking of texts, as I was reading your book, it struck me that you can read these buildings in kind of two ways. You can look at them as structures that are fascinating just that they are built to support one specific function, so it tells us about technology. But then there’s a second way you can read it, and you can see them as sort of a social history.

Mike: I think it’s associated with slavery. The technical term among historians was social separation. It’s a way of keeping the races apart. Another term associated with that is “rule by ostentation.” If you take the covered way between the kitchen at Peyton Randolph and the dining room, there’s a sense in which the upper classes did not want to be seen to be having to do any work to make their meals. They just wanted the meals to show up, as if by magic. So it’s done by other people.

The white ladies would have walked down the covered way, and would have interacted with people actually cooking in the kitchen, but when they sat down for a formal meal, the meals just appeared. That sort of magic seems to endorse their control of most of the property and most of the wealth in the colony – so it’s ruled by ostentation.

Would it look any different if God hadn’t favored them and blessed them? It’s a kind of performance. That sounds like kind of a mean-spirited thing to say. I’m not judging those people, I’m just saying it really was a theatrical performance. The architecture is there to show us how it worked, and that it really was working that way.

In England, all the great houses, their kitchens aren’t separated. They aren’t someplace else. They’re downstairs, and the meal still appears as if by magic. Because of the racial difference I think, in the Tidewater especially. In New England, for example, most of the kitchens are not separate buildings. They’re in the main house.

Harmony: So that’s a little bit about the social history. What also fascinated me, reading this, was how specifically these buildings were built to this purpose. Tell me about the architecture of a kitchen, and how it is unmistakably a kitchen. What do you see in a kitchen that you don’t see anywhere else?

Mike: A large hearth, and a large chimney. Sometimes there’s an addition to that chimney that has an oven. An oven is sort of a brick hole, cave, that you put a fire in. You make it very, very hot. Often, they don’t have flues, so the smoke came back in the house.

You’ve been to a modern pizzeria that has a wood-fired oven? They just build a fire in there, and it heats the thing up. Then they rake out the coals and put in the pizza. That’s sometimes called a two-day or a three-day oven in the 18th century. They’d put a fire in there, let it burn for a couple of hours, a whole mass of bricks holds the heat in. They’d rake out all the coals and then they’d put in roasts. As it cooled down, they’d put in things that didn’t need as much heat. Then they’re doing meringues and drying flowers or fruits the last day. There’s a bunch of those around town.

The other thing about kitchens is, they’re usually going to be a story and a half building. That half story up above, slaves were living. Hottest place on earth to live in the summertime. Most of them would have dragged their mattress tickings out into the yard and slept in the yard, where they were eaten alive by mosquitoes all summer. It was a tough place to live, tough place to live.

Harmony: I have to ask you about outhouses, and some of the construction that you found that was so surprising to me. An outhouse with five seats?

Mike: Yeah, I mean that’s, the great British novelist, L.P. Hartley, the opening two sentences of one of his novels is, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” That’s a remarkable two sentences, because the past is a foreign country. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around. Here you have a five-holer, there are some seven-holers.

Look, if people are waiting in line to get in the bathroom, you don’t need seven holes in there. They’re all going at once, and reading the paper and talking. There are no partitions between the seats or anything like that. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just something we can’t get our minds around. Culturally, we’re so different. We have a sense of privacy and we depend on it. That didn’t seem to bother them.

Harmony: I want to talk a little bit about how the arrangement of these outdoor buildings – you would have a grand house, say the Peyton Randolph House – that had how many outbuildings in the backyard?

Mike: Well, lots. But I think with barns and everything, there are probably ten buildings back there.

Harmony: It makes me think about sort of the psychology of the colonists, it reminded me of something from Rhys Isaac’s book, where he describes the layout of the Governor’s Palace, but that you have a sort of lord of a small country seat is what you’re almost trying to replicate. Having these buildings isn’t completely a necessity, as much as it might be a show of wealth and prominence.

Mike: That’s absolutely true. I’m glad you mentioned Rhys Isaac’s book, “The Transformation of Virginia,” it’s a terrific historical document. It sort of changed the way that a lot of people looked at the 18th century.

The architecture also supports that, the way that the rooms are laid out, that a certain number of people can get so far into the building, and fewer people can get a little farther in, but the most important people can get right in the same room with the governor. That, in this little colonial scale, represents the same thing that’s happening in palaces among royalty in Europe.

Harmony: It sounds to me like you find that outbuildings are almost a more honest history than the main house.

Mike: Yeah I have to confess that. There’s something about me, I like the underclasses, and I’ve always been suspicious of authority. You know, historians, we’re human beings too. We do reflect the way we are, I think.

Harmony: Where can people find your book?

Mike: Published by Cornell University press, find it on Amazon, find it in the Williamsburg bookstores.

Harmony: Fantastic, Michael thanks for being with us today.

Mike: Thanks for having me.

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