19th Century House Architecture in North America

Catherine Beecher's balloon-framed, centrally-heated house of the American mid-west is a forerunner to the contemporary suburban home familiar to North Americans.

Most people associate Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie school of architecture with the beginnings of suburban house design in North America. Catherine Beecher established an early prototype for American domestic architecture, however, with an ideal house design in her book of 1869, American Woman’s Home.

The illustrations in Beecher’s book show three floors of a single-family home organized around a centrally-located heating and ventilation system. The combination of light-weight balloon wood frame and central heating system resulted in a way of organizing space that remains the dominant paradigm in single-home construction.

19th Century Innovations in Building Construction

Hidden behind the clapboard façade and interior lathe and plaster of the mid-19th century mid-western home is a balloon frame. A method of wood construction that replaced wooden post and beam construction in North America during the first half of the 19th century, balloon framing utilizes long wooden framing members, or studs, that run from sill plate to eave line of the house; intermediate floors are nailed to the studs.

A balloon frame did not require the high degree of carpentry skills of conventional post and beam construction. It was inexpensive to build and went up quickly in the rapidly growing and expanding American mid-west. From a construction perspective, it relieved the building façade of any load-bearing purpose and shifted the emphasis from the imposing grandeur of a masonry (load-bearing) exterior to a focus on interior comfort.

Heating and Ventilation Systems in the Beecher Home

Beecher’s ideal home was composed of three floors, with a centrally-located hot air system tempering the internal environment regardless of the severity of the mid-west winter.

A wood and coal-fired furnace was located in the basement, with the central flue and foul air chimney rising vertically through the house to the roof. Also situated in the basement were the laundry area and space for storing fruits and vegetables.

On the main floor, hot air outlets fed by heating ducts from a central flue kept the drawing room and other spaces warm in winter. Supplementary heat sources included the kitchen range and a Franklin stove which was connected via ductwork to the flue.

The upper storey included bedrooms and closets, heated by rising air from the kitchen and hot air outlets.

Drafts were eliminated by ensuring fresh air intake for the stoves through under-floor ducting. Foul air was extracted, and warmed air delivered where it was most needed. Beecher regarded fireplaces as dirty, inefficient and a health hazard. There were no open fireplaces in the ideal home.

Reyner Banham, in his book The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, points out the advent of central heating meant that space beyond the central heating core could be flexibly laid out and interior spaces could be organized differently than when every room had its own fireplace and was compartmentalized from the rest of the house. Central heating opened up possibilities in house design, resulting ultimately in the ranch-style suburban home.

Domestic Reform and Efficiency

Beecher was a domestic reformer in her day, concerned with how the woman in a house could most efficiently manage her environment. Every house-keeping task in the home was accounted for, including storage space for individual items. There were built-in storage closets and the kitchen featured built-in cupboards, shelves, countertops and drawers.

Purpose-built furniture and closets are a given in contemporary North American homes but they were innovations in 19th century domestic architecture. Beecher and her contemporaries were unwittingly laying the foundations for later architects like Wright and the Californian school. Add in-door plumbing and electricity to the Beecher house and you have the making of a 20th century suburban home.