Vernacular Architecture and Religious Practice

By March 25, 2014

Last year I drove from Salt Lake City to Logan for the first time.  One of the things that I found most captivating along the route was the barns.  They were so different from the ones where I live. I found both the basic structure and the pitch of the roof to be intriguing, and wondered what it was about the environment and culture that made them so different from the barns I was familiar with.  I would imagine that to anybody who lives locally or drives that route often, the barns are unremarkable.  This is the challenge of vernacular architecture ? the ordinariness of a building almost renders it invisible.  However ordinary buildings and landscapes are revealing indicators of culture and identity and in some cases religious practice.

Vernacular architecture falls under the umbrella of material culture studies but is different from other artifact-oriented disciplines.  It can defined as ?the study of those human actions and behaviours that are manifest in commonplace architecture?[1]

Thomas Carter has stated that vernacular architecture addresses the place of cultural landscapes which

..are human-produced environments which include buildings but also such things as town plans, streets and fields, work spaces and campgrounds, civic monuments and cemeteries, public and household art, and even furniture .. The advantage of adopting a cultural landscape approach to both architecture and history is that it allows us to see objects operating within larger, more all-encompassing thought processes. Cultural landscapes, as we will see, are inherently symbolic: they are material worlds that stand for conceptual systems?what we think of as structuring ?ideologies.? [2]

Studying these cultural landscapes directly is different than reading documents which actually serve as a filter between historians and what people actually did.  For those who left no record, they provide evidence of how everyday people lived their everyday life.  Finally they often reveal things that are so commonplace that they aren?t mentioned while simultaneously revealing aesthetic preferences, spatial organization and the role of technology.

A wonderful recent example of vernacular architecture scholarship that sheds light on the religious practice of Mormon women is Carolyn Butler-Palmer?s  “Building Autonomy: A History of the Fifteenth Ward Hall of the Mormon Women’s Relief Society” which was published in  Buildings and Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum

Butler-Palmer argues that Relief Society Halls, were collections of structures that ?grounded the unique spatial practices of Mormon women on the American frontier.?  By using the example of the 15th Ward Relief Society Hall this article traces the trajectory of the Relief Society through the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.  Noting that the Hall was ?a cornerstone of public culture that shaped the urban landscape and daily life? of 19th century Mormons, Butler-Palmer demonstrates how the creation and use of Relief Society halls supported worship, service and commerce.  The 15th ward Relief Society Hall was the site of suffrage debates, as well as the mobilization of support for polygamy.  Later it represented the contest over female space and its history reflects changes that resulted from the arrival of the railroad, Utah?s achievement of statehood, and generational shifts in female leadership.   Accompanied by many maps, plans and photos, this article is a compelling and instructive read.

Through the study of vernacular architecture, historians can develop a deeper understanding of the ideas, values and beliefs of a culture.  Such scholarship is a great resource for those wanting to reconstruct the distinctive nature of how Mormons practiced their religion as well as how those practices emerged and evolved over time.

[1] Carter, Thomas and Elizabeth Collins Cromley, Invitation to Vernacular Architecture:  A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes. Knoxville:  The University of Tennessee Press, 2005, xiv.

[2] Thomas Carter “Architecture, Landscape and the History of the American West, University of Utah, Fall 2007.

[3] Butler-Palmer, Carolyn,  “Building Autonomy: A History of the Fifteenth Ward Hall of the Mormon Women’s Relief Society” Buildings and Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, Volume 20, Number 1, Spring 2013, p. 69-94


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I wouldn’t bother about typos in a blog post, but there’s one in your penultimate paragraph that you probably ought to fix.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 25, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

  2. Fixed.

    Comment by Admin — March 25, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

  3. Yes, vernacular architecture! One of the things I’m constantly struck by as I travel between the Netherlands, Germany, and the US, is how different the houses are. Or even the Netherlands and Germany, to stick closer to your first example. Really interesting.

    Comment by Saskia — March 25, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

  4. I know this is a bit random, but I saw the St. George Relief Society Hall for the first time last month. I was shocked at how small the building was.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 25, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

  5. This is great, thanks Kris.

    Comment by David G. — March 26, 2014 @ 10:53 am

  6. This is thought-provoking, Kris. Thanks for opening up another dimension of material culture study.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 26, 2014 @ 11:11 am


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