Historical Architecture Close to Home

Logs, stones, and bricks tell stories about the Upper Cumberland region that few people have the time to hear.

But local historians Homer Kemp, Calvin Dickinson and Michael Birdwell have spent nearly 20 years tuning in to the history reflected in the region's homes and buildings. Their architectural survey of the area has led to a recently released book, "Upper Cumberland Historical Architecture." 

In the book, more than 100 images combine with text to follow the economic and cultural development of much of the area. Kemp and Birdwell, Tennessee Tech University professors, and Dickinson, a retired TTU faculty member, teamed with Tennessee Historical Commission historian James B. Jones Jr. to harness the wealth of information into a book. 

"We didn't want to write about architectural styles just for their own sake," said Birdwell. "We wanted to show how the styles reflect the historical and cultural development that gives the Upper Cumberland a distinctive identity."

In 1982, the Upper Cumberland Humanities and Social Sciences Institute at TTU, supported by a Tennessee Historical Commission grant, began the historic preservation architectural survey of Putnam County. By 1999, the group had completed surveys of the 12 Upper Cumberland Counties -- Putnam, Fentress, Jackson, Overton, Dekalb, White, Cumberland, Pickett, Macon, Smith, Roane and Scott.
Over the years, student teams collected photos of more than 11,000 structures that were at least 50 years old. Backed by another grant, the authors, along with technical assistant and photographer Steve Gwilt, put together the book focusing on an eight-county area: Putnam, Jackson, Overton, Fentress, Cumberland, White, Dekalb and Smith Counties.

Although architecture is the focus, the book provides special historical features on each county as well as on key people influential in the growth of the region. Narrative includes personal stories and detailed descriptions of building techniques.

"Transportation was clearly the most important single force in the development of this area," said Kemp. "So we chose to organize our book around the transportation patterns of the region."

With transportation as a road map, the first chapter takes readers down roads leading to log houses, inns and eventually Federal-style homes built in the wealthier areas. The second chapter, written by Jim Jones of the Tennessee Historical Commission, reveals the devastation suffered by the Upper Cumberland during the Civil War. Lacking the romance or adventure of stories associated with other areas, the authors point to the ruined homes, businesses and even churches during the war.

The rivers floated a resurgence of the Upper Cumberland in the form of logging traffic after the war. Standardization of materials led to I-shaped houses and Gothic Revival designs in the area. The railroad age ushered in industry and commercial growth, along with manufactured house parts that led to more diverse and aesthetically pleasing structures.

In the 20th Century, modern highways provided economic stimulus, and the federal government also boosted the Upper Cumberland economy through New Deal projects such as state parks, post offices and the Cumberland Homesteads. Housing styles kept pace with nation, and Classical Revival, Neoclassical, Tudor Revival and Bungalow styles appeared in the area.

The study includes homes built through 1950, the last building date eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

"The region has never been the state's economic or cultural leader, but it has a most interesting history and serves as a laboratory of architectural styles for the state," said Dickinson. 

The book is available from Hillsboro Press, on Amazon.com, or at Bookworks in Cookeville.

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