The I-house is a relatively new architectural term. Fred Kniffen first coined it in 1936, when he used it “in the absence of any common term, either folk or architectural,” to describe the house type he identified initially in the “I” states of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. More a description of a house form or shape than a distinct style, “I-house” was not a term used by eighteenth and nineteenth century architects and builders. The distinguishing characteristics are a full two-story height, a one-room depth, and a length of two or more rooms. The I-house conveys a tall, narrow appearance. It is constructed of wood, brick, stone, or log with its entrance on the long side. Kniffen traced the origins of this house form evolving from the English, single room, end chimney house to full-blown examples in the Middle Atlantic region of Delaware and the Chesapeake by the late seventeenth century. It was carried southward as part of the great mid-eighteenth-century migration along the Appalachian Mountains into the backcountry of the Carolinas. From there it was carried into the Deep South and by way of the Ohio River into the Midwest. The ubiquitous I-house had become the symbol of economic success in the rural landscape of South Carolina’s upcountry by the middle of the nineteenth century and remained so well into the early twentieth century.
The early I-house had two rooms on the ground floor. One room, the hall, functioned as the kitchen, workroom, or dining room; the other, the parlor, was used for more formal activities. By the nineteenth century and with increased attention to symmetry, a center hall containing the stairway was present in most floor plans. Examples in Carolina typically have three to five windows across the front on the second story; a chimney on either gable end; a front porch; a back porch, which is often enclosed as a lean-to; and/or a kitchen ell added to the rear. As an occupant’s wealth increased, a simpler house form such as a single-story dogtrot could evolve into an I-house with the addition of a second story, conversion of the breezeway into the hall, and covering the whole with weatherboards. Its tall, shallow form with short spans was easy to construct, provided excellent ventilation through the main rooms, and presented an impressive public face to signal the economic status of the owner. The architectural historian Michael Southern has argued that the durability of this form through time may in part be attributed to its adaptability to receive detailing and ornamentation from the various popular styles of the nineteenth century, such as the Federal, Greek- revival, Italianate, and even Gothic styles. While retaining a traditional floor plan, the occupants were able to dress up their homes outwardly to indicate that they were attuned to the latest architectural trends. Thus, the Carolina I-house established itself as the signature house form of the upland part of the state throughout the nineteenth century.
Foster, Gerald. American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Glassie, Henry. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.
Kniffen, Fred. “Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion.” In Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Southern, Michael T. “The I-House as a Carrier of Style in Three Counties of the Northeastern Piedmont.” In Carolina Dwelling, edited by Doug Swaim. Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 1978.