Vernacular architecture is a term that can mean different things to different people. It is generally defined as a building style based upon local or traditional designs, materials and building techniques. However, the nature and origins of designs and techniques varied. Immigrants brought traditional building designs and construction techniques with them to the United States where they built homes and farm buildings that closely resembled those found in their home countries. New vernacular traditions emerged when people encountered different building materials, industries, modes of living and climates. Immigrants also copied and adapted traditions of previous settlers, creating innovative, hybrid buildings and building styles. Finally, industrialism and mass culture contributed to a new American national vernacular which reflected larger trends in ornament, aesthetics, and building uses.
Examples of a European vernacular tradition can be found in the Iowa community of St. Donatus. St. Donatus was settled beginning in the 1840s by immigrants from Luxembourg who came to the United States fleeing poverty and famine. A growing population and an underdeveloped industrial economy in Luxembourg led to high unemployment and financial insecurity. Because it was difficult to acquire farmland or property to start a business, many left Luxembourg for the United States and the newly-opened frontier. Among the first settlers in Jackson County, IA was Luxembourger John Noel, who arrived in 1838 and was joined by his brothers Franz and Johann shortly thereafter. Another Luxembourger, Peter Gehlen, arrived in 1846 and founded the village which he named after St. Donatus, the patron saint of protection from lightning and storms. Gehlen opened a mill on the nearby Tetes des Mortes creek and became one of the community’s most prominent citizens. St. Donatus continued to grow during the following decades as a stream of immigrants continued to leave Luxembourg and settle in the Midwest.
Most immigrants to the United States adopted the building styles the encountered in their new home. St. Donatus, however, is an example of a community that chose to build using traditional designs and techniques from their home country. The houses have low-pitched, jerkinhead gable roofs with narrow eaves. The walls are rough limestone block and covered with lime stucco. The houses generally present symmetrical facades that are four or more bays in width and oriented with the gable ends at the side. Rather than than slate, which was common in their native country, settlers here used wood shingles to cover their roofs.
Among the settlement’s most prominent buildings are the Peter Gehlen House and Barn. Both were built by Gehlen during the 1850s. The Gehlen House was the center of the community and served as a hotel, post office and general store. Like the other houses in town, the Gehlen House has limestone walls finished with stucco and wood lintels above the doors and windows. The house is quite large (seven bays in width and two and a half stories in height) and has a wing extending from the rear elevation. The barn is also limestone with hand-hewn timbers supporting the gable roof.
St. Donatus located in Jackson County about 15 miles south of Dubuque, IA on Highway 52. Jackson County was among the first in Iowa to be settled and has a large number of early limestone buildings and other architectural treasures. It is a wonderful weekend destination for the fan of historic architecture.