architecture and folklore

On a tour of a southern historic district, I heard something puzzling. Most of the homes were Colonial, Georgian style. They also had raised foundations, where a flight of steps lead up to the front door.

We were told that the reason for this was that when the homes were built, malaria was prevalent. At the time, it was believed that malaria was carried in the ground fog, so if residents lived above the fog line, they thought they would be immune to catching malaria.

I have been unable to find anything that mentions this was reason for building on a raised foundation.

Is this just tour guide folklore?

Or, did they really build in this style for the reasons mentioned? If so, I’ve wondered how scientific knowledge could have been so far behind construction knowledge and ability. For example, some of these homes originally had working toilets, but the sewage emptied into the backyards without a septic tank.

Considering that malaria literally means “bad air” - and thus the ground-fog belief - it’s conceivable that houses were raised for that reason.

Maybe not
But I get the impression that many grand houses are built atop platforms even if they’re in locales where malaria is presumably not widespread, so it may be just a way to stroke the owner’s ego (and provide privacy - another possibility).

Sorry if that didn’t really help.

Just where in the South was this? Depending on the locale, floods might be a much better reason.

When you went into the building (you did go in, didn’t you?) did you notice how the rooms were laid out? Generally, the people who lived in big houses organized them for efficient conduct of their social and business lives, which meant the kitchen was often in a separate building (to prevent fires) and cellars were for storage of valuable goods (e.g., wine, food) and for house slaves’ quarters. If the place you visited was marshy (like, for example, New Orleans), houses would have been built on pilings sunk in the ground, with the first floor well above ground level to keep the white folks and their goods as dry as possible.

Many diseases were associated with damp; yellow jack and malaria (both carried by mosquitoes, which breed in swamps) were merely the most prevalent in the deep South. People knew that damp conditions were associated with diseases long before they knew the causes of those diseases–they lacked microscopes and scientific education, not intelligence.

Thanks for the responses. I’ve seen this style in areas other than the south, but specifically I was touring homes in downtown Savannah, Ga. While the area is generally marshy, I didn’t think the specific area was prone to flooding, nor was it pointed out as a reason for building in this style. Many new homes in the area are being built on slabs on former marshes, but irrigation plays a major role.
“Generally, the people who lived in big houses organized them for efficient conduct of their social and business lives, which meant the kitchen was often in a separate building (to prevent fires) and cellars were for storage of valuable goods (e.g., wine, food) and for house slaves’ quarters.”

Good point. And we were informed about this during some of the tours. But I also see historic row houses and townhomes in this style, which suggests to me that the style wasn’t related directly to social status.

Do these houses have basements? I’m more familiar with Georgian Colonial style in New England, and one purpose of the raised foundation is to allow for natural light in a basement. You can have windows set at ground level to provide light in your basement rooms (so when you’re in the basement, the windows appear to be at the very top of the wall). This is common in areas where the ground soil is dry enough to have basements. There are also New England examples without raised foundations, usually when the house was built directly on bedrock, and digging out a basement wasn’t worth either the effort or expense.

One thing about architectural styles is that forms often spread, even if function doesn’t. When someone wanted their home built in the latest style, the raised foundation was copied even though there might be no particular purpose for it. In this case, the original purpose – having a basement – is replaced by another function – keeping the house dry. Since malaria was indeed believed to be caused by swamp vapors, having a high, dry house was important.

Georgian architecture had its beginnings in the Palladian style in England, and then hit New England, and then the Southern colonies. (I’m speaking of the trend – there are individual examples of early Georgian in the South, of course). The raised foundation was popular in New England, where malaria wasn’t a huge problem, so it’s not an invention of the warmer climates. At the same time, it’s not exactly a back-formation of folklore on the part of the tour guides, either. The raised foundation was noticed and appreciated by the people who built Georgian homes in areas were malaria was prevalent, and probably contributed to the popularity of the style.

As you mention, Georgian elements are sometimes seen in row houses and homes of the lower classes. This was a deliberate attempt to make these houses look more refined, so in that sense, the look is tied to social class, or at least aspirations of class.

You’ll see this in older sections of Chicago, too, such as Bucktown on the near northwest side. The reason in Chicago was flooding (and sanitation), so Chronos is probably on the right track.

Chicago was also a swampy area, and the streets would often flood when it rained. This reference states that in 1856 they began to raise the streets and put in sewers. Some buildings were raised as well. But for the buildings which were not raised, former street level became basement level. I think the streets were only raised about half a level, so new stairway entrances were built for former second-story levels.

I’ve seen houses like this in York, SC, well inland and well above marshy ground. My WAG is that a house built higher is more exposed to the cooling breezes. In summer, you need all the help you can get.

There’s a style of building common in tropical and sub-tropical Australia commonly refered to as a Queenslander. These houses take the raised foundations to an extreme, being built on stumps high enough to allow a person to walk under the building comfortably. The rational behind this was to get the living area away from the ground, not because of malaria which isn’t found in most of Australia, but to esacpe the heat. Sunlight striking the ground in the summer months makes the temperatures at ground level skyrocket and causes the humidity to soar. Building off the ground minimised this and also allowed breezes to move through the house more easily.

Originally these houses were only built a few feet off the ground but over time the height of the stumps increased until eventually they were raised high enough to allow the underside to be used for storage.

delphica is right to mention the influence of English Palladian architecture. European architectural theory of the eighteenth century emphasised the need for buildings to be raised off the ground with a basement storey beneath. The ultimate sources for this practice were mostly Roman or Greek. All the examples discussed above could be seen as local variations or adaptations of the basic idea. This does not mean that there weren’t practical reasons behind it, only that architects and builders saw themselves as using the practical knowledge of the ancients. The original reason was to discourage damp spreading to the upper floors, but doubtless other dangers could be equally important in other climates.