Pennsylvania German Traditional 1700 - 1870


Pennsylvania German Traditional buildings reflect the strong cultural ties of the state's early settlers form the German (Deutsch) speaking areas of central Europe. These Deutsch speakers, came to be described as the "Pennsylvania Dutch" - a rather misleading name based on the mispronunciation of "Deutsch" as "Dutch." This Germanic influence is most apparent in the southeast section of the state where German settlement began in the early 1700s. While the German settlement later extended throughout the state, this southeastern area retains the earliest and the highest concentration of the early Pennsylvania German Traditional buildings.

Buildings in this category take several easily recognized forms. The earliest PA German Traditional buildings were of log or stone construction and of distinctly medieval form with steep roofs, thick walls and small, irregularly spaced windows. These small early houses had floor plans which followed traditional layouts - some very simple one-room buildings, but more frequently a 2 or 3 room layout with a central chimney and corner "winder stair" leading up to a loft or second floor. The 3 room format called for a large kitchen or "kuche" on one side of the center chimney and two smaller rooms including a parlor or "stube," and a bedroom or "kammer" on the other. This three room Germanic folk house is sometimes referred to as a "Continental Plan" by architectural historians. The two room format known as the "Hall and Parlor Plan" had only a kitchen (hall) and a parlor with a central chimney wall in between.

In the vernacular tradition some early stone houses were built over a spring to provide running water and a cool area for food storage in the basement. Some houses were also built into a bank or hillside, partially underground for similar cold storage reasons, as well as cost and material efficiency. This bank style of construction is attributed to medieval Swiss tradition, so buildings opf this type are sometimes called "Swiss style." Many banked houses were later expanded to become 2 or 3 stories with the ground floor then used only as a kitchen or for storage.Some early houses on the expanding frontier of Pennsylvania were constructed as fortified houses with extra thick walls and small windows to withstand Indian attack. Fort Zeller built in 1745 near Newmanstown, Lebanon County was not actually a fort but such a fortified (thick walled) house built in this manner.

Another traditional early house form was the combination house and barn where both shared a common roof. Few examples remain, since it was a more of a short term pioneering practice than a desired housing type. Certainly, for early settlers faced with the need to provide prompt shelter for both the family and livestock such a solution would have been expedient. As family fortunes improved, additional buildings were constructed to separate the farm animals from the family.

The buildings of the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County are unique surviving examples of medieval German building practices. The Cloister was begun in 1732 as a religious community for mystical German Pietists led by Conral Beissel and drawn to Pennsylvania for its religious tolerance. Ephrata Cloister has one of the best preserved collections of 18th century German vernacular domestic and religous buildings. At its peak in 1750 the Cloister complex included a chapel, mens and womens dormitories, a variety of mills, a bake house, a pottery, cabins, barns and stables. The celibate community declined after the Revolution and became part of the 7th Day German Baptist Church in 1814. Much of the complex remaineds today and is operated as a historic site by the PHMC. Significant buildings include the 1740 chapel called the Saal, a half-timbered, 5-story, clapboard building with shake shingles and small attached stone kitchen and the 1742 sisters house known as the Saron, a steep-roofed, 4-story, log house covered with clapboards containing floors of narrow sleeping cells. The small, unevenly placed, casement windows, steep gable roofs, shed dormers, plain white plastered interior, winding stairs, and center chimneys are all indicative of medieval German building traditions.

Some 18th and early 19th German Traditional houses incorporated the customary German floor plan into a more formally designed exterior, adopting some of the elements of the contermporary Georgian style. These German influenced houses usually had four bays, rather than the usual five of the Georgian style and lacked the Georgian center hall as well. The Cooke House in York County and the Christian Stauffer House of Lancaster County are good examples of this blend of Germanic form with Georgian proportions. One of the most interesting and intriguing types of PA German Traditional houses is the Four over Four or Pennsylvania German Two Door Farmhouse. These houses are easily identified by their two front doors, placed side by side in the center of the house with a window flanking each and four windows on the second floor. Houses of this type usually date from the mid-1800s and are often built of brick or frame. The Green House in York County is a good example of this form. One front door opens directly into the family sitting room, and the other into the more formal parlor. This housing form does not exist in central Europe, and is prevalent only in Pennsylvania and its borders, so it appears to be a style developed here. Much debate of the significance of the double front doors has produced some general consensus that it represents the adaptation of traditional German form to the formal symmetry of the popular Georgian and Federal styles. For some architectural historians the twin front doors represent the development of a more utilitarian floorplan with the elimination of the Georgian/Federal style central hall, while presenting a more formal and symmetrical exterior appearance than the earlier medieval German buildings. These distinctive houses can be seen especially in the southeastern and south central portion of the state, often with a detached one room "summer kitchen" just off the rear elevation. The summer kitchen kept the heat from cooking or washing clothes from the main house during hot weather.

Common Building Types

  • houses
  • agricultural outbuildings
  • mills

Identifiable Features

  1. Steeply pitched gable roofs
  2. Stone, brick, log or frame construction
  3. Double doors, four over four front facade
  4. Dual gable end chimneys
  5. Usually two and a half stories
  6. Summer kitchen located just behind main house


Click the thumbnails for larger images.

Cookes House, York County

Green House, York County

Ephrata Cloister, Lancaster County

Christian Stauffer House, Lancaster County