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No. 779:
Balloon Frame Houses

Today, we invent a new house for a new land. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You'll be surprised when I name the first unique American architecture. Our buildings were all pretty derivative before 1833. Colonial architecture had a unique flavor, no doubt. But it was still an adaptation of European styles.

Two things made building different here. One was the abundance of wood. The other was that labor was precious, and we lacked skilled craftsmen. We had to be Jacks-of-all-trades.

European houses used masonry and cut stone. That took a huge toll in labor. They also relied on heavy timbers, accurately fitted with complex dovetailed joints. That cost labor as well, and it took expert carpenters.

First we tried to copy stone with wood. You'd find the stone tops of columns, cornices, and mantels all imitated in wood. You'd even find chimneys made from wood daubed with clay.

We used wood at a rate that would've been impossible in deforested Europe. That meant we also needed nails. So we invented automated nail-making. From 1776 to 1842 we cut the cost of nails again and again. Finally we could make nails for less than the tax alone on European nails.

About then, Chicago sprouted as our new gateway to the West. In 1833 Augustine Taylor built St. Mary's church in nearby Fort Dearborn. He managed to put up a 36 by 24-foot church for the incredibly low price of $400, using do-it-yourself carpenters.

What Taylor did was to eliminate the old mortised beams and fittings. He replaced them with light 2x4s and 2x6s set close together. He used studs and cross-members. He held the whole thing together with nails -- no joints. Regular carpenters swore it would blow away in a high wind. But it didn't.

So the first baptism at St. Mary's was already disturbed by the sound of hammering next door. Taylor's idea had caught on.

Old-timers called this "balloon construction." It seemed as light and insubstantial as a balloon. They spoke in contempt, but the term stuck. These buildings were like balloons, or maybe more like woven baskets. They were light, flexible, and tough. Stresses were taken up throughout the structure.

We are told of tornadoes knocking balloon houses off their foundations. But the houses would sometimes roll away unbroken like tumbleweed. You could move one on a flatbed truck. Don't ever try that with an old European timber structure.

So, have you ever seen such a house? Well, yes, you have! They swept America. And you're probably living in a modified version of one right now. I am. The housing most familiar to us all today is an adaptation of just this unique American reply to wholly new circumstances.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Field, W., A Re-examination into the Invention of the Balloon Frame. Journal of the American Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 2, Nos. 1-4, Jan-Oct., 1942, pp. 3-29.

Woodward, G.E., Woodward's Country Homes. New York: Geo. E. Woodward, 1865.

Peterson, F.W., Homes in the Heartland: Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest, 1850-1920. Lawrence, KA: University of Kansas Press, 1992.

Sprague, P.E., Chicago Balloon Frame. The Technology of Historic American Buildings (H.W., Jandl, ed.). Washington, DC: Foundation for Preservation Technology, 1983, pp. 35-61.

For contrast, and for the best way to understand just what a huge departure balloon framing was, you might look at either of two books on the earlier timber-framed structure: Benson, T., The Timber-Frame Home: Design, Construction, Finishing. Newtown, CT: The Taunton Press, 1988; or Brown, R.J., Timber-Framed Buildings of England. London: Robert Hale, 1986.

I'm grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Architecture Library, for suggesting this topic and for making her own and the library's materials available to me. I also appreciate the counsel of Jean Krchnak, UH College of Architecture Slide Library.

There's some controversy as to whether Augustine Taylor or George Washington Snow should be credited with inventing balloon framing. Snow may have built such a house one year earlier, but Walker (above) sorts through the records and concludes that he could not have actually done so. I've accordingly given the palm to Taylor. I hope I haven't cheated Snow in doing so.

The common present-day variation on the balloon frame is called the platform house. The main difference is that, in a balloon frame, the two-by-four stringers run upward across the floors. In platform construction, each floor is built separately upon the one below. (My thanks to Pierre Lauzon for pointing this out to me.)


A typical contemporary frame house -- this is actually a close cousin to the old balloon framing call platform framing -- same idea, but it's done floor by floor.

A typical contemporary frame house -- this is actually a close cousin to the old balloon framing call platform framing -- same idea, but it's done floor by floor.