Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


During the nineteenth century, particularly after the Civil War, Germans in large numbers streamed into the Great Plains from the eastern United States, Canada, and Germany and created a distinctive German American architecture throughout the region. Although modified significantly by dominating environmental, cultural, social, technological, and political influences and reduced in quantity and distribution through use and obsolescence, remnants of this architecture still exist in thousands of churches, barns, houses, and commercial buildings from Canada to Texas.

Whether in city or country, German immigrants settled the Great Plains in Catholic and Protestant enclaves, and, through the powerful nexus of religion, language, and architecture, their churches functioned as cultural centers of German American life. The most widely distributed German church architecture in the Great Plains is Rundbogenstil, a Romanesque Revival architecture that the Bavarian architect Friederich von Gärtner (1792–1847) used in the Ludwigskirche, the Bavarian Court and State Library, and the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Roman in origin, the Rundbogenstil church featured the basilica plan with prominent half-circle or segmented arches that form doors, windows, and cornices on plain building surfaces of brick or stone.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Rundbogenstil architecture in religious and commercial buildings had spread throughout Germany and widely throughout the Great Plains. St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Raeville, Nebraska, constructed of brick by the Omaha architect Jacob M. Nachtigall in 1917, is a Rundbogenstil church with arcades of arched openings on its towers and west entry and along its aisled nave, transepts, and apse. There is a series of corbeled arches on its cornice. The twin, cross-gabled, polygonal spires of this Nebraska church are characteristic of many churches in Germany and the Great Plains. A typical smaller variant is the Evangelische Lutherische Dreieinigkeits Kirche, a stone Rundbogenstil church with a single tower built in the shape of a cross in Grand Island, Nebraska, by German-born masons William and Jacob Scheffel from 1894 to 1896. These masons carved elaborate, half-round arches over doors and windows that open into an aisled church with a nave, transept, chancel, and U-shaped balcony. Stained-glass windows with German inscriptions also frequently characterize Rundbogenstil churches on the Plains. For example, St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Wichita, Kansas, built in 1905 and called the "German Church," displays magnificent stained-glass religious scenes that were designed in Germany, shipped in pieces, and reassembled in grand windows under round-arched openings of brick.

Unfortunately, many Plains Rundbogenstil churches, built to symbolize a vibrant German American culture and to last an eternity, are being closed for lack of priests. Many other distinctive examples of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German Rundbogenstil architecture survive in brick and stone industrial and commercial buildings in a variety of urban settings.

Germans who settled in rural areas expressed their ethnic heritage in a rich vernacular architecture consisting of barns and other farm buildings such as springhouses, granaries, and cribs. The German bank barn originated in southern Germany and Switzerland and was built extensively by Germans who migrated west from the Middle Atlantic cultural hearth into the northern half of the Great Plains. This gabled barn is rectangular in form, and one of its long sides is built into a bank or earthen ramp that leads to the main floor of the structure, consisting of a central threshing bay, a hay-storage bay, and a grainstorage bay. Openings placed strategically in the storage bays allow feed to be dropped into the lower story, which is usually divided into numerous sections of various sizes to feed and shelter different kinds of animals, especially cattle, milk cows, and horses. The foundations of these barns are often thick limestone walls that enclose the lower story while supporting the main floor. The expansive two-story space of the main floor is usually formed by a massive structure of hand-hewn or -sawn wooden posts and beams; diagonally placed corner, wall, and roof braces; and girts, purlins, and rafters that have been mortised, tenoned, and pegged together in a manner common for centuries in Germany and Central Europe. The exterior skin of these large barns is usually vertical board nailed to structural members, and roofs are board with wooden shingles or metal sheathing. Sometimes the German bank barn has a forebay that extends the main upper floor in a cantilever over the first-floor wall on the downside of the hill and gives outside shelter to animals below.

Another German barn type is the double crib barn, which originated in German speaking areas of the Alps, was transported almost without change by German speakers into the Middle Atlantic and Upland South of North America, and was diffused from there throughout the South and into the Southern Great Plains, especially Texas. This barn has two square cribs separated by an open driveway that runs transversely to the gable roof. The doors to the cribs most often face the interior driveway. The cribs are usually composed of logs connected at the corners with round or V notches, and the spaces between the logs typically are not chinked.

Although more Germans immigrated to the North American Plains than any other ethnic group, the heritage of German house types and domestic construction details is relatively thin and often misunderstood. The most widely built rural house type in Germany was the Wohnstallhaus, or barn house, which sheltered humans and animals under one roof. Although there are rare examples of this house type from the Canadian Prairie Provinces and the Northern Plains, most Germans followed English precedent in their new country by separating their houses from their barns and adopting house types of the dominant American culture such as the symmetrically composed, central hall, I house, or hall and parlor house. Even then, however, German Americans often expressed their own cultural preferences, including their off-center doors, main entries into kitchens, central chimneys with stoves, half-timbered walls, V-notched or dovetailed corners in log structures with hewn stone chinking between the logs, casement windows, and exterior plastering.

One descendant of the Wohnstallhaus that frequently goes unrecognized and is confused with similar house types among other ethnic groups is the German American two-door house. This type was common in rural Germany from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and can be found in significant numbers nearly everywhere Germans settled, from the eastern seaboard to the Plains. This rectangular, gable-roof, balloon-frame house is usually covered with clapboard, although the oldest examples are sometimes half-timbered structures filled with nogging. The house varies from one and a half to two stories and has two entries on the front long side, a front porch, and a kitchen ell or shed addition in the back with a porch. One entry led to a formal parlor (seldom used except for special family events), and the other entry led to a much-used informal parlor or living room. The living room had a stair to the second floor and interior doors that opened to the formal parlor and to the kitchen in the back.


Dennis Domer University of Kansas

Domer, Dennis. "Genesis Theories of the German- American Two-Door House." Material Culture 26 (1994): 1–35.

Leiding, Gerlinde. "Germans in Texas." In To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America, ed. Allen G. Noble. Baltimore md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992: 362–78.

Pierson, William H., Jr. "Richard Upjohn and the American Rundbogenstil." Winterthur Portfolio 21 (1986): 223–42.

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