Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Volga German folk buildings represent an unusual synthesis of central European and Russian building forms and construction methods. Not unlike the Black Sea German settlers in the Great Plains, the Volga River immigrants relied upon homeland prototypes in the development of a distinctive architectural heritage.

The first permanent houses built by Volga Germans in Russia, called semelanka, were built according to an official plan devised by the Colonists Welfare Office. The characteristic semelanka was a two- and often threeroom dwelling of one story with a gable roof and central chimney. The gable end faced the street, and the entrance to the house was along the side facing the courtyard. The semelanka was later replaced with the more spacious kolonistenhaus, a long, narrow house that combined both living quarters and barns under a single roof. The kolonistenhaus was characteristically tripartite in plan but two rooms deep and with space for six or more rooms.

Volga Germans throughout the Plains region and especially in Kansas and Nebraska built both the one- and one-and-one-halfstory rectangular four-room with central chimney house they had known in Russia. The Volga preference for the hipped roof is also evident in their houses, although the gableroofed variant is common as well. Although Volga Germans in the Great Plains used construction materials similar to those used by Black Sea Germans such as batsa (sun-dried bricks made from puddled clay), Volga builders in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska also used limestone when available. Both log and stone had been common building materials in Russia.

In addition to expressing their traditional preferences through house form and use of materials, Volga Germans also demonstrated their cultural identity in urban areas by establishing compact villages with gridlike street patterns. In the South Bottoms neighborhood of Lincoln, Nebraska, existing lots were subdivided, resulting in an extremely compact settlement of narrow parcels. The long, narrow lots facilitated the construction of traditional houses oriented with their gables facing the street. When settlers in Marion County, Kansas, laid out the town of Gnadenau, the land was divided into twenty narrow parcels, each containing sixteen acres. Four sections surrounding the village were also divided among the twenty village settlers. A single east-west road bisected the village, and all houses were constructed on the north side of the road. Despite having a church, several stores, and two schools, the village was disbanded a few years later. Although the Kansas village failed, it nevertheless represents efforts by Volga Germans to maintain a strong sense of community and, more important, to resist change and slow assimilation into mainstream American society.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: German Russians.

Michael H. Koop Minnesota Historical Society

Petersen, Albert J. "The German-Russian House in Kansas: A Study in Persistence of Form." Pioneer America 8 (1976): 19–27.

Previous: Ukranian Architecture | Contents | Next: Warehouse Districts

XML: egp.arc.052.xml