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Allen recounts details of historic homes in new book

By Staff | Aug 19, 2011

If you live in a historic house in Jefferson County and have been visited by a tall, friendly looking man with glasses asking to measure all the intimate details of your home, chances are you have probably met Shepherdstown resident and architectural historian John Allen.

For the past seven years, Allen has crawled through attics, absorbing all the information he can about the historic homes of Jefferson County in order to compile his book “Uncommon Vernacular.”

The book takes an academic look at homes in the area built from 1735 to 1835. Aside from detailed descriptions, the book also includes over 700 high-quality black-and-white photos of the over 250 homes featured, both interior and exterior.

Shepherdstown residents will quickly recognize many of the buildings featured in the text, as it includes buildings like the one which house the China Kitchen restaurant on German street.

“That building was owned by the Sheetz family, famed as makers of firearms though there’s not much left there,” Allen said.

As for the book, Allen believes its for both visual individuals as well as lovers of architecture.

“You can dive in as deep as you like,” he said. “It’s got enough for those who want to dig in while others will like to just admire the pictures.”

For Allen, setting out to make this book was about answering all the questions he had about the local architecture.

Being native to central West Virginia, Allen was instantly fascinated by the buildings he saw when he moved just outside of Shepherdstown 10 years ago.

“Driving around you see the houses from the road and you just kind of wonder why they were built the way they were and where they were. They are completely unique even compared to buildings in nearby counties,” he said.

This curiosity led Allen to begin knocking on doors and asking residents if they would allow him to document the details of their historic homes. Allen was instantly impressed by how welcoming locals were to his request.

“The people here so love their houses that they are willing to share them with someone like me. I’m not sure that would happen anywhere else.”

But Allen feels like he could have never accomplished this project on his own.

Amongst those involved in the project was photographer Walter Smalling. The pair met after Smalling had worked with Allen’s sister-in-law on another book, and they quickly formed a strong friendship and partnership.

“Every other job I do for the rest of my life will be measured against working with Johnny on this,” Smalling said.

Smalling said that while he brought a wealth of knowledge about bookmaking to the table, the vision for the project was truly Allen’s.

When not crawling around in old attics and basements, Allen enjoys hiking and doing things outdoors. Allen also is the proud father of an 11-year-old son who, he said, was always incredibly patient when he had to work.

“He got stuck doing a lot of houses with me,” Allen said.

And while Allen admits this must have been pretty boring for him, he thinks that his son will appreciate getting to observe history with him when he gets older.

In celebration of the books release, there will be a display of photography from the book at the War Memorial Building Sept. 9 through 11. Allen will personally be attending and signing copies of the book. The event will be open to the public.

“Uncommon Vernacular” will be available form West Virginia University Press and on sale at the Four Seasons book store next week. Allen hopes that Jefferson County residents welcome the book into their homes as they did him.