Staying comfortable in Florida’s heat and humidity isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, and for the state’s early settlers, circumstances were hardly ideal. With little in the way of time or resources, they relied on local materials and ingenuity when building their homes. The Florida Cracker architectural style was the result. As simple as these homes look, they’re equipped with numerous features that helped settlers withstand the local climate.
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New Arrivals Rise to the Challenge of Florida’s Climate
Florida Cracker architecture is a vernacular, or local traditional, style that thrived in rural Florida from the 1860s to the 1930s. To shelter themselves from Florida’s often inclement weather, early settlers used their limited means to build simple, log or wood-framed structures. These modest homes would eventually become one of the state’s most distinctive architectural forms.
In Florida and Georgia, the term “Cracker” refers to the descendants of early English settlers. Possibly deriving from a Shakespearean-era insult for rowdy troublemakers, the term’s origin has been variously ascribed to the sound of loud talk or of cracking corn or whips. Today, rural white people of Florida and Georgia still proudly or jokingly describe themselves as Crackers.
While Florida might be famed for its mild weather now, the state’s dense swampland, oppressive tropical heat, and frequent thunderstorms with heavy rains proved challenging for the first English settlers. They needed shelter quickly, but had little experience building in such a climate and were often too poor to buy materials or hire help. Settlers were forced to use the materials on hand and building methods that would get a roof over their heads as quickly as possible.
When a settler family wanted to build a house, they first sought out a parcel of land that was at least slightly elevated to reduce the risk of flooding. They then cleared the land of the tall slash pines and pond pines as well as cedar and cypress common in the region. This abundant freshly cut wood provided the settlers’ building material.
Most built a primitive, one-room house consisting of four walls, a door and several windows, a fireplace and chimney, and a covered porch. As the need and means for more space arose, some families built an additional structure beside the first and connected the two with a covered open-air passage.
As construction technology and residents’ experience developed, the Florida Cracker architectural style fell out of favor. The rising cost of wood also made the style less appealing to those looking for a budget-friendly home. The growing popularity of air conditioning after World War II meant these houses’ cooling features were no longer essential. Crudely built to begin with, most of the original Cracker homes quickly broke down and the style all but disappeared, giving way to mobile homes and tract houses. The ones that do remain are found primarily in North Florida.
The Cracker style’s first reappearance in decades came in the early 1980s as Floridians turned against cookie-cutter building methods and appealed for homes with more personality and a deeper connection to local traditions. Today, several whole communities have developed offering Florida Cracker style houses with modern amenities. While some of the older generations are perplexed that anyone would choose a building style long associated with poverty, “Cracker Chic” has caught on with the younger crowd.
Ingenious Features for Comfort on a Budget
The original Florida Cracker homes might have looked like little more than shacks, but they were carefully designed to keep their inhabitants comfortable affordably.
The houses were square or rectangular for quick, easy construction. Early versions were built from logs, which reduced the need to cut boards. Gaps between the logs also allowed for better airflow indoors. Timber-frame versions were also built, although somewhat later. In some homes, a fireplace with a stone chimney on one gable end of the house provided the means for cooking and winter heating. Others used a detached kitchen behind the house.
Most Cracker homes consisted of a single room in a form known in American pioneer architecture as a single-pen house. To expand their living space as more children arrived, families often built another structure several feet from the gable end of the first and extended the roof to create a “dog trot” or breezeway between the two. This turned their single-pen house into double-pen one.
Using coquina rocks, oyster shell or clay bricks or occasionally log pilings, builders created raised floors that promoted cooling airflow and reduced the risk of floodwaters reaching the interior. The space this left under the house also provided shelter for hunting dogs and chickens.
Builders included plenty of windows, usually on opposite sides of the house to allow for cross breezes. Some added a high clerestory window or small cupola to vent built-up heat. The houses were then topped with high, steep roofs that shed rain easily and allowed heat to rise above the main living space. Pine or cypress shingles were the most common roofing material, but those who could afford it covered their roof in tin for even greater protection from the rain. Tin would also reflect the sun’s heat away.
No Cracker-style home would be complete without its covered porch. In humid Florida, even a well ventilated home can get stiflingly hot, so outdoor living spaces were essential. Porches and verandas were built deep and wide to create deep shade under the porch roof. These often wrapped all the way around the house to shade the interior and deflect the rain. Keeping rain out was particularly important because window glass was hard to come by and Florida settlers often had only mosquito netting or shutters to cover their windows.
While many Cracker-style homes were left unclad, others were finished in cedar clapboard or board-and-batten siding. The originals were rarely painted, but for modern versions, white is the color of choice, largely for its ability to deflect heat. Other light tints such as pale yellow or blue are also used.
With today’s air conditioning and mechanical ventilation, building an exact replica of a Cracker home might not be practical, but many of the style’s features are still useful. Covered porches, steep roofs, and clerestory windows all cut down on the need to run the A/C.
Architects have been known to include these energy-efficient features not only in modern Cracker-style homes, but also in Florida beach cottages and bungalows. Whether you’re dreaming of building a home in classic Florida Cracker architectural style or you’re just looking to spot Cracker houses around Florida, knowing how the style’s features came to be will give you a good start.