“The Best Main Street in America” is how Professor of Vernacular Architecture Thomas Carter described Mineral Point’s High Street. Last summer, vernacular architects from all over the country descended on Mineral Point to look at our well-preserved buildings. So you might wonder – “what is vernacular architecture?” Our Frank Beaman tells the story of what vernacular architecture means here in Mineral Point.
In Wisconsin’s pioneer period, as a flow of European immigrants settled in the state, three major population centers thrived: Green Bay, Milwaukee and Mineral Point. A school of architecture emerged about 1835, and the proper name for the architectural family was “vernacular,” defined as “buildings based on local needs, using local construction materials and reflecting local traditions.”
In historic Mineral Point, the local focus was all about lead mining, as the city enjoyed its first mineral boom time in the mid-1830s.
Pioneer building was characterized by one overriding rule: “Use close-at-hand native materials.” In the other Wisconsin centers, nearby forests were harvested to build log structures, but the most available building material in a mineral town was, of course, local stone. It was simply hacked and blasted from surrounding hills, cut to shape and dragged to the construction site. Even the rubble, the smaller chunks of rock, were used on walls built out of the public view.
The Cornish, Welsh, Irish and German settlers counted a good number of accomplished stone masons in their number, and they used Mineral Point’s yellowed limestone to give the state a distinctive inventory of rock cottages and storefronts. These old buildings may have been equaled, but were never excelled anywhere in the nation.
In 1976, in a landmark edition of Historic Wisconsin Architecture, author/critic Richard E. Perrin’s roundup of architectural gems named seventy-six structures.
Of that collection, ten were from Mineral Point, including the Railroad Depot, Odd Fellows Hall, the Pendarvis and Polperro houses, Trinity Church, the Mineral Springs Brewery, stores along High and Commerce Streets, and a handful of private residences.
Ten out of seventy-six – not bad for a small town!
Since 1976, several of the city’s old buildings have been “brought back” to look as they did when the town was building in prosperous years. There were “bust” times as well as “booms,” of course, but today’s architecture reflects the pride, skills and determination of our early settlers. They made the “look” of the city much more than “vernacular” — it’s “one of a kind.”
Historic architectural preservation is a way of life in Mineral Point. We work to tear away the modern “re-muddling” done on so many structures, to unveil their older strength and character. And, we work every day to keep our old buildings in good repair.
Preserving our architectural heritage is a salute to the stone masons of our colorful past. It’s also an invitation to visitors in the community, who enjoy our 19th Century environment. And, because many strong-shouldered historic buildings can be sensibly modernized to operate at lower costs than some of the modern models, it makes good business sense, too!
For more information, regarding historic preservation in Mineral Point, check out this beautifully illustrated guide.