Why is that Old Building Lifted Off the Ground?

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If you’re not from the South (or maybe even if you are), you might’ve looked at some of the historic buildings featured on The Forgotten South and wondered why they’re ‘lifted’ off the ground. Especially those viewers from the midwestern states. This question comes up all the time from viewers all over the world so I thought I would share more about this design feature that we commonly find in homes and churches across the South from the 1800 and 1900s.

The Koger-Murray-Carroll House in Dorchester County, SC was built on a foundation of handmade bricks, creating a large crawl space underneath where air would circulate to cool the home. You can read the full story of this home here.

Natural Air Conditioning

If we look at the function of a raised foundation, there is actually a long list of advantages to building in this style in the old days, but most importantly, this helped to work with the hot temperatures in the Summer months. In the days before AC, a house built on a raised foundation would’ve provided a natural ventilation system underneath the house, which would help to circulate air through the floorboards and into the interior living spaces.

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This house was built for tenant farming families in Marion County, FL around 1920. Sitting atop a foundation of stones that are likely original to the build date. You can read the history of this tenant cabin and the farm it once served here.

In the early days, a home might’ve been built atop stones that were cleared from the field or a nearby creek. In other cases, rudimentary stumps or hand-hewn logs might’ve been used. In later years, stones and rough logs were often replaced with bricks or cement blocks.

The original stone piers that comprise the foundation of this cabin near Abbeville, SC are original to the house that was built in the late 1800s.

Prevention of Damage

Another added feature of a raised floor came when heavy rains would soak the land. Wood tends to rot when in direct contact with damp earth (except for, of course, the rot-resistant varieties). If the wood sat directly on the ground, water could damage the boards, causing rot. On top of that, lifting a building off the ground would also help to deter bugs, snakes, and other critters from entering the home.

This home in Russell County, Alabama was built in the 1870s and still sits atop the original bricks, creating a dramatic ventilation area underneath the home. You can read the story of this home here.

A Shelter for Domestic Animals

But aside from the natural air conditioning and damage deterrent, raising a home off the ground created another feature for a rural farming family: a space for their domestic animals.

This Georgia farmhouse, built in the 1890s, sits on top of brick piers. You can read the story of this house here.

In the empty space created below the home, dogs and chickens could also find shelter from the hot summer sun and the chickens would help keep the bugs at bay under their shelter.

Island Grove Methodist Church in Alachua County, Florida stood on a foundation of brick piers that helped to cool the sanctuary, along with the windows which would open to create a cross breeze in the hot months. This church fell to the ground in 2021 but you can read its full story here.

Churches and Stores Were Built Like This Too

But old homes weren’t the only buildings that you’d find from this era lifted off of the ground. Church designs across the region also incorporated this design element to prevent wood rot and bugs from damaging their sanctuaries. Stores and schools adopted the design as well.

The Baynes Store in Caswell County, NC was built on a foundation of stones with cedar posts to hold the porch roof in place. This store was the subject of an iconic photo made in the 1930s showing the same stone foundation and porch posts. You can see the historic image and read the story behind it here.
The Lawrence School in Chatham County, NC was built atop brick piers that would’ve helped to cool the building during the hot months when school was in session; photo c. 1911 or 1912. You can read the full story of this school here.
This school in Alachua County, FL now sits atop a foundation of cement block, although these were placed when the building was relocated in the 1990s. It is thought that the school originally had a foundation of stone piers. You can read the full story of this school here.
Antioch Baptist Church in Taliaferro County, GA was built in the 1880s or 1890s atop brick piers. You can read the history of this church here.

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5 Comments

  1. Regarding the practice of building on stone, brick, or piers. Building a cellar or basement is expensive and unnecessary in many areas of the south because it is not cold enough in many regions for the devastating frost-heave effects experienced in colder climates. These piers are simple to repair, shim up, or replace. The underside of the houses also provided great housing for chickens, dogs, etc. Depending on the construction of a house, the floors could be pretty darn cold in winter when the cold wind whipped under the house and through floor boards.

    1. Hello Dave…out of respect for private property owners, I don’t share location information publicly. But if you’d like to discuss a specific property or region, you can email me at kelly@theforgottensouth.com and I’d be happy to point you in the direction of some interesting historic sites.

  2. The house my Gramma grew up in (Weathersby, MS) was built on a raised foundation and during the winter, their pigs would sleep under there next to the fireplace bricks which were warm from the fire burning inside the house.

  3. I remember as an 8-year old child visiting my grandfather in Alabama in the heat of the summer. His farmhouse was called a “shotgun house” and was raised on an open stone foundation with sand underneath the space. It was the coolest, shadiest place to sit a spell, then come up on the porch to get a cool drink of water from the spring water in the wooden bucket.

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