John W. Taylor once remarked, “Salt Lake City is a curious place. It’s the only town I know where a man can get off the streetcar, head in any direction he chooses, and end up at home.” So begins Thomas Carter’s fascinating article on nineteenth century polygamous housing in Utah.(1)
I came across Carter’s essay in a publication called Winterthur Portfolio which is ”an interdisciplinary journal committed to fostering knowledge of the American past by publishing articles on the arts in America and the historical context within which they developed.” He explores several issues including both separate and cohabitational living arrangements, the idea of spatial equality among polygamous wives and the gendering of space within multi-family dwellings. Most importantly, it underscores the idea that houses play in telling us the story of polygamy. They reveal how family space was organized and defined and illustrate how homes can be gendered spaces that work differently for men and women.
The architecture of polygamy was in many ways an invention, as it required builders to proceed into new areas of housing design. Even knowledgeable craftsmen lacked experience in building residences for more than one wife. Just as “living the principle” varied between families, it is difficult to make generalized statements about the design of multi-family dwellings.
Some polygamists, particularly wealthier ones, chose to have separate homes for each wife. Often these homes were within a limited geographic area. Another approach was cohabitation, or having more than one wife in the same house. Most would adapt a single family dwelling to accomodate two or three families. Standard double cell houses (2 evenly spaced rooms with two front doors) or three-part houses (1 common room for shared living/dining space, a common kitchen and separate bedrooms and parlours) were most easily adapted to polygamous families. Some housing situations continued to evolve over time through the ebb and flow of married life including death, divorce and missions.
The least common, yet best known type of polygamous residence was the communally-run dwellings which were owned by only the wealthiest of Mormons. Heber C. Kimball’s Plantation and Brigham Young’s Lion House are perhaps the most celebrated homes which were constructed specifically for the purpose of plural marriage. According to Carter, in Brigham Young’s family:
Most daily functions took place on the basement level, which contained the kitchen and dining room where as many as seventy people took meals. Seating arrangements were precisely ordered: wives with children were “seated at the heads of the tables in the order they came into the family and had preference over those with no children.” Wives Lucy Decker, her sister Clara Decker, and Emeline Free thus enjoyed “head of table” ranking, an honor that carried over to their placement in the house as well. Their large, multiroom apartments along with those of the other child-bearing wives were located on the principal floor, while childless wives were relegated to small but equal-sized rooms on the upper floor. Servants and older children also lived on the upper most level. (p.239)
[See this link to a Google Books version of The Mormon Prophet and His Harem; or, An Authentic History of Brigham Young, 1867, p. 199for the floor plan of the Lion House that Carter uses in his article. It shows how women like Emily Partridge or Lucy Decker Young had large rooms and parlours on the principal story, while the women on the upper story such as Eliza R. Snow, Harriet Cook or Zina D. H. Young had much smaller rooms.](2)
The final part of the essay is where Carter challenges what has been a prevalent interpretation of the architecture of polygamy. This school of thought sees such housing design as an illustration of equal comforts. Historians have understood the symmetry of architectural design like doors, or internal apartments as well as exterior features to be an indication of the equitable treatment of polygamous women.(3) However, domestic space could often be apportioned in ways that implied unequal comforts. Smaller houses in more peripheral sites for second or third wives illustrate a hierarchy of size and location. Carter also explores the nature of how spatial structure embodies gender differences and how such distinctions are visible in the organization of household responsibilities. Polygamous men were primarily property holders while their wives were responsible for household duties such as cooking and cleaning, which were sometimes performed in a co-operative fashion. He notes that access to privacy was an indication of personal autonomy and illustrates how some houses provided greater amounts of seclusion than others. Having your own door to exit your home as opposed to sharing a hallway allowed for less supervision of each other’s movements.
Finally, Carter makes the assertion that polygamous men had access to a special kind of privacy that women simply didn’t. Men had greater mobility primarily through their movement between wives and often even had their own separate space. Heber C. Kimball had his own private room, while Brigham Young had his own house. This resulted in an architecture of accessibility and conversely one of physical confinement — while women’s space was relatively fixed or closed, men were more flexible or open in their comings and goings. Such an approach raises new questions about what kind of impact such living arrangements had upon both men and women.
Thomas Carter reminds us that it is through the investigation of material culture, specifically the architectural manifestations of nineteenth century Mormons, that we can develop insights into their social world. Analyzing the homes of polygamous families allows us to peel back another layer of the past which adds more depth to the debate surrounding gender relations in plural marriage.
P.S. The photos and conjectural drawings in this article are really great.
(1) Thomas Carter, “Living the Principle: Mormon Polygamous Housing in Nineteenth Century Utah”, Winterthur Portfolio, Volume 35, Number 4, (Winter 2000), p. 223-251. For the Taylor quote see p. 223. Thomas Carter is an Associate Professor of Architectural History at the University of Utah and Director of the Graduate School of Architecture’s Western Regional Architecture Program.
(2) Carter credits much of Jeffery O. Johnson’s work on the Brigham Young family for his discussion of the Lion House. See Jefferey O. Johnson, “Determining and Defining ‘Wife’: The Brigham Young Households,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 20, Number 3, Fall 1987, p. 57-70. Also see, Rickey Lynn Hendricks, “Landmark Architecture for a Polygamous Family: The Brigham Young Domicile, Salt Lake City, Utah,” The Public Historian 11 (Winter 1989): 25-47.
(3) Paul Goeldner, “The Architecture of Equal Comforts: Polygamists in Utah,” Historic Preservation 24, 1 (1972): 14-17.