The Amish home is changing

When you visit Amish communities, can you pick out the Amish homes?

As a general rule, the more conservative the community, the easier it is to tell the Amish dwellings from the English.

The lack of power lines is one giveaway.  So is the style and design.  A Swartzentruber Amish farm home has a distinct angular look to it.  The (often rusting) metal roof,  peeling white paint, and companion windmill are also sure-fire signs of a Swartzentruber abode.

amish architecture

Swartzentruber Amish architecture has a distinct look

In more progressive places like Lancaster and Holmes County, it’s not always so clear.  Some Amish dwellings blur the line between modern and plain.

Over my years selling books to the Amish, I visited a few thousand Amish homes.  I got to be pretty good at picking out the Amish from the English.  I could tell differences in style between affiliations and communities.  But I recall being confused on more than one occasion.

Hardly Plain

Among the Amish, you sometimes find homes extravagant even by English standards.  I remember visiting what I would call a near-mansion, secluded off the main road, in Holmes County.  The owner was Amish and the home itself was technically “Plain”, but the elaborate stonework, imposing size, and unorthodox design all told a different story.

I’ve sat inside log cabin homes in places like northern Indiana and Arthur, Illinois.  “Log cabin” sounds rustic enough.  But the frontier connotations mask a certain luxury.  Log homes aren’t necessarily cheap or simple to make.  Not to mention that as the only one in your church in a log cabin, you’re clearly deviating from community norms.

And Amish are acutely aware of these deviations, more than we would be.  I’d sometimes hear Amish commenting on their neighbors.  A family down the road might be “rich” or live in a “fancy” home.  Usually said in good humor, but nonetheless indicating family XYZ may be straying a bit off the reservation.

There was an interesting piece on Amish architecture (Updated: no longer online) yesterday in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Michael Galbraith examined 700 Indiana Amish homes over three years, pinpointing differences between communities and groups.

One community he examines is the sizeable Allen County Amish group.

As Galbraith found, certain Amish are more lenient when it comes to styles and materials.  The prototype Amish home exterior is white-painted wood or siding.

brick amish home

An Amish buggy passes a typical brick home in Allen County, Indiana

But as Galbraith discovered, many Allen County Amish now build with brick.  Having visited most of the Allen County homes, I’d say brick construction is pretty widespread in that community.  Some of those who don’t build with brick hang faux-brick siding instead.

It’s striking because Allen County people are not the most “worldly”, in at least one sense.  Frankly, they are probably about the–let’s just say “prickliest”–Amish you’ll meet (at least at first, and not everyone, of course).  I generally found them among the most difficult to approach and speak to.  So they are not really keyed-in to us fancy outsiders in that regard.

But they do live in some pretty fancy-looking homes.  Again, not all of them, and some even still use outhouses.  But look at a typical Allen County brick home and you don’t immediately think “Amish”.

Are Amish leaving Plain homes behind?

I think some are.  Part of this comes from Amish having more money due to business and higher-paying occupations.

Also, many Amish work in construction.  They are intimately familiar with the trade.  They develop an appreciation for certain styles, materials, and for work well done.  It’s often the contractors who have the fancier homes.  Not surprising, when you think about it.

The insides of homes change as well.  Amish homes have a typical interior appearance.  Durable linoleum floors, light colors, limited decoration, and wide open spaces (brighter, and the better to host large groups) are the norm.  But with money and “worldly” exposure, interiors have deviated as well.

For instance, Amish have adopted more in-home decor, like decorative trinkets and wall hangings.  Interior furnishings have gotten more plush.  I’ve sat in Amish kitchens sporting highly elaborate cabinetry.  I remember marveling at one spread in the Daviess County, Indiana Amish settlement.  I found the intricate woodwork slightly distracting.

As with the home exteriors, you see more of this with those that best know and appreciate the craft.  A cabinet maker is more likely to have top-notch cabinets in his own home–as long as his church lets him get away with it.

Home as sacred space

Amish or English, our homes reflect who we are.  For the Amish, the home is in some sense a sacred space.  It’s why they’ve kept invasive technologies–phones and public electricity–out.

The home is  where children are born, taught, disciplined and reared in the Christian faith.  A new generation imbibes crucial cultural values within its walls.  And the home is not just the center of family–since Amish don’t construct houses of worship, it’s often the physical location of church itself.

A Galbraith points out, Amish change over time.  There is still an Amish “norm”, or rather “norms”, specific to community.  Amish homes still contrast with their neighbors’ in many ways.  They’re still pretty plain, all things considered.

But as their homes change, what will that mean for Amish society itself?

Photo Credit: Allen County Amish home-Renee Johnson

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