Long before tiny houses reigned supreme, builders were dotting the streets of St. Louis, Missouri, with homes that could hold their own in a cuteness competition. They were often (but not always) simple structures, red-brick boxes stacked on foundations of great limestone blocks. Look up, though, and you'd see why this architectural style continues to spark curiosity and pleasure.
They're found in cities east of the Mississippi—especially in Alexandria, Virginia—but St. Louis boasts the highest concentration of the style. They're called "flounder houses," or "half-houses," or even "half flounders," all of which are more-or-less literal terms. Picture your standard gable roof, sloping off to either side and meeting along a ridge at midpoint. In other words, think of the house that a 6-year-old would draw—the upside-down V of the roof's silhouette. Now imagine slicing straight down through the center of the home, just along the ridge. Discard one half.
There's your flounder, so-named because the sloping roof and the side-placement of doors and windows reminded folks of the famously awkward-looking fish. Maybe you've never seen one of these remarkable homes, which are considered a form of vernacular architecture, with shapes and materials influenced by the particularity of a certain time and place. But walk around St. Louis next time you're in town. Once you see one flounder, the rest start jumping out at you.
The city's Cultural Resources Office (CRO) published a survey of St. Louis flounder houses in 2015, titled "Not an Accidental Form: The Flounder House as a Vernacular Building Type in St. Louis City." Most of these houses were built between the 1860s and the 1880s, the CRO survey reports. Today, there are just 275 left, many of their predecessors having been lost to redevelopment and urban decay. It will take attention and funding to keep that number from diminishing further.
That attention and funding will come through understanding.
So how and why did such a strange design evolve? And by whose hand?
Jan Cameron, preservation administrator for the St. Louis CRO, directed the 2015 survey. Her team's research turned up 18th and 19th century examples of the form in the German state of Saxony.
"They are called there 'half-houses,'" Cameron tells Urbo. (That's Halbhaus for our germanophone readers. -ed.) "But their cities did not seem to consider them particularly unusual or noteworthy."
Still, this German origin provides a thread that connects these early flounders with those built later in the 19th century, thousands of miles away in St. Louis.
"While we did not come up with a definitive answer as to why flounders were constructed, the surviving examples all had some kind of German connection," Cameron says. "Either the owner of the land (who was not always the same as the owner of the house built upon it) or the house builder [was German]."
So while the true purpose of the flounder-style roof may remain shrouded in mystery, there are lots of theories. Some are more plausible than others. We asked Cameron about some of the stories we've heard from St. Louis residents about their hometown architectural oddities. Here are the theories, along with Cameron's expert opinion about where they rank on the spectrum of myth to fact:
1. The "unfinished" look would somehow deter property tax collection.
This is a dubious but persistent theory. It's common enough that St. Louis magazine led off a 2015 story on flounders with a correction.
"Let's first get something straight," writes Chris Naffziger in the publication. "The famous flounder house style in St. Louis did not originate out of an attempt to trick the tax man into thinking a house was incomplete, therefore lowering a homeowner's bill."
Cameron is similarly doubtful, calling the scenario "implausible."
"I don't think they look unfinished!" she says. "And I doubt they would fool any tax collector worth his pay."
2. Window glass was taxed in the 19th century; the flounder design's taller, windowless wall saved tax money by foregoing glass.
"I think this is the flounder myth I've heard most often," Cameron says—the key word being "myth." Cameron and her research team looked through the city ordinances for the years in which flounders were being constructed, searching for evidence of a window tax. They came up empty.
"There never was any such tax for window glass or the number of windows [in St. Louis]," Cameron says. "There definitely was a tax on windows (and later a glass excise tax) in the Regency period in Great Britain—likely the source."
The window-glass theory is compelling. As Cameron points out, larger pieces of glass are more expensive, which is why you often find the biggest windows reserved for a home's face. But that expense never had anything to do with taxes, at least not in 19th-century Missouri.
3. The flounder house was intended as a temporary structure, to be built out when the owner could scrape together the funds.
This explanation is attractive; it's adorable to think of flounders as literal half houses that would be completed with a mirroring structure some prosperous day down the line. There's just one problem with the theory: Most flounders in St. Louis are positioned with the tall, blank wall right up against the parcel's property line. The owner's land ends with the flounder's characteristic wall. This strongly suggests the builders saw the shape as complete in itself.
That said, there are scattered examples of flounders with later additions, Cameron says.
"There is evidence, particularly in the Carondelet neighborhood, that a small flounder was first constructed in the center of the lot and within a few years, a front building of one or two rooms was attached to it," she says. "We also found two examples where, after a decade or two, the flounder had a much larger and much more elegant two-story house attached and the flounder became the house's rear wing."
These properties seem to be the exception, not the rule. All evidence points to the flounder style as both intentional and whole.
4. Single-pitch roofs are easier and cheaper to build than gables.
Now we're getting somewhere. This theory is simple and practical. It passes the common-sense test. And indeed, Cameron calls it "plausible."
"And likely one of the contributing factors in the construction of the smaller, earlier flounders," she adds.
But simple construction and lower labor costs can't explain all the flounders in the CRO survey. Not every flounder house is a modest structure. Some would hardly qualify as low-income housing.
"A number of flounders … were larger, approached High Style architecture, and were not what one would consider 'affordable,'" Cameron says. "They have multiple dormers and other roof elements that would not have been easy to build."
5. The Best Guess
So if the flounder style didn't save on taxes; if it wasn't an incomplete structure; and if the pitched roof wasn't even necessarily cheaper than other forms—well, then, why?
"Our best deduction is that the use of the flounder form was primarily a response to narrow city lots," Cameron says. "Sitting the house with a blind wall on the property line not only provided some fire protection and privacy from near neighbors, but left more space on the other side for gardens and other purposes."
In a tightly-packed city, with some neighbors' homes mere inches away from yours, maybe flounder houses were the architectural equivalent of facing forward in an elevator. The alternative could be a living-room view of your neighbor's living room, without much air between you.
Also note that, as flounders reached their peak in the second half of the 19th century, the memory of St. Louis' Great Fire of 1849 was fresh in resident's minds. The idea of a built-in fire break between your house and your neighbor's must have made sense.
"Not very romantic, but practical," Cameron says.
The Future of Flounder Houses in St. Louis
There are all kinds of flounder houses still standing in St. Louis and other cities east of the Mississippi. Some, as small 500 square feet, would satisfy the current mania for tiny houses. The folks who built these modest flounders weren't looking for an Instagram lifestyle, though. They weren't minimalists who only owned five possessions, all made by Apple. They were working class strivers trying to shelter their families.
Other flounders housed the wealthy and powerful in tall, stately homes with complex adornments.
"There is no 'flounder style' and no readily identifiable 'classic' or 'quintessential' flounder, as the range of positions on lots, incorporation of common features, and use of both brick and frame construction demonstrate," reports Not an Accidental Form.
Still, you know a flounder when you see one.
"The St. Louis study reinforces the assertion that the flounder is a building type with a particular form: opposite walls of different heights spanned by a roof that is mainly a single slope, or shed, form," says the survey report.
These buildings tell a story, even if we can't quite understand the plot. But the stories are being silenced at an alarming rate. During the 2015 survey of flounder houses, the authors found nearly 60 19th-century flounder houses that they classified as "endangered."
"Twelve are vacant and boarded, and another nine were just abandoned," Betsy Bradley, then-director of the Cultural Resources Office, and author of Not an Accidental Form, told St. Louis Public Radio. "We found 30 that need maintenance and seven that suffered some structural collapse, so we do have a fair number of flounders to keep our eye on."
Here's the good news in any historical-preservation story: Lots of residents care deeply about how the past creates the present, in architecture and ideas. The will to save these flounders is strong. Now for the funds.