Alva Review-Courier -

Giraffe buildings unique to this neck of the woods


August 25, 2019

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) — Buildings in Tahlequah offer a variety of architectural styles, and one that calls to mind an exotic animal may be unfamiliar to residents outside of the Ozarks area.

Giraffe houses boast a certain claim to fame, but there are also public buildings with this stonework, which resembles the colors and patterns of a giraffe.

"It's native sandstone," said historian Beth Herrington. "The materials were readily and cheaply available."

The rock was abundant in the Ozark Mountains area, so these structures can be found throughout the region. Herrington, who was born in 1930, has not researched this type of building, but she remembers the houses being popular throughout this area and into Arkansas when she was growing up.

Art collector and writer John Foster wrote "Giraffe Houses of the Ozarks" in 2013 for Design Observer. He talked about first discovering a "quirky orange stone house" over 20 years ago.

"Giraffe houses are generally thought to have first appeared around 1910, but their acceptance grew during the 1930s by Missouri agricultural extension bulletins, which described how to build a house from indigenous stone," Foster wrote.

Patti Hale, a broker for Century 21 Wright Real Estate, shared material from that book on social media recently, as well as photos of giraffe houses in Tahlequah. She encouraged local residents to "take notice of them and appreciate their specialness!"

Realtor Edna Kimble, also with Century 21 Wright Real Estate, said the average giraffe-style home in Tahlequah was built in the 1930s and 1940s.

"That is basically what people call them, but there is a whole category. It's any home built with rock and mortar," said Kimble. "They are also called envelope homes. The rock itself is not structural, it's just the exterior."

The rock would sometimes be put over an existing frame house or log cabin, according to Herrington.

"They covered it up and made the house better and warmer. It was good insulation," she said.

Economics and resourcefulness had much to do with the growth of these buildings.

"A lot of people couldn't afford the saw mills and the wood for the exterior. It's an inexpensive way for DIY'ers to build their homes," said Kimble. "It's inexpensive and handy. We do have a lot of rocks in Cherokee County."

In 1990, Stephan B. Jordan submitted a piece called "Ozark Giraffes" to Old House Journal describing the houses near Tahlequah and their construction.

"By attaching the stone as a veneer with the bedding plane perpendicular to the ground, the builder was able to cover the most area with each stone, resulting in a savings of material - and in the odd patterns of the walls," Jordan wrote.

He said locals told him the mortar was always painted "as soon as the houses were built."

Most mortar is white, but some have black lines, while others may have been mortared again later with a grayer color.

"With the mortar, I've seen people do all types of designs in the rocks. Flowers are popular. I saw one with a horse's head and another with the skeleton of a bull with horns sticking out. I don't know if they found rocks or chiseled them like that," said Kimble. "People could also do their own designs with the colors of the rocks."

Some owners have painted over all of the exterior so the orange, brown and red rocks don't show. Others have taken to removing all the stone and rebuilding the house to modernize it.

Many public "giraffe" buildings were built in the 1930s through the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was established after an executive order by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. It was a national public works program overseeing the employment of millions and the construction of roads and public buildings, the Tahlequah Daily Press reported.

Tahlequah has bridges and "giraffe" buildings that were built using WPA labor, including the current Tahlequah Public Schools Board office and the Tahlequah Armory. Built in 1937-1938, the TPS office was originally the Tahlequah Negro School, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

This building and other Cherokee County schools —such as Shady Grove, Lost City, Boudinot, and Grand View— were built between 1936-1939 using the Oklahoma State Department of Education Pattern Book.

Pattern books offered design and building plans.

Notes about these school buildings for OHS' Oklahoma Landmarks Inventory Nomination include: "Constructed of uncut and uncoursed native stone laid in a random rubble pattern"; "The old Boudinot school is rectangular shaped and constructed of randomly laid, uncut native stone. The mortar is beaded. It is representative of WPA constructions in that the quality of the workmanship is excellent"; "Constructed of cut, rusticated and coursed native stone. Masonry is excellent."

Kimble said the houses are now "quirks in our market," and she hasn't heard of people seeking them out.

"People don't call looking for them like they do a Craftsman," she said. "It's more of a novelty, especially near the college campus. With that price point, parents looking for a house to rent or buy for their students. They're amused by it."


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