TRADITIONAL LEMKO DOMESTIC ARCHITECTURE
The following article, authored by Archyp Danyljuk, first appeared in
Carpatho-Rusyn American, Volume 10 #2, 1987
copyright © 1987 and is used here with permission
Lemko villages are mostly situated on low terraces along streams and rivers beyond flood level. The oblong form of the houses and the method of their construction is also linked with the system of land usage. In most villages the land is divided into wide strips that run crosswise through the valley
In most cases, the houses in the Lemko Region had windows facing the road; that is. their front facade. However, in the far western parts of the region there are villages where the houses stand sidewise to the road The reason for this was that in these localities there were wider river valleys, making it easier to drive into most of the farmsteads.
The classic type of Lemko dwelling was the rectangular or row house. These are rural village structures in which the farm buildings are built one touching the other, all under the same roof as the house. Such Lemko houses are composed of the dwelling unit - the room inhabited by the family (chyza), the entrance passage (sini), and the storehouse or pantry (komora); followed by the stables or cattle barn (stajnja); the threshing barn and grain-storage room (pelevnja); and lastly the machinery and wagon barn (sopa).
A typical Lemko rectangular row house, village unknown. (Photo courtesy of the Ukraina Society, Kiev)
The Ukrainian writer, Vasyl' Zemljak, described a Lemko village with its houses in his novel, Green Mills: "The buildings here were brought together in a long line and served all the needs of the farm - the family dwelling, cowbarn, and grain-storage under one roof with the hayloft above. Wooden double-doors or a gate led to the hay loft, but narrow doors to the entrance passage of the house." This description actually refers to a village of Lemko settlers who as early as the nineteenth century emigrated from the Presov Region to Podolia in the western Ukraine, where their descendants remain to this day.
The folk architecture in the Lemko Region has inherited much that is archaic, that is, old building traditions which have been retained but adapted to local conditions, be they geographic, ethnic, or socioeconomic. The houses were most often made of split, half-round fir logs. In far northwestern Transcarpathia (Subcarpathian Rus'), these were very often oak logs. The round side of the split logs formed the exterior, the flat side the interior walls. At the corners the timbers were fitted by overlapping through use of a simple interlock device or a fish-tail joint. Dry forest-moss was packed between the joints of the rounded logs. The roofs were thatched with straw, and the houses usually had two sloping surfaces.
On the exterior, the timbers were rubbed with crude oil, which not only preserved the walls from rot and worms, but even served as a sort of ornamentation. In villages lacking such oil, burnt clay mixed with water and/or linseed oil was used instead. The rounded logs were filled in or packed along the whole length with moss and clay. This "mortar" was then whitewashed, so that the resulting horizontal stripes stood out vividly against the dark oily background of the logs, thereby underlining the structure of the house.
The living space was quite spacious, in contrast to the entrance doors which were usually very low and narrow. Windows in most cases had nine small panes: sometimes two windows were built side by side. Inside the house, the walls were coated with clay and whitewashed with lime or chalk. The ceiling, however, was rubbed with crude oil or with a thick paste of brickdust and linseed oil.
Much attention was given to decorating the exterior walls. For color, white or bright yellow clay was used. Decorations included various ornamental motifs, such as solar signs, sickles, pothooks, angles, the tree of life, braids, and flowers (the basic motif being a pine branch or stem and a flower). Flowers were most often depicted on flat doors. There was also the tradition that a "flower" must have as many stems or twigs as there were members of the family living in the house. When a child was born, another pair of branches was painted underneath. On the big gate-doors, usually birds were painted .
The tree of life, a typical design in Lemko home exteriors.
Inside the house, paintings were few. The walls were white-washed with lime and blueing. Sometimes near the window, colorful streaks and dots were painted, as well as around the contour of certain parts of the big stove. These designs were made by those who believed in the magical power of such signs, which allegedly protected everybody who lived in the house from evil.
The designs were executed with a cloth wrapped round a stick, or with a cat hair's brush. Painting was usually done before important holidays: in spring before Easter; in winter before Christmas; or at other times before 'holy days' or monthly festivals. The ornaments were not copies, but always drawn anew from memory. They were executed mostly by girls and elderly women.
This painting tradition in the Lemko Region began to disappear in the decades after World War II, but thanks to the labor of love carried out by Iryna Dobrjans'ka, one of the organizers of the Lemko Museum in Sanok, Poland and now a researcher at the State Museum of Ethnic Studies and Applied Art of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev, the tradition has been carefully investigated. Dobrjans'ka has prepared an album of Lemko wall-painting designs, which is preserved today in the Museum of Ukrainian Folk Architecture and Traditional Life in Kiev.
With regard to the layout of the interior, the '"mouth" of the stove was turned toward a side wall. The bed was then set between the stove and the side wall. It had a big feather or down mattress and above it hung a pegged board for hanging Sunday clothes. In certain localities, on the side wall at the head of the bed there was a shelf for dishes. Along the side and front walls, there were benches. Between them would be placed a high table or a chest which was always covered with a white towel which served for covering bread.
Various additions could be built onto the row house - a closed porch for hay and straw and for various garden or farm tools, a pigpen, a fold for sheep, and a stall for the horse.
These, then, were the general characteristics of traditional Lemko rural domestic architecture. And despite the impact of modern building techniques and styles, it is interesting to note that the old Lemko building customs are preserved to this day in the far northwestern corner of Transcarpathia (the Perecyn and Velykyj Bereznyj districts), in the Presov Region of northeastern Czechoslovakia, and, of course, in the Lemko Region of southeastern Poland.
Return to Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base's Lemko Index