Why must beauty be more than skin deep? Why be genuine when fake is more appealing? I’m just talking about buildings here. Modest little buildings occupied by business owners who want their establishments to appear impressive, professional and well-established, so they “put up a front,” literally, to claim that image.
What would you do if you found yourself the first storekeeper to arrive with a wagon full of goods at a new frontier town growing near the latest gold strike? Celebrate, because you would be destined to make a lot more money off of that gold than most of the miners, who lacked the foresight to bring adequate tools and food. They will have to buy from you, at any price you choose.
First, slap together an enclosure of boards and a passable roof, or even just erect a tent. That is good enough to protect your goods, but is it good enough to attract customers inside to buy flour at inflated prices? Maybe not. Thus the “false front” of many a western town was created. Part billboard, part stage set, part illusion, it is hardly part of the building it fronts. More like a piece snatched from a taller, grander, more fancifully shaped building than your little shack. With such a false front the shack has applied its make up, put on its face, become a real store.
This month we celebrate our false-front structures at the village, the General Store and Saloon. Both started as small stores, the saloon in the country, the once growing town of Snow Hill in Collin County, and one in the city, Dallas, near Baylor Hospital. They are minimal structures, as in no wood was wasted making anything but the front more substantial than it had to be. The General Store in particular shows the structural effects of amateur design, and we had to shore it up a bit to make sure it stays upright.
False fronts are short of substance but deep in meaning, which is sure to attract people like me who want to know what such vernacular buildings tell us about the people who built them. But these attract all sorts of people, those who visit museums like Dallas Heritage Village and those who seek out western ghost towns. False fronts are familiar to all viewers of westerns, and the set designers seem to have fun with them. They are remarkably popular among those who craft miniature buildings for a hobby.
This is probably because they are inherently cute and naïve in their blatant efforts to seem important, at least so long as they look new and earnest. As they age, they become particularly sad and poignant reminders of old dreams, as rain strips the painted signage from their self-important fronts and boards pop off.
We still build false fronts. Pre-manufactured metal buildings used for warehouses and manufacturing are sometimes given a “lipstick on a pig treatment” to improve their curb appeal. Somehow they never look cute, or naïve, just silly. Perhaps that is because we live in a mature consumer society where advertisers’ and retailers’ tricks have become much more sophisticated, and so have the consumers. It takes a lot to fool us.
Back at the village, our Main Street wouldn’t look period appropriate without its false fronts. Cast aside your modern consumer suspicions and look at that what the 19th century saw. Commerce on the wild frontier, early advertising and poor construction, the visible ambitions of small business owners and aspirational towns, its all there in those thin skins of superficial beauty.