A popular myth suggests that a Chicago carpenter, George W. Snow, invented the balloon frame in 1832 and revolutionized construction practice. Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel erroneously attributed the invention to Snow in 1883, and subsequent histories accepted the story. But they did so without examining physical evidence. The oldest buildings that remain in metropolitan Chicago suggest that the balloon frame was not a revolutionary idea; nor was it invented by Snow or any other Chicagoan.
During the colonial period, carpenters simplified the timber frame to allow for rapid construction with standardized materials. The Beaubien Tavern on the plank road between Chicago and Naperville, in what is now Lisle, reflected these changes. The frame employed smaller, standardized timbers. All mortises and tenons were very simple. The roof was a system of small common rafters held in place by nails. Joinery did not attach it intimately to the frame. Heated by stoves, the building had no need for a large, central fireplace.
A minimal difference existed between the tavern's box frame and early balloon frames. Timber girts supported the tavern's second-story floor joists. They were tenoned, pinned, and braced to mortised corner posts. The balloon frame eliminated these elements by nailing a one-by-four-inch board, called a ledger or ribband, into vertical studs that ran continuously to the height of the building. The studs were notched to accommodate the ledger. The second-floor joists were also notched and then hooked onto the ledger. The joists were then nailed to the studs.
With these digital manipulations of pictures I´ve taken from our own projects in California, I´m beginning a new series of abstract balloon frame structures.