Joan Berkey has no trouble putting the proper-sounding term "vernacular architecture" into very common language.
"It's not the high-style architecture. It's the everyday stuff, and Cape May County and Atlantic County have a ton of it," explains Ber-key, of Dennis Township, an architectural historian who has a long history of studying South Jersey's oldest architecture.
Berkey will be showing off a lot of that everyday architecture to a lot of its fans next week when the Vernacular Architecture Forum - a gathering of 200 or so people from across the United States and Canada - opens in New Jersey for the first time in the group's history.
The VAF is coming to New Jersey in large part because the state is celebrating its 350th anniversary in 2014. And the group's headquarters for this year's conference - formally called "Down Jersey: From Bayshore to Seashore" - will be at the Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club, mainly because Seaview also celebrates its own 100th birthday this year.
Kate Ogden, who teaches art history at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey - which now owns Seaview - can expand on that vernacular definition of vernacular architecture.
"It's everyday, normal architecture, as opposed to the big stuff," says Ogden, of Hammonton, who serves on New Jersey's review board for historic buildings. "It's not state capitols and governor's houses and banks - those would be more 'high-style.' Vernacular is more regular people's houses and barns. They love barns."
Ogden is the college's liaison to the VAF. And she is on that historic-review board with Janet Foster, a retired Columbia University professor who now teaches architectural history at Drew University in Madison and is the conference coordinator for New Jersey's first Vernacular Architecture Forum.
Foster has been to the meeting a few times in the past, including last year's in Gaspe, in Quebec. She also has a very simple-language summary of what happens at this event.
"The point of the VAF is for people who love vernacular architecture to go around to a bunch of old buildings and say, 'Wow, would you look at that?'" she says, with a small chuckle on the other end of the phone. "There is a (research) papers day, but it's the tours that really draw the people to them. Because you get to see things you wouldn't get to see any other way."
That brings us back to Berkey, who expects to lead about 100 people on a tour of vernacular architecture around Atlantic and Cape May counties on May 9. She has a somewhat ambitious agenda, given that her title is "Four Centuries by the Shore in a Day."
But she has time: Her tour is set to leave Seaview, in Galloway Township, at 7:30 a.m. - and not get back until after 9 p.m.
She emphasizes that not all those 13-plus hours are touring time - there are breaks for lunch at South Seaville Camp Meeting, and for drinks and appetizers at Historic Cold Spring Village, in Lower Township.
And that latter stop will account for almost half the detailed building tours Berkey will lead on that long day, because she plans to show off seven buildings at Cold Spring Village - most of which were historic Cape May County buildings moved there to save them from being destroyed by development.
They include Coxe Hall Cottage, which dates back to 1691, says Berkey, who adds that those four centuries she's showcasing don't include the current one, that started after 2000.
But other VAF tours scheduled next week include "Building the Bayshore: History and Culture Along New Jersey's Delaware Bay" on May 8, and "People, Places and Sugar Sand: A Pinelands Tour," also on May 9.
Berkey says the oddest building she expects to show her visitors is Lucy the Elephant, in Margate. More typical will be the Seaville Friends Meetinghouse, "a one-story, plank-frame structure erected in 1727," as the tour summary describes it.
Foster, the VAF's New Jersey coordinator, lives and works in Madison, in Morris County. But she says bringing these old-building buffs to South Jersey was a conscious choice - and a logical one.
"I personally find South Jersey very beautiful," she said, adding vernacular architecture certainly still exists in North Jersey, but it "doesn't hang together very well," mainly because of all the development around it.
"South Jersey has more coherent landscape settings, so it's easier to show people ... a building and have them appreciate it, too," she said. "They can see much more in South Jersey."
Everyone involved with the conference is a volunteer, Foster added.
"New Jersey has a tremendous number of people who are interested in architecture, and who worked very hard to make this happen," she said, adding Stockton College - which hosts the conference at its own century-old landmark, Seaview - "has been very supportive of regional history."
Seaview's branch of the Noyes Gallery also is hosting a photography exhibit of South Jersey's vernacular architecture through May 11.
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If You Go
The Vernacular Architecture Forum runs May 7 to 11 at Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club. All tours are sold out, but seats may be available for the research-paper day May 10. For more details, email email@example.com or do a Google search for stockton.edu/