Field-Based Research in the Study of Early American Architecture

By Carl Lounsbury, Senior Architectural Historian, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

For nearly ninety years, historians and curators at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation have examined countless documents and images housed in public and private archives and collections to inform the restoration and interpretation of Virginia’s eighteenth-century capital. Although their work has been grounded in written records supported by archaeological evidence, field-based architectural research has been their lifeblood, giving credibility to their restoration efforts and shape to their understanding of early American architecture. This reliance on fieldwork has linked those first architects hired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the late 1920s to the current generation of architectural historians. The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg illustrates how contemporary fieldwork has transformed our understanding of building practices in the colonial and early national periods and enriched the interpretation of Williamsburg and other history museums.

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River Edge, Charles City County, Virginia. Photo by Jeff Klee.

The collective endeavor of nine scholars associated with the museum since the 1980s, The Chesapeake House is a summary of current scholarship in the region that reveals a far different approach to fieldwork than that which was practiced previously. Lavishly illustrated with measured drawings, 3D renderings, photographs, and technical illustrations, the seventeen chapters and two portfolios include several interpretative essays describing the methodologies of fieldwork, the development of plan types from Jamestown’s settlement to the antebellum period, and the design process. There are chapters on slave quarters and agricultural buildings, building types that had been largely ignored by earlier historians. The last part of the book focuses on materials, details, and finishes with essays on framing methods, hardware, brickwork, interior and exterior ornamentation, paint, and wallpaper, which provide a reliable guide to the form, style, and chronology of early buildings in Virginia and Maryland. The book can be read in two ways. It is an architectural history of the region as well as a guide on how to interpret the complex histories of old buildings through their many constituent parts.

 

Recreation of a one-room house with its furnishings based on an inventory, c. 1700. Drawing by Studio Ammons after Allan Adams.
Recreation of a one-room house with its furnishings based on an inventory, c. 1700. Drawing by Studio Ammons after Allan Adams.
Framing, Pear Valley, 1740, Northampton County, Virginia. Drawing by Studio Ammons after Willie Graham.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

H and HL side hinges. Drawing by Patricia Miller.
H and HL side hinges. Drawing by Patricia Miller.

The Chesapeake House tells a different story than the works of our predecessors in part because we have asked different questions of our evidence. Our views of early American architecture have been shaped by conceptual models of colonial society quite dissimilar to those held by the architects who transformed Williamsburg in the 1920s and 1930s. Great houses such as Westover and Stratford continue to beckon scholars as they did earlier when Fiske Kimball and Thomas Waterman first described their stylistic qualities. These two early chroniclers of the region’s architecture applied the theoretical concepts developed by art historians. This perspective considered architecture as fine art. They measured the significance of buildings according to how well they embodied a formal set of design rules. Their task was to explain a building’s relationship to an evolving stylistic system that shared certain formal aesthetic criteria. They evaluated buildings according to Renaissance rules of architecture that emphasized symmetry, proportion, and the appropriate use of the classical orders and judged them according to how well they fit those precepts. They praised those buildings that exemplified stylistic coherence or fidelity to European models of classicism and reproached others for straying from these ideals either through perceived ignorance or poor craftsmanship.

Mount Clare, c. 1757-60, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by author.
Mount Clare, c. 1757-60, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by author.

The aesthetic character of buildings no longer answered the most important questions that my generation of architectural historians was eager to explore. Many of us considered architecture to be an expression of social behavior and cultural practices grounded in specific historical circumstances. Consequently, our field research studies emphasized spatial analysis over stylistic pedigree. We shifted our focus from the aesthetics of form to the social manifestations of building. We investigated buildings with the belief that architectural forms carry social meanings. Architecture gives physical shape to the way people perceive their place in the world and how they interact with others. The arrangement of spaces and the hierarchical ornamentation of rooms reveal much about patterns of behavior. Buildings can be read as closely as any textual analysis for what they say about the behavior, aspirations, and interactions of members of a society, revealing patterns as clearly as any contemporary letter or newspaper. People designed some spaces to facilitate interaction whereas in other circumstances they carefully regulated access to prevent indiscriminate intermingling. The early American landscape communicated a variety of meanings that sometimes changed over time or were transformed by new ideas and attitudes. Often, the significance of a building was implied by its position in a landscape, its materials, levels of finish, or plan. However, these meanings were not static but often dynamic, changed over time, and could be interpreted in a variety of ways or contested by different members of society.

The Comforts of Home for a Gentleman’s family in Williamsburg.
The comforts of home for a gentleman’s family in Williamsburg.
The Discomforts of Home for an Enslaved Family in Williamsburg.
The discomforts of home for an enslaved family in Williamsburg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entire historic landscapes have been opened for such scrutiny, not simply the style-conscious homes of the wealthy. In The Chesapeake House, gentry houses visited by our predecessors still play an important role in telling many stories, simply by the fact that their owners dominated colonial society and these structures have enjoyed a better rate of survival. But they were only a part of a more diverse early landscape, which is less familiar now by the fact that so much of it has disappeared. Beyond the formal grounds of great estates like Shirley or Gunston, there was a countryside that swarmed with ordinary people who seldom or never set foot on a gentleman’s property and only occasionally crossed paths with a Carter or Mason at the parish church, county courthouse, muster field, or along the road. The commonplace world of small freeholders, tenant farmers, indentured servants, and most slaves assumed a much-reduced scale—smaller farms, modest wooden farmhouses, fewer specialized farm buildings, and here and there a solitary quarter. Not surprisingly, few of these smaller farmhouses remain standing today and eighteenth-century slave houses and agricultural buildings are extremely rare. What we know about this nearly lost world derives from a few standing remnants supplemented by archaeological evidence and documentary sources. By looking at the entire range of this architectural legacy, our research also explores the physical dimensions of the lives of men, women, and children whom have often been forgotten in traditional historical narratives—from craftsmen and laborers who shaped the buildings to the myriad of individuals, who inhabited, worked, played, and entertained in them.

One thought on “Field-Based Research in the Study of Early American Architecture

  1. Thank you for posting this blog entry about architectural research in the Chesapeake by the architectural historians at Colonial Williamsburg. They are a truly exceptional team. Many of them have worked together for several decades, along with their colleagues in related fields. The book they and their colleagues have recently produced is truly superlative — codifying decades of on-site and documentary research, discoveries, and conclusions (many of them ongoing, as is their diligent and passionate work). THE CHESAPEAKE HOUSE book has earned widespread praise, and should be considered ESSENTIAL for any art research, university, architectural, or social history library.

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