Reading The Buildings

The Chesapeake House Uncovers The True Art Of Fieldwork Done By Colonial Williamsburg Historians And Provides A New View Of Early American Architecture

The Chesapeake House chronicles Colonial home trends found in Virginia and Williamsburg.

Tom Green Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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Carl Lounsbury is used to letting folks down gently.

“Their buildings are often not as old as people think they are,” Lounsbury, senior architectural historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, says about people who send the museum photographs of their houses. “We urge them to do it because you never know what’s around the bend,” he says. “But it can be disappointing to them. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to give the bad news: ‘No, George Washington did not live in your house or stay there.’”

The College of William & Mary history professor and his accompanying team of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation historians are so seasoned and battle-tested that not only can they tell you whether Ol’ George stayed in your crib but also the likely room where he ate his supper. The team of experts, most of which have worked for the Foundation for decades, has surveyed hundreds of houses, structures and plantation foundations from across the region over the course of a 30-year investigation into the building practices of early Virginia and Maryland. Their groundbreaking research has been compiled into a new book, The Chesapeake House, published by the University of North Carolina Press.

“It’s a new view of early American architecture,” co-editor Lounsbury says. “When our predecessors went to Shirley or Westover or Carter’s Grove or Gunston ... you name the big house ... what they were interested in were the architectural details and those relationships with European and English precedents. What we see, though, are the choices that those builders made in the use of those details.”