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
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.”
“This is really a book about fieldwork,” says Willie Graham, who penned the chapters on early timber framing and exterior finishes. “One of the big lessons from this study, at least for me, is thinking about what makes a place distinctive. Not necessarily those details that are distinctive, but why would we be different?”
Beautifully designed with hundreds of photographs, period landscape paintings and floor plans, The Chesapeake House isn’t just a coffee table tome about the Coastal Virginia region’s stately buildings—from Gunston Hall in Fairfax to Williamsburg’s Wythe House to the Moses Myers House in Norfolk—it’s a look at the CW Foundation’s ongoing puzzle-solving. “We’re always encountering new things from the past that make us scratch our heads,” Lounsbury admits.
Case in point: He and other CW researchers recently went to Jamestown to advise at the Church Tower that is being repaired. “We couldn’t figure out how they put the roof on the tower,” he laughs. “We see that it was built in two stages, but we think they might’ve run out of money and just capped it off. But we can’t figure out how they put the roof on it, to keep it from leaking.”
At 470 oversized pages, The Chesapeake House is filled of mysteries like that, scraped away like paint until a garish glaze of truth, a secret nail, a loose piece of wallpaper, is revealed. “Sometimes when we go look at these old buildings,” Lounsbury says, “We think we know what the story is, but the more we look the more confused we get.”
The Real Early Virginia: Much Less Grand Than What Your See At Colonial Williamsburg
Here’s some bad news right off the bat: Early Virginia was not exactly like the scenes you see depicted at the many restored residences overseen by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which was founded in 1927 by John D. Rockefeller to help preserve the original architecture of the region.
Co-editor Cary Carson, the retired vice president of Colonial Williamsburg’s research division, breaks it to us gently in The Chesapeake House introduction: “Millions of visitors to Williamsburg, and millions more who have seen ‘Rockafeller’s restoration’ in magazine illustrations, find it hard to forget the handsome public buildings where so much American history took place, the period taverns famous for their peanut soup and game pie, and most of all the attractive shops and houses that line the city streets.”
But, he adds, time travelers would also encounter “other landscapes,” less familiar to today’s tourists—a countryside populated with ordinary people on smaller farms, modest houses, ramshackle buildings—structures that had less of a chance to survive than the houses of the local grandees, which make up most of the Colonial Williamsburg experience today.
“We sort of have a love/hate relationship with our predecessors here,” Carl Lounsbury admits. “We certainly appreciate all that the previous architectural historians did. They were the first to start working on this at a time when this level of restoration hadn’t been done anywhere else.” Today’s approach is entirely different, though. “Our perspective is informed by a more inclusive idea of what architecture is, based on understanding of the full environment.”
That would include a lot of missing data, infrastructure, people. “Our predecessors looked at the best houses in the region … and they left off most of the landscape of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries,” he says. “We’ve gone back to look at buildings and building types that they simply ignored, and from that we’re able to piece together a more complete environment in those early centuries. We’ve looked at the slave houses, at Shirley Plantation for example, and the agricultural buildings, the service buildings … the complete plantation landscape.”
As curator of architecture at CW, Willie Graham oversees the reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg’s homes and buildings (he and the staff are currently at work on a reconstruction of a 17th-century Williamsburg market house). He’s indebted to the previous generations of architectural historians, but says that fieldwork today takes a much more scientific approach to looking at buildings that survive. “It’s not much different than what we do when we’re doing archeology and looking in the ground.”
“We’ve all been doing this for a long time. We know elements that are absolutely common and expected,” Lounsbury adds. “We know the date ranges of these structures, and we’ve learned how to read a building.”
“We sort of dissect it like a forensic crime investigator,” Graham says. “Part of our process is that we record what we see. So we’ll draw floor plans and elevation details, framing systems, photograph it all and write up what we see.” They tease out the structure’s sequence of development—what did it originally look like, how did it change? “And then we want to figure out why it changed—why people made the decisions that they made. And people are quirky. Your wife wants pink in the bathroom so you put pink in the bathroom to keep peace in the house. Right?”
But, usually, he says, there’s a pattern to these changes—a societal pattern. Even in paint.
“Early in the 18th century, a lot of people painted their houses, inside and out, red-brown,” he explains. “And that held a certain kind of meaning to them at that time; it said something about them being affluent, that they could afford paint. The red gave a sense of permanence. They weren’t fooling anyone that it was a brick building, but it gave the aura of a masonry building even with a frame structure, at a time when neighbors were still living in the tar-covered, ribbon-clapboard houses. Red sort of symbolized this new era of politeness and affluence.”
But a century later, he says, the application of this same color meant something else. “It is being used for secondary rooms or baseboards or service spaces. And you fast forward another 20 years, and that red-brown is being used, but most likely to use on barns and out-buildings.”
The many learned contributors and fieldworkers who contributed to The Chesapeake House have one thing that previous researchers didn’t have—modern technology. “We do dendrochronology to tree-ring date the buildings,” Graham says. “Once you survey enough of these buildings, and you chart all of their architectural features, you then begin to see patterns in the way things are done—what kind of molding profiles are used for a particular place and purpose, what kind of framing systems are used, what kind of material choices are they making. We kind of build all of this up. And we’ve been doing it long enough that we have this mental database of these details.”
The gradual changes in American housing didn’t happen out of some grand design—American architects didn’t become prominent until the beginning of the 19th century. Buildings were usually designed by the clients themselves, and in a very traditional way. Lounsbury: “A tobacco planter would call up a carpenter and say, ‘Build me a house like Mr. Smith’s house over there.’ And carpenters would build the same way from one house to the next until someone told them something differently.”
Changes, trends and new styles were imported not by craftsmen but by the head of the household. “And because [these new styles] had cache, because the home was built by the wealthiest man, who had been to England, therefore everybody had to have one. It’s the same pattern today with builders.”
Early America’s “practical things and social elements” did bring innovation, Lounsbury says. “Things like the passageway, which was revolutionary in the 18th century, because it allowed people to move, not just from one room to another but through corridors. That was a pretty radical thing to do in the late 17th and early 18th century.”
Sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, the fieldworkers try to identify what rooms were originally designed for until all the pieces fall into place. Most public entertaining spaces would have the best architectural finishes because they were intended to impress. Paneled with nice cornices and mantelpieces, these can be easy for investigators to identify. “They might have floorboards where you don’t see the nails,” Lounsbury says. “What Thomas Jefferson called Secret Nails.”
All of the little details make up the Chesapeake House’s evolution. “Especially the timber framing, the way Chesapeake carpenters framed their houses was certainly far different than anywhere else—New England, Old England, Ireland, South Carolina. And it finally evolved into a peculiar regional form that addressed distinctive needs.”
“It wasn’t like they were starting new with new ideas,” adds Willie Graham, who knows a little about timber framing. “But they had to take what they knew from home and make it work. They were basically in the wilderness. It was physically different. And it was also socially and culturally different. The concern was to get it up fast,” he says. “Initially there just wasn’t room for lavish building because the structure had to be efficient and quickly erected.”
By the middle of the 17th century, virtually all planters, rich and poor, were building some version of what they first called the Virginia House. “They still had wind chimneys and dirt floors,” Graham says. “But by the 18th century, they’d created an efficient way to use the materials on hand, particularly wooden materials … and they developed some things, like the false plate.”
A false plate, Carl Lounsbury explains, is “a small tiny detail—characteristic of Virginia architecture from 1640s onward.” It’s a board that sits on top of the ceiling joist, and the rafters sit at the end of the joist. “It makes it cheaper to build,” he says. “You eliminate the complicated labor involved in creating these very elaborate blind dovetail joints to make all of these timbers come together in a traditional English frame. In some ways, the Chesapeake carpentry tradition is the beginning of cheap construction. We’re still building that way.”
The false plate wasn’t an entirely new idea, Willie Graham says. “But it was really not developed like it was here. They were doing it in Jamestown in the 1640s, and we still use false plates routinely in American building.”
Construction became, as Lounsbury says, “a matter of technology, materials, climate and attitudes toward building.” Concerning the latter, the mindset of our forebears is often reflected in their construction habits. “The early settlers encountered an environment that was difficult and actually detrimental to their health so that they didn’t have great prospects for living long lives.” The result was that they would build cheap houses to just last their lifetime. “But not build for the future.”
So when settlers started to build better homes in the New World, it showed that they were here for the long haul. “In the beginning, they were just trying to survive,” Graham says. “But certainly by the second quarter of the 17th century, there are people coming here to stay.”
You can read it in their houses.
The Chesapeake House is available from The University of North Carolina Press at uncpress.unc.edu