Reconstructing the Capitol

capitol

Bricks and mortar bear witness to a contest of aesthetics and evidence. Senior Architectural Historian Carl Lounsbury tells the story of the Capitol’s reconstruction.

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Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.

Seventy-five years ago, architects and preservationists set out to reconstruct Williamsburg’s capitol building. Artistic ideals were pitted against historic records in a debate that is manifest in the building’s walls. Senior Architectural Historian Carl Lounsbury is here with the rest of the story.

Carl Lounsbury: What this project – the building of the Capitol – does for Colonial Williamsburg today is offer a wonderful insight into the design philosophy of Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn. We know that they were trained in what we call the Beaux-Art architectural training, which means that they base their designs on classical architecture and developing buildings that were resolved that were symmetrical, that had a logical plan and were all worked out in nice details that are based, basically, on ancient Roman and Greek architecture.

Sure, there was a lot of elements of that classical architecture in the 18th century in Williamsburg, but what Perry, Shaw and Hepburn failed to really appreciate is the level of architectural expertise that was here at the beginning of the 18th century.

So what they created was a building that would not look out of place in London in 1775 or 1800. But in Williamsburg in 1700, it’s extraordinarily well-resolved and well-finished. Far more elaborate than anything you would have seen here.

It’s, they were trained as architects. They had an idea that there was this universal design philosophy that could be extrapolated from the Renaissance onward, and it could be applied anywhere in the world.

What they overlooked were local conditions in Virginia at the beginning of the 18th century. It was very hard to find good craftsmen. In fact, they had to import some of the builders to construct the Capitol from England. They had to work hard to get a lot of the materials. Much of the manufactured materials like lead and glass and paint had to be brought in from England.

Lloyd: So when we go up to the Capitol building today and stand out front and look at it, are we seeing the Capitol building as it was, or the Capitol building as three guys thought it ought to be?

Carl: Both. But that’s just the point. And this makes the difference between the work that we do today as architectural historians and the work that Perry, Shaw and Hepburn did in early 1930s. They were architects, they wanted the building to look nice. They wanted it well-resolved in terms of all of its architectural details and features. They were very well-trained to produce a building like that.

Today, architectural historians want to understand what that building was like at the period of time. There are, sure, there are design principles that are around, but we are much more interested in how that building operated. What were the conditions at the time to build that structure? If we measure the Capitol in those terms today, there are some severe problems in the reconstruction.

The easiest thing to talk about would be some of the features that you see in some of the decorative details, the woodwork of the staircases, or the door cases. All of those were taken from precedents here in Virginia or England. But most of those structures that they based them on were built in the 1770s. For example, Shirley Plantation in Charles City County, the Carter family home.

They took a door casing from Shirley, almost copied it directly. Well we know that most of that woodwork at Shirley is from the 1770s, so in a way, it’s 75 years out of date. You can just multiply that over and over again. They were picking and selecting very nice examples. They never went down market in their selections. They always went up market. You can’t always know exactly the date of some of these buildings, but they always seem to have gravitated to the very best buildings around. What we now know is most of those buildings were 75 years later.

Another example, if you go into the Capitol, and walk into the General Courtroom, which was the most important room when that building was constructed, you see the entire room is fully paneled with these pilasters, nicely painted. In fact, what we know now, if we look at courtrooms, is that the paneling would have been only restricted to just the magistrate’s platform, and just a small part of it – not the entire room. That platform would have been raised up about a foot or two, and then a bench, instead of this sort of nice rostrum that they sit around now.

It’s because the architects had not studied courtroom architecture. They sort of looked at an example from an image they found in England, and just extrapolated. But they didn’t really understand the dynamics of a courtroom and what the significance of what the paneling does. The paneling, just like in churches and other important places, the best fittings, the best woodwork, is always in the best room or the best place in that room. The best place in that room would be where the magistrate sat. They could care less what the rest of the room looked like.

When you have it fully paneled like that, you miss that point of that deference to the magistrate. So again, I think the architects missed the point on those subtleties, those little ideas that are communicated by fittings and details. Just looking at the form of those details, rather than how they were selectively used at the time to convey certain meanings and social contexts.

The point I’d like to make is that they had a different aesthetic philosophy than we do today. Every generation rewrites its history in terms of what is most important to them. Today we are very much interested in social history. In the 1930s, they were very interested in the aesthetics of the 18th century.We’re much more interested in understanding how buildings work. Of course we’re interested in how they look, but we also want to know how they worked, and the kind of ideas that they communicated to the public, to individuals in the 18th century.

What did the Capitol say to those who worked there, who came there to legislate, or were there in the General Courtroom? What did those fittings tell you about the power and the authority of the crown, or of that provincial government? These are not the kind of things that Perry, Shaw and Hepburn were interested in. They were interested in what kind of cornice might it have had? How do we resolve the detailing of this and that? Where can we get an example of this? So they’re assembling pieces from here and there, but not thinking in overall, the bigger ideas of what that building would communicate.

So when you go to a brick building, the first thing that clearly in the early 18th century, the architects, or the builders really, or the design committee who designed this building wanted to convey a sense of authority, permanence and the presence of the crown in the lives of provincial Virginians.

To do that, how do they do that? Well they subtly did it as well as overtly in many different features. They use brick instead of wood. Brick is a sign of permanence in Colonial Virginia. If you look around in Williamsburg, all the public buildings are made of brick. The other thing, they would have smaller details. They would have what we call compass-headed windows, or arched windows. If you look in the Capitol, the ground floor windows are arched. Where else are they arched? At Bruton Parish Church, the Powder Magazine. Again, these are, you don’t see them on private buildings, but you see them on public buildings. This is conveying a sense of public authority.

The Capitol is surrounded by a precinct. It has a Capitol wall, so it’s like a special place that you go to. It’s not just simply on the side of the street like it was in Jamestown. It is set aside. It is in the center of the street, so obviously every eye is focused on that structure. So there, the cupola itself comes up and is symbolic of the authority of the crown. You have the, obviously the symbols of authority. That is, the arms of the crown as well as other important folks are right there on the building. So all these little features speak of authority, of power, of permanence.

Our environment is shaped, and we shape our environment. We bring certain things to it. When we go to buildings, I think Churchill summarized it very nicely when he says, “First we shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us.” It has buildings, the environment has an impact on people.

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