Chesapeake House

Colonial Williamsburg’s Architectural Research department authors “The Chesapeake House,” a book devoted to the study of the region’s architecture and influences. Architectural Historian Carl Lounsbury outlines the study.

Learn more: The Chesapeake House


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Architectural historian Carl Lounsbury and his colleagues have co-authored a new book which they have titled “The Chesapeake House.” It’s a fascinating study of a region, its influences and its expression in architecture. Carl, thank you for being here today.

Carl Lounsbury: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Harmony: Well architectural historian-ship, your expertise, is an interesting trade that’s developed out of Colonial Williamsburg. I wonder if we can even call it a sort of accidental expertise that came out of the 1930s-era restoration of the Historic Area. When those buildings started to be restored, did that create a need for architectural historians like yourself to look at these buildings and examine their 18th-century characteristics and construction?

Carl: Well the first people who worked for Colonial Williamsburg in the late 1920s or late 1930s were trained as architects. They had an experience dealing with historic buildings as precedents for modern design. It was in the era of what we call the colonial revival and so, Perry Shaw and Hepburn, the architects who were hired by John Rockefeller in 1926-27 to devise a plan for the restoration of the buildings, and then were hired to undertake those reconstructions and restorations, had a long training in looking at old buildings.

They, most of them were trained in New England. They went out and looked at New England houses, public buildings and the like and sketched them; did detailed sketches of different elements like doorways and windows and molding architraves and a variety of small details and bigger ones and they would take that information back and then use it to design new buildings. So it was that kind of knowledge and practice of using old precedents from old buildings that they brought to Colonial Williamsburg and they recreated the missing buildings or restored the standing structures based on that expertise.

So what they had to learn when they came here was about this area which was a lot different than New England in terms of architectural forms and certain details. A lot of them were very similar, but other elements were different. So what they did is immediately went out into the countryside, all around in Virginia and Maryland, looking at old houses and they would walk in, photograph, sketch these things. And their sketch books were beautiful. They were really great artists. And they bring that information back and then they would design a new old building based on pulling together details that they saw from here and there.

Starting in the 1970s and early in the 1980s when me and my colleagues arrived in Williamsburg we had an entirely different mindset about old buildings. And we’ve been trained slightly different than they had. Some of my colleagues have been trained as architects in architecture school in looking at old buildings, but others have been trained as historians that have an interest in buildings. And so they and all of us asked different sets of questions about old buildings.

We do our field work with a different set of questions. What does this building tell us about the kind of people that lived in it? And when you do that, you ask, when you ask these different sets of questions about the social history, the dynamics of space rather than the formal characteristics of building, obviously you answer different questions, and you come up with a different proposal for designing buildings. So that instead of picking and choosing from here and there to create an 18th-century building that has all these elements that you could find we say, “This kind of building would be appropriate for what kind of person?” And then we go out and look at buildings that that kind person might have looked at.

The other thing that we did that our predecessors didn’t do that much is decided to open up the entire Chesapeake region for examination. Not just the great houses; not the Westovers, the Shirleys, the Stratfords, but even the small little frame structures that were built by small farmers, middling planters, slave quarters, agricultural buildings. None of our predecessors looked at those in any detail whatsoever but this was also a part of the Chesapeake landscape in the 17th and 18th century and this is what we felt that need to be recorded because so much of it had disappeared or was disappearing very rapidly so we felt compelled to at least document this stuff before it disappeared.

So we are asking different questions and we have different answers which makes us look at a lot more and a lot different things than our predecessors.

Harmony: So this long legacy of expertise from the very first Colonial Williamsburg historian- architects to today’s generation is all brought to bear in this book, “The Chesapeake House” which is a really fascinating study that I would call almost intensely regional. You’re looking at the houses of Virginia and Maryland, or the houses and structures of Virginia and Maryland, and asking the question, “What makes a Chesapeake house a Chesapeake house?” And there are a lot of factors that come together to create a Chesapeake house. What are some of those things that are hallmarks of the region?

Carl: Well you have to ask, you know, what as you say, “What makes a Chesapeake house a Chesapeake house?” Other than being in the Chesapeake. And sometimes a house that’s in the Chesapeake may not be a Chesapeake house. There are certain forms, scale of building, relationships of buildings to other buildings in the landscape.

The combination of architectural details all come together to create a regional or even a sub- regional form that may coalesce at a certain period of time, but it changes, continuously changes, over that time. Remember we’re dealing with from basically 1607, the beginning of time in the Chesapeake at Jamestown, to roughly the 1830s or 1840s when new technologies sort of transformed the building process, industrialized technologies, that really throw a really causes considerable change in the processing of materials and the availability of materials.

But when you start putting all those building blocks together, they’re done in different ways in different places so that some of the most recognizable characteristics of regionalism show up in framing; timber framing.

The Chesapeake moved away from traditional English framing very early in the 1620s and ‘30s. They’re taking forms that were known in England, but changing them for a variety of reasons because of the availability of timber, the wide availability of timber for example made it possible to split oak clapboards and put up things very quickly for a culture that really didn’t invest that much in building. Because of mortality rates, and the idea of just instead of putting down deep roots in one location they’ll farm a place for 20 years and then move on so why build well?

So they developed this sort of impermanent architecture that sort of cut corners and lessened the amount of craftsmanship available or necessary to build those buildings. So that becomes instilled in Chesapeake architecture, and certain of these elements sort of responding to those local conditions at the time become second nature to the craftsmen and they continue building that way until someone tells the craftsman, “No, I don’t want to do it this way. This is what I want to do.” That is, outside ideas come in. How those outside ideas come in is the big question among architectural historians.

The same thing with as I mentioned about the timber framing. Once it becomes the way you do it you just do it until someone tells you not to do it and so, you know, here in this part of the world, this sort of economy of effort to make frames simpler and reduce the amount of labor in it became second nature and so you will see that timbers became smaller, they cut corners in the way they were joined together, and then you compare that with say New England where they continue the English heavy timbered framing tradition well into the early 19th century with some modifications here and there. So when you walk into and look at a New England house and you see this massive frame you realize that you’re no longer in Kansas or you’re no longer in the Chesapeake that it’s something entirely different. So, you know, in just the framing system can sort of tip off.

But there’s more to it. It’s the way certain decorative elements work together as well that, you know, in the Chesapeake they decide that brickwork was very important for expressing this sort of new genteel culture that evolves in the very late 17th and really by the beginning of the 18th century. And so the art of the bricklayers art becomes so good in this part of the world with what we call rubbed and gauged brick work; very nicely-laid fine joints and rubbed in uniformed colors around the arches and the jambs of the openings and creating frontice pieces. These very nice architectural elements with pediments. You don’t see this in New England. You don’t see this really in the Delaware Valley.

It really becomes as good as English brick laying in the 1720s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Williamsburg is blessed with some very fine brickwork from bricklayers here. But you won’t see that elsewhere and so again that sort of a regionalism and you have to figure out why it develops and that’s the hardest part of understanding. You can point out this is a regional characteristic. The question that we always want to get back to are the larger ones about why did they do it like this?

Harmony: I’d like to ask you to speak briefly about the function that the architecture needs to have. You point out in the book that the Chesapeake region their economy is based on tobacco and slave labor and that makes a mark on architecture as compared to maybe a different region that focuses on farming. How does tobacco and slave labor become manifested in the architecture of the Chesapeake region?

Carl: Well as I mentioned, in the very early period in the 1620s and ‘30s when tobacco’s just taking off and before slavery becomes ingrained into the local culture, tobacco planting means that you’re clearing fields but you’re wearing those fields out and so you don’t build fine houses with your tobacco fields around you if you decide to pick up and move 20 years later. So you build very crude buildings. That, in part, is the explanation of why so few 17th century buildings survived here in Virginia. People did not put down deep roots in a particular landscape. They were more willing to build and then move on to another place.

So that sort of simplified framing and impermanent architecture evolves very early so that’s one of the influences of tobacco.

Harmony: This book tells the story of the architecture of the Chesapeake, but it also talks about the practice of architecture, the building trades, the expertises that developed and how they evolved. What are some of the stories that we find in this book about that aspect of Chesapeake architecture?

Carl: Well I wish we knew more about those craftsmen. They’re not anonymous as oftentimes we have been told, but unfortunately so much of the evolution of the building trades remains unknown because building was often or Chesapeake culture was still a face-to-face culture, an oral culture, and so you did not need drawings and you did not need detailed specifications to build a house. Much of that could be done communicating directly between you the client and me the builder on the building site. So when we travel out into the woods and say, “This is where I want my house,” that’s fine, “And I want a one story house, I need some chimneys, I want it like Mr. Smith’s house over here.” All that’s simply between you and me, but it’s not written down anywhere and so much of that is lost; that communication. Drawings; today we think of drawings as the final imprint for the design of a new building, but in the 18th century drawings were extremely unusual, they’re not rare, but they were unusual.

Those clients are relying on carpenters, brick layers, joiners, plasterers and painters, blacksmiths who had years and years of experience producing these elements with bricks, the timber frame, the doors and windows and the moulding profiles. Unless they’re told differently they will continue doing it the same way they did it in the past. It’s a very conservative society.

That’s the kind of culture this was and they would…and why you get so many houses that look very similar is that strong cultural influence is one of maintaining and conserving rather than experimenting. But the culture, that building language, is all on site.

Harmony: If someone’s listening to our podcast today and they want to pick up the book, it’s called The Chesapeake House and its published by the University of North Carolina Press, but you also have a conference upcoming where guests can learn about how you do some of this work and they can even learn how to spot some of the hallmarks of architecture that we’ve been talking about. When’s the conference?

Carl: The conference is called "The Chesapeake House" and it’s scheduled for May 19 through the 21st here at Colonial Williamsburg and information is on our website about that conference. We will be doing some talks, but we also will be going out in the Historic Area and looking at different elements of building and then trying to talk to our guests and attendees about how we actually pull all this information that we see. The thousand and one things that you can look at in a building and how to pull those together to understand its original construction, but also changes that take place, as well as date the different periods of time that you see in those buildings.

Harmony: Carl, it’s been so much fun having you today. What a fascinating book and I hope you sell a lot of copies.

Carl: Well it’s only taken 30 years to pull off.

Harmony: Thanks for being here today.

Carl: My pleasure.