The Chesapeake House

The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg
edited by Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury
Chapel Hill, N.C., The University of North Carolina Press, copyright The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
2013, 488 pages, $60
Cover design by Kimberly Bryant.

BookCover_sEver since John D. Rockefeller Jr. began funding the restoration of Williamsburg in 1927, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has been building a wealth of knowledge on early American architecture, craftsmanship, and cultural history. Still, as the preface of this book points out, Colonial Williamsburg itself is perceived as much as a source of disturbing romanticism as Colonial historicism.

With The Chesapeake House, the foundation displays the serious side of its mission through 17 essays by 10 well-versed researchers who explain in great depth and breadth why late 17th to early 19th century East Coast homes—both modest and grand—looked and worked the way they did, changed over time, and are so difficult and expensive to recreate in this day and age.

Most early American homes were modeled after the styles of England and Europe, even though those styles here lagged behind the far side of the Atlantic by as much as a century. Americans who derived their livelihood from farming, resource harvesting, and nascent industry may have gotten their architectural inspiration from England and Europe, but their lifestyles were quite different from those of their recently separated forebears. Further, as agricultural processes and commerce evolved during the early years of European occupation of the New World, so did the relations among land owners, townspeople, laborers (including indentured servants and enslaved people), and transients.

This book, written and edited over more than 25 years before its release this year, is a thoroughly documented analysis of how those changes are reflected in the layout, construction, detailing, landscaping, and ornamentation (or lack thereof) that developed in cottages, main houses, and ancillary buildings throughout the mid-Atlantic Tidewater and Piedmont region.

We learn of the slow development of a caste of artisans and craftsmen and their adaptations to accommodate what first was something of an extended community of owners and laborers, but later morphed into a strict hierarchy of landowner families, craftsmen, freemen without land, servants, and fieldworkers. Documenting this history enables an increasingly accurate forensic analysis of existing buildings based on materials, evidence of alterations and additions, and remnants of finishes and decorative elements. That analysis—in the ever-expanding circle of knowledge accrual—allows further understanding of the function and interplay of people’s daily cycles of life. The reading can require re-reading, occasionally, to capture the nuance of what is being discussed, and there is a bit of repetition among the various essays, but if you are interested in a virtual understanding of living history, you will enjoy The Chesapeake House.

Most among us can never understand what it is to live as self-sufficiently as the early settlers had to, so there are many “ah-hah” moments in this book. For instance, in the concluding essay, written by Carl Lounsbury, he laments how craftsmanship has slowly been bleeding away from residential architecture as a result of industrialization. The well-to-do still have the luxury of better materials and amenities, he says. But even modest homes today—through innovations in materials and components—are luxurious in comparison to their early-American counterparts. A result, he argues, is not so much a homogenization of style and commodity as there is a loss of unique character among our individual contemporary homes. Truly stick-built new homes are a rarity at best. And with them, so too has craftsmanship given way to machine milling and nail-gun assembly.

Nonetheless, there is an interesting takeaway from this book. As we move toward the often-technology-driven quest for net-zero buildings, it is always a good thing to turn back and study the architecture of those earlier times to absorb a lesson or two. After all, net-zero energy use was pretty much all our forebears knew. As the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation claims in its mission statement: “The future may learn from the past.”—DEG

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