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From Skyscrapers to Barns and Everything in Between

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

Virginia's most enduring legact lies in its architecture, says Richard Guy Wilson, a professor at the University of Virginia, far more than through painting, literature, or any other traditional art form. He mentions Mount Vernon and Monticello as two of the most famous historic houses in the country, and cites Colonial Williamsburg as the touchstone for understanding life in the eighteenth century. But there are unexpected architectural treasures to be found, he says, among the county courthouses, the rural churches, the Civil War cemeteries, and even the shopping malls. They are all part of a new guidebook: Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont.

Structures both famous and obscure can be found on its pages. There is Pear Valley on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a one-room, yeoman farmer’s cottage believed to date from 1740 with a chimney that measures ten feet across at the base.

A number of churches are included, among them St. Luke’s Church in Isle of Wight County, the earliest surviving Anglican church in the state. Anglicanism had been the state’s official religion until disestablishment in 1786. Another, Christ Church in Lancaster County, dating from pre-Revolutionary Virginia, offers testimony to the power of the patron, in this case Robert “King” Carter. “In churches such as this . . . the local gentry would express their status by having their family pews raised higher than those of the lesser members of the congregation,” Wilson writes. Still another is the Third Street Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Richmond, which dates back to 1859, a reminder of the existence of a sizable free black population in the state before the Civil War.

Wilson describes these structures, along with hundreds of others, in Buildings of Virginia, the seventh and newest of a projected fifty-eight volumes in the series, Buildings of the United States. There will be a second Virginia volume on the southern and western parts of the state. Creating a nationwide series of guidebooks has been the goal of the Society of Architectural Historians since its founding in 1940. However, says Damie Stillman, the editor-in-chief of the series, “There was never either enough money or enough time on the part of the members to pursue the project.”

Then, at the time of the United States bicentennial in 1976, the British architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, challenged the society to do for the United States what he had done for Britain. Pevner’s project was The Buildings of England, fifty volumes published from 1951 to 1974. The success of his work led to the extension of the series to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Stillman says, “It would be another ten years before we were able to organize the effort, commission authors for the initial group of volumes, and secure the first funding, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.” Since then, volumes have been published on Michigan, Iowa, Alaska, the District of Columbia, Colorado, and Nevada. Thirteen volumes are to be released over the next five years.

When all fifty-eight are finished, Stillman says, “The series will provide a detailed survey and history of the architecture of the whole country, including both vernacular and high-style structures for a complete range of building types from skyscrapers to barns and everything in between.”

Although The Buildings of England provided a model, the American version is as different from the English as American architecture is from English, Stillman says. In the foreword, Stillman notes that “Pevsner was confronted by a coherent culture on a relatively small island, with an architectural history that spans more than two thousand years. Here we are dealing with a vast land of immense regional, geographic, climatic, and ethnic diversity, with most of its buildings -- wide-ranging, exciting, and sometimes dramatic -- essentially concentrated into the last four hundred years.”

He adds, “In contrast to the national integrity of English architecture . . . American architecture is marked by a dynamic heterogeneity, a heterogeneity woven of a thousand strands of originality, or, actually, a unity woven of a thousand strands of heterogeneity. It is this quality that Buildings of the United States reflects and records.”

The first volume of Buildings of Virginia will be released in April, coinciding with the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians in Richmond. Wilson says he tried to make sure the book reflects the heterogeneity that Stillman speaks of.

“There has probably been more written about architecture in Virginia than any other state, save, maybe New York or other states in New England,” he notes. “The state has a very active historic preservation society and the program in architectural history at the University of Virginia was the first in the nation. So there was no way that what I wrote would be the definitive word on buildings in Virginia.” Even so, he adds, “An awful lot of the writing done on the subject has been about old Virginia—seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth century. So, of course, I included some of the well-known landmarks, but I also put in post-Civil War buildings, churches, structures that are important landmarks in communities and really have never received their due, except maybe locally.”

Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, makes it into the book; but so do a neighboring concession stand and restaurant done in Colonial Revival style. “We included the group of buildings adjacent to Mount Vernon put up by the National Park Service in the 1930s as examples of what was indigenous Virginia architecture of the nineteenth century,” Wilson says. “And I see them as extremely important because they give a view of how Americans, both then and indeed today, view their historical past.”

Monticello is in the book, Wilson says, as an example “for under-standing both Jefferson’s genius as an architect and limitations as a human being.” He mentions the design for the wings of the house, which were submerged, keeping service functions and the house’s slaves out of sight. Another Jefferson design, the Virginia State Capitol, in Wilson’s view demonstrates Jefferson’s importance as an architect. “From a practical standpoint the design is folly, compress-ing all the functions of government into a rectangle,” writes Wilson. “But from a symbolic standpoint it is sheer genius: American government symbolized by a religious temple in a classical form.”

From the days of the founders of Virginia, the book traverses industrial growth in the nineteenth century to the post World-War II boom. There are the rowhouses replicated across the country, some are three bays wide with an entrance-side passage and a room across the front. Frequently, a business office or store would occupy the ground floor, with top floors reserved for living quarters. Variations survive today: the warehouses on King Street in Alexandria, Hugh Mercer’s apothecary shop in Fredericksburg, and the restored build-ings along Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg.

The old Isle of Wight County Courthouse in Smithfield is included as an example of the quintessential Virginia courthouse, with an arcaded front. According to Wilson, this arcade design is reminiscent of town and market halls in London. It has become such an identifying feature for Virginia that the state’s department of transportation copies it for rest stops on its major highways.

“I view architecture as anything that man has done to the landscape, and that includes all sorts of things,” Wilson says.

Burial grounds also figure prominently. Civil War cemeteries in Arlington, Hopewell, and Fredericksburg are included, as well as others that “contain small but important structures and monuments and evocative landscapes,” Wilson says. “Equally important are the battlefield remains, the various fortifications, the earthworks, and the open fields.”

One site where the federal government played a role is Colonial Village in Arlington County, a complex of two-story units arranged around landscaped courtyards. It was the first project insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Another community mentioned in the guidebook is Hollin Hills in Fairfax County, a development of the 1950s that served as an exemplar for the National Homes Corporation, one of the country’s largest merchant builders. Another of the developments was Lustron Corporation homes, at Quantico Marine Base in Prince William County. They were some of the first prefabricated houses built to meet post-World War II demands. They were two-bedroom, built of porcelain-enameled steel, had picture windows, radiant heating panels in the ceiling, and a combination dishwasher/washing machine in the kitchen. Within three years, the Lustron Corporation had gone into receivership. Only twenty-five hundred were ever constructed; sixty of them remain at Quantico.

Wilson says, “Architecture is about containing institutions, whether it’s the institution of family or to give presence to a civic purpose as in court houses and city halls. Needless to say there is more of an emphasis on what is historical than on what is contemporary, but the listings are pretty varied.”

He includes shopping malls (Tysons Corner in Fairfax and Pentagon City in Rosslyn), highways (George Washington Memorial Parkway in Northern Virginia), government buildings (the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency), airports (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington and Dulles International Airport in Fairfax), diners (the Silver Diner in Northern Virginia and the Heritage Bar and Grill in Manassas) and even the Nation’s Bank in Fairfax. “You’ll find the historic, roadside delights and diners as well as very high-style buildings in this volume,” Wilson says. “I tried to put in things that if you took a detour to see, you wouldn’t be disappointed; buildings that are both characteristic of Virginia, but also that have unique elements.”

“Hopefully, people will gain more than just a road map of possible touring stops from this particular guide, and from the entire series,” editor-in-chief Stillman says. “We are examining these buildings in their communities, not only in terms of aesthetics but also in relation to the historical, geographical, political, religious, economic, and other forces that shaped them,” he says. “In humanistic terms, buildings are also symbols. They literally ‘stand for something.’”

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

The Society of Architectural Historians has received $962,614 in NEH support to produce the fifty-eight volume Buildings of the United States and $400,000 to endow staff positions for the project.